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What we can learn from Starbucks Workers United

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The surge of union organizing at anti-union Starbucks has resulted in 234 union stores in about a year. While the corporation is refusing to bargain, firing organizers and closing stores, this self-organized campaign is already a national victory that has much to teach us. 

Starbucks Workers United (SWU) began in Buffalo as a self-organized effort and is now affiliated with Service Employees International Union and provides a strike fund.  

While SWU is not the first union at Starbucks, it is the first to crack the barrier we heard often: service workers are notoriously hard to organize so we should wait to reform labor law to make it easier to form a union. 

SWU has achieved something no private sector workers have since the United Auto Workers organized General Motors in the mid-1930s — it might just organize a multinational corporation. Considering how rare this is, their fight is something to celebrate. 

While this is an impressive organizing campaign, is it a viable strategy to make union recognition and a contract the ultimate goal? 

Labor law makes it incredibly difficult for workers to organize, win a representation election and successfully bargain their first contract if the employer is recalcitrant. It is even harder to do that at hundreds or thousands of workplaces of the same employer. 

One of the biggest roadblocks is the 1947 Taft-Hartley Law, which bans secondary boycotts,  better known as sympathy strikes. Sympathy strikes are an extremely valuable tactic because they allow workers to organize and disrupt production up and down the supply chain.  

Disrupting the employer and its customers and suppliers is a powerful strategy. Labor scholars Immanuel Ness and Jake Wilson call this “disruptive power” in their now classic 2018 book “Choke Points: Logistics Workers Disrupting the Global Supply Chain.”  

Workers at critical junctures in the global supply chain, such as information technology, warehouses, trucking, delivery, railroads, ports and platforms, have the most power even with minority unions. According to Ness, who is also the author of Organizing Insurgency: Workers’ Movements in the Global South and a political science professor at the City University of New York, “workers in these industries can have an outsized capacity to block global supply chains.” 

It’s no accident that disruptive forms of workers’ power such as sympathy strikes are illegal — they give workers leverage that employers already have. For decades, employers have been doing what Starbucks is doing now by shutting down unionized shops, moving them to low wage states and countries, and augmenting or replacing workers with more technology.   

Without the leverage of disruptive power, these SWU locals may never get a contract as the company drags out the bargaining process, ignores the unenforceable reprimands from the National Labor Relations Board and runs out the clock until an anti-union president is elected. 

One proposed strategy is to call for a national representation vote for the nearly 16,000 Starbucks-owned and -franchised stores. 

But to get there the workers will need to leverage the power of disruption. Every type of work is part of a supply chain loaded with choke points. By tracking Starbucks’ global supply chain downstream and up, they can seek out organized workers who supply and buy from the company to take joint action. Allies who can take joint action can be found both locally and globally.  

There are certainly many more sympathetic workers among the nearly 33,000 stores in the U.S. and worldwide. Organized farmers in countries where coffee and sugar is cultivated and processed are also potential allies. Organizing workers across borders to take coordinated strike action would strengthen Starbucks and other workers both locally and globally. 

For SWU, disrupting the local and global supply chains would bring the company to the bargaining table begging to stop the pain. 

The power of solidarity strikes is hardly news to the ruling elite. Appeals Court Judge Learned Hand described their threat in the 1942 case NLRB v. Peter Cailler Kohler Swiss Chocolates Co.: “By extending the number of those who will make the enemy of one the enemy of all, the power of each is vastly increased.” 

This summer, railroad workers showed how much power they had when some of the unions rejected the tentative agreement with the industry. If the remaining unions, including the two largest, reject the federally mediated tentative agreement, it will have national and global impacts. 

We are slowly beginning to recognize the power of joint action across borders. Self-organized Amazon workers have taken collectively coordinated actions in the U.S. and Europe through Amazon Workers International. Gig workers have also taken coordinated action in 23 countries through the International Alliance of App Based Transport Workers. These workers are using workers’ inquiries to carefully study how Amazon and gig work companies are run to find vulnerable choke points where they can organize and apply leverage.  

In Chicago and elsewhere, Amazonians United have already won gains by marching on the boss rather than getting drawn into long bureaucratic representation elections and collective bargaining that more often than not go nowhere. 

This is the lesson of organizing Starbucks we can all learn from.    

Robert Ovetz is the author of the just-published book "We the Elites: How the U.S. Serves the Few" (Pluto, 2022). Contact him with feedback and ideas for columns at rfovetz@riseup.net

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