The Precarious Economy and Its Discontents: Struggling Against the Corporate Chains Through Workplace Organizing
IWW Starbucks Workers Union
By an Anonymous Starbucks Worker
(get the PDF)
If you drive down the highway outside of any major city in the U.S., you will pass countless glowing signs for corporate food and retail chains. From coast to coast, McDonald’s follows Starbucks, follows Burger King, follows Taco Bell, on and on, ad nauseum. Lost in a forest of fluorescent consumerism, social revolution is probably the furthest thing from your mind. Indeed, many activists are dismissive not only of the corporations that monopolize our landscape, but of the radical potential of those who toil inside the big boxes and fast food chains as well. This dismissiveness results in a problematic conclusion: surely, the revolution won’t start at a Starbucks.
As members of the Starbucks Workers Union, we believe that the need for workplace organizing is greater than ever before; behind each shiny logo lies a potential struggle. Since the mid-1970s bosses have been on the offensive: battering workers with inflation, union busting, outsourcing, industrial restructuring, and the destruction of the last shreds of the social safety net. The result of these shifts can be summed up as the rise of “precarity” as the defining fact of life for an ever-growing section of the working class.
The Precariat: An Impossible Class
More than anything, precarity describes the everyday life experience of workers in the corporate chains. It is simply impossible to make a life for yourself working one of these jobs. Because of the lack of union organization in these industries, we are almost all legally classified as “At Will” employees. This means that under U.S. labor law, we can be fired for no reason. The threat of firing, however, is only the least subtle of many mechanisms used by management to control us.
At Starbucks, many workers have difficulty budgeting or planning ahead because our work hours fluctuate wildly from week to week. The company uses a computer system to determine staffing levels for the stores based on past sales. Starbucks’ “Automated Labor Scheduling” software displaces almost all of the risk of the vagaries of the market onto individual workers. Bosses order “labor” exactly like they order coffee beans or other inputs. When workers challenge the arbitrary authority of their boss they often face punitive measures, such as cuts in hours. But we are not coffee beans, we are human beings! By organizing, we assert our humanity in a system founded on our commodification.
The corporate chains have proven almost as difficult to organize as they are hellish to work in. In fact, many industries were restructured with the explicit goal of reducing workers’ power. Workers are broken into small groups at numerous, networked production sites, which are all monitored closely for signs of subversion. There are very few “chokehold” points where industrial action can shut down a corporate chain. But it rarely even gets that far; union busting is now fully integrated into the day-to-day operations of “Human Resources” departments in the corporate chains. Rather than fight a union drive once it has been initiated, corporations create “union avoidance” programs to prevent workers from being able to organize in the first place.
The corporate chains will not settle for putting down workers’ revolts; they seek to stamp out the potential of revolt once and for all by destroying the historical subject of the working class itself. There are no “workers” in the corporate chains: at Starbucks we are “partners,” at IKEA we are “Coworkers,” and at Wal-Mart we are “Associates.” Once everyone is assumed to be on the same team, workers are encouraged to compete with each other for advancement within the company, which in turn is supposed to advance the company on the market.
Accordingly, the culture of solidarity built by the working class movements of the 19th and 20th centuries is being undermined by an ethos of mutual suspicion, snitching, and cutthroat competition. The bosses want us to think that the only way out of precarity is by becoming a boss.
This is the geography of today’s working class: underpaid, overworked, under surveillance, flung across networked production sites on multiple continents, always on the move, desperate, always scrambling for the next foothold. As organizers, it is on this terrain we must learn to walk.
For the last four years, the IWW Starbucks Workers Union has taken a few steps down this path. The experiences of our union can serve as valuable indicators for the pitfalls, potential, and necessity of organizing through precarity against the corporate chains.
The Starbucks Workers Union was founded on May 2004 at a single store in New York City. With the help of a website and the extensive network of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), organizing has gone public in Chicago, Maryland, and Grand Rapids. Baristas are also self-organizing under-the-radar across the world.
From the outset, it became clear that the government-sponsored system of union elections would not work in a corporate chain environment. When baristas at the 36th and Madison Starbucks in New York City filed for a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) election, Starbucks reacted by using its political clout to gerrymander the bargaining unit from one pro-union store to include every store in midtown and downtown Manhattan. Seeing the writing on the wall, IWW baristas pulled their election petition and have eschewed the election tactic ever since.
For the AFL-CIO or “Change to Win” unions this would have been the end of the campaign; for the IWW, this was just the beginning. Our subsequent organizing approach can be described as a combination of two strategies: the “Ground War” and the “Air War.”
The Ground War: Solidarity Unionism
What does it take to fan the flames of discontent in any corporate workplace into a fire hot enough to withstand the union busting, high turnover rates, and manipulative socio-psychological techniques of retail management? In the Starbucks Workers Union, we have adopted an approach known as Solidarity Unionism. The essence of this organizing model it its underlying power analysis. We believe workers’ power is greatest where the bosses need us most: on the shop floor.
Instead of relying solely on the inadequate provisions of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), we encourage workers to build solidarity with their coworkers and take direct action on the job. This takes the form of confrontations with managers in the stores, petitions, picket lines, slowdowns, walkouts, work stoppages, amongst other tactics.
While the above tactics are powerful, building solidarity with amongst Starbucks workers is hard work. Because of constant turnover building a memory of struggle amongst an informal work group is nearly impossible. When conditions deteriorate, most workers simply move on to another low-wage job. Constant surveillance prevents open discussion of workplace issues or past action. Even if a committee is successfully organized in one shop, there remains the challenge of reaching out to workers in other locations whom you have almost no contact with. In the face of these odds, the IWW Starbucks Workers Union has still successfully organized numerous job actions in New York, Chicago, and other cities. These actions have resulted in critical health and safety improvements, reinstatement of fired workers, and a 25% pay raise in the New York City market.
However, the above list of victories does not touch on the most valuable result of our struggle: its transformative effect on workers. The primary goal of direct action is to win concrete gains and build industrial power, but for many of us, the most inspiring result of solidarity unionism is its transformative effect on workers.
Through organizing, we catch a glimpse of the world we would like to create. Workers who once watched the world pass them by from behind a cash register begin taking control over their surroundings. People who once turned a blind eye to their fellow workers’ suffering break the silence and speak out for justice. Workers make nationalism obsolete through organizing down the supply chain to coffee suppliers, and through direct support from sympathetic organizations and individuals worldwide. For example, the French CNT occupied the lobbies of several Paris Starbucks to protest the illegal firing of Starbucks worker Daniel Gross in 2006. In 2007, a delegation of New York City baristas traveled to Ethiopia to make contact with hyper-exploited coffee farmers. Through tireless organizing and outreach, our resistance is as local as the coffee shop next door, and it is becoming as global as capital.
The Air War: Corporate Campaigning
The Starbucks Workers Union has augmented shop floor organizing with an extensive effort to reveal the truth behind the brand. Widespread popular misconceptions about the working conditions at Starbucks mean that we must constantly explain the necessity of organizing a union at this 100% part-time poverty-wage employer. We are eager to engage in public debate on this subject. The management-promoted liberal discourse of “social responsibility” has undermined the support of higher-paid sectors of the working class for the workers’ movement in general. By winning the debate on the necessity of organizing at Starbucks, we hope to open the door to a much broader social awareness of the need for workers to organize everywhere, not just at Wal-Mart or another vilified exploiter-du-jour.
In the last analysis, Starbucks’ brand image is an enormous asset to our union campaign. Their rhetoric allows us to hold them accountable to their own proclaimed values like “dignity and respect.” In addition, because the company has cultivated such a high awareness of their brand, we are able to piggyback on their own public relations efforts to broaden awareness of our union, and union organizing is general. By organizing a highly visible industry leader, we are able to lay the foundations for a much broader working class offensive.
Two, Three, Many Starbucks Workers Unions!
Will the revolution start at a Starbucks? In a sense, it already has. It will take a social earthquake on the scale of the Civil Rights movement to defeat precarity, but we have to start small. The IWW Starbucks Workers Union receives a steady flow of new members through its website. These members are then trained by IWW organizers to reach out to their coworkers and begin building power on the job. Every job action, every organizing committee meeting, every conversation between two angry workers on a cigarette break, every group confrontation with the boss: these are the first tremors of the next cycle of workers’ struggle.
What would happen if workers organized at every Starbucks in the world? What if workers organized at every corporate chain in the world? What kind of demands would we articulate? What kind of world would the millions of our brothers and sisters held captive behind corporate logos be able to create? It is our desire to know the answer to these questions that keeps us walking this path.