Starbucks get a roasting in this interview, which originally appeared in issue 11 of Now or Never!
Daniel Gross: I’m a worker and a Wobbly. I got started in corporate retail at Borders Books and Music. In 2003, I began working as a barista at Starbucks in New York City. The IWW Starbucks Workers Union [www.StarbucksUnion.org] was founded on May 17, 2004. In the summer of 2006, Starbucks fired me in retaliation for union activity and I’m currently fighting for my job back along with five other wrongfully discharged IWW baristas.
NoN!: Why did you feel you needed to unionise?
DG: First, there’s bread and butter. 6, 7, or 8 dollars an hour is a poverty wage and disgraceful from a $23 billion company showing record profits quarter after quarter. Starbucks Chairman Howard Schultz, already a billionaire, took in over $102 million in compensation last year while baristas hover at or below the poverty line. Many Starbucks workers depend on government benefits to survive.
Starbucks calls this scheduling system flexibility. The appropriate term is precarity - the regime by which human beings are treated like other “inputs” in the production process like fuel or soy beans. The company buys as much labour as it wants, when it wants. Just-in-time inventory meets human flesh.
Second, there’s dignity, which at the end of the day is more important than bread and butter. Going to sleep having been humiliated and infantilised at your retail job still stings even if the bills are paid, which they usually are not. Indignities large and small, physical and psychological are rained upon Starbucks workers every day.
Management refuses to schedule enough workers on the shop floor to meet the extraordinary consumer demand that Starbucks stores face. At the same time, the company fails to implement the most elemental of ergonomic standards. The result is damage to the physical integrity of the body via repetitive stress injuries and other muscular-skeletal strain.
The smallest detail of your work life is mapped out by the company and arbitrary discipline is enforced through a variety of sanctions and surveillance. The company expects workers to stay after their shifts are done when it’s busy no matter what after-work commitment you may have. But heaven forbid if you have to leave work a little early to get to a doctor’s appointment. If you talk back while you’re getting written up, it’s not uncommon for management to cut your hours the next week.
On the issue of dignity again, the abuse at Starbucks really runs the gamut. One Starbucks barista’s grandmother died a few hours before her shift. This worker was responsible for making the final arrangements for her grandmother’s funeral and burial. She called the manager in charge to explain that she couldn’t make it to work that day. First, the manager replied with disbelief that her grandmother had actually died, even though she was obviously extremely distraught. He then ordered her to call other baristas to get her shift covered on threat of termination. The barista was so disgusted, she quit.
A barista named Sherry Brown was fired from his Washington D.C. Starbucks for asserting himself to a customer who had threatened his life.
The prevailing reality behind the socially responsible rhetoric at Starbucks is simply intolerable. We’re calling on the company to immediately respect our right to have a union, reinstate our fired members, pay a living wage, guarantee our work hours, and staff stores appropriately to avoid strain and injuries.
NoN!: Why was the IWW chosen opposed to a more mainstream union?
DG: First and foremost, workers wanted a union that we would control. If I had to pick one element that really sets apart the IWW from many other unions, I’d have to say it’s the reality of rank and file control. We were alienated enough by our employer and we didn’t want to duplicate that with our union.
Second, the traditional trade union model has failed to make an impact for retail workers in the United States. Recent Bureau of Labour Statistics have confirmed this, finding that union membership in U.S. retail has fallen to just 5% of employees in the industry.
We felt that the IWW’s direct action method would allow us to improve our life at work without falling into the various pitfalls which have made unions irrelevant to the overwhelming majority of retail workers.
Finally, we wanted a union we could afford. At $6 dollars per month, the price was right.
NoN!: How did Baristas react to the radical politics of the IWW? Was anyone hostile to the strong anti-capitalist stance that the union takes?
DG: Any workplace or community organiser knows there are a lot of challenges in this work. I can tell you though that the IWW’s long-term vision has not been a significant impediment to reaching out to our co-workers. Stripped of all the fear-mongering instigated by anti-worker forces, the IWW’s long-term vision is simply a world where deep democracy exists in the workplace and the community.
On a day-to-day level the radicalism of the IWW translates into workers controlling their own campaign and taking direct action without letting the government get in the way. This approach, far from an impediment, is actually a competitive advantage. It might actually be the only approach working right now for retail employees in the United States.
Starbucks likes to talk about the worldview of the IWW in its propaganda but astutely avoids our immediate demands for respect and dignity on the job today. In one memo to “partners”, Starbucks wrote that the, “Industrial Workers of the World is a small, radical anarchist group, far outside of the mainstream of the U.S. labour movement. According to its website, the IWW calls for the abolition of the wage system and seeks to ‘do away with capitalism’.”
Besides the suggestion that we are an anarchist organisation, Starbucks contention there was accurate. However, in my experience low-wage workers do not have a particular affection for the economic system in which we find ourselves. I can only think of a single case where a worker who was supportive of the union turned against us and started talking about communist front group nonsense and the like. I think that worker had other issues and just latched onto the anti-radicalism he heard from management as a pretext.
Far worse than the red-baiting, the greatest hurdle we must overcome as we continue to grow is the anti-union terminations. More than a few workers have shied away from joining the campaign because of the multiple retaliatory firings by Starbucks. That’s why it’s so important for us to impose significant economic, political, and social costs when the company fires someone for union activity. The only way we can do that is with a movement of people who reject the hegemony of corporate power.
The global justice movement has energised and stood with us and without that movement we would not be where we are today. We reached out for solidarity and received it. The CNT-F entered Starbucks stores in Paris en masse with solidarity leaflets protesting the firing of SWU activists. Wobblies in England and Scotland rose up with Zapatista supporters against the retaliatory firings and to lend support when I was facing politically-motivated criminal charges for a 2004 protest in front of the Starbucks store where I worked. The protest coalition served free Zapatista-grown Fair Trade coffee outside of Starbucks stores and handed out information against union-busting and exploitative land practices in Mexico.
Starbucks baristas in New Zealand who are members of the Unite Union strongly condemned my termination in the same spirit of mutual aid that our campaign exhibited when they struck Starbucks in Auckland. The postal workers’ union in Canada has stood with us, as has the Korean Teachers Union and the National Lawyers Guild, the largest progressive legal organisation in the United States.
There are many more examples and I wish there was time to mention them all, but those folks know who they are and I hope they know how much their support means to us.
NoN!: How did the management react when the union first started? Has their opinion changed over time?
DG: Starbucks responded with scorched earth union-busting and hasn’t let up since. Eight anti-union terminations spanning six Starbucks stores, countless threats, multiple bribes, extensive surveillance, misleading propaganda, intense pressure, anti-union manoeuvres from law firm Akin Gump, and more. The type of union picket Starbucks fired me for has been protected, at least on paper, for over seventy years in this country.
Sometimes we do get a good laugh out of the union-busting. The company printed out the IWW Constitution on a couple occasions and handed it out to workers in an effort to deter them from the union. It’s not clear why the company thought this would scare off workers since the IWW constitution outlines an organisation that workers control as opposed to Starbucks’ corporate by-laws which govern an organisation which is tyrannically controlled from the top-down with no input from workers. We joked that we appreciated the company saving the union some printing costs.
With the backing of grassroots actions from Starbucks Workers’ Union activists, we were able to prevail against Starbucks in the legal arena. In the first labour case brought by Starbucks baristas, the company and the National Labour Relations Board entered a settlement agreement in which the company had to reinstate two discharged IWW baristas and rescind nationwide policies against sharing written union information and wearing union pins.
The company started breaking the law again almost immediately after the settlement. Far from desisting from illegal activities, they actually went for the jugular. Six IWW baristas are still out of job right now through anti-union terminations.
NoN!: Would you consider the union to have been successful?
DG: I think the proof is in the pudding. Starbucks company-owned cafes in the United States were totally untouched by unions before the advent of the IWW campaign. Now Starbucks workers have our own voice on the job, in the community, and in the broader public arena.
We’ve been a major factor in pressuring the company into broad-based wage increases, our members have more secure hours, and we’ve remedied many grievances with management in a wide variety of areas from discrimination to safety.
For instance, many NYC baristas at Starbucks have seen wages increase by almost 25%. While we still have not achieved a living wage and guaranteed hours, more money in our pocket because of pay increases and more regular hours makes life better.
In addition to the systemic gains, the grievances remedied have been important as well. SWU members in Chicago shamed management into purchasing a stepladder the workers had sought for years by bringing in an IWW ladder to work with a sticker reading, “for a safer healthier workplace.” Management couldn’t tolerate a useful tool from the IWW that allowed workers to avoid unsafe reaching and climbing on tables so management hurried out and bought a ladder they had consistently refused to provide.
Sarah Bender struck a blow for the right of all baristas to organise when she coordinated her own defence campaign following an anti-union termination by Starbucks. Grassroots coalition-building and countless actions played an instrumental role in Starbucks’ settlement with the Labour Board which reinstated Sarah. In one memorable action, union baristas partnered with the “Billionaires for Bush and Starbucks Chairman Howard Schultz” who entered Sarah’s store in full aristocratic regalia to present a framed union-buster of the year award to the district manager that fired her. The Billionaires argued for the abolition of the labour movement and praised the inequitable distribution of wealth under capitalism.
We love creative provocative tactics. One favourite we’ve used is to pack a Starbucks with union supporters and have them wait in line to get a drink. They order a drink and pay for it: penny-by-penny-by-penny. It doesn’t take long to jam up the company’s operation for an injustice against a worker or our union.
Most importantly, the initiative, creativity, and strength of workers themselves have achieved these victories. The model is called solidarity unionism, a term coined by labour activist, author, and working-class lawyer Staughton Lynd. Folks who aren’t familiar with his work should take a look. Without solidarity unionism, Starbucks workers would still have no voice, caught in the intersection of a flawed labour law regime, fierce employer resistance, and a disinterested trade union bureaucracy.
NoN!: Has the anarchist movement been supportive of your cause?
DG: Extremely supportive and words can never do justice to how grateful I am. The long commute early on a winter morning for the opening shift or the late-night commute home after the closing shift can be very dark and lonely. Alienation and humiliation, personal and financial, run high in the multinational retail workplace. That so many anarchists have understood this dynamic and supported our struggle with action is very moving and is a beautiful homage to the birth of anarchism in the labour movement.
Also, like radicalism, the IWW Starbucks Workers Union has embraced cross-border solidarity as a competitive advantage and anarchists have been a critical part of that.
The global justice movement and the IWW Starbucks Workers Union lost a great friend and anarchist supporter in 2006 with the assassination of Indymedia journalist Brad Will by government forces in Oaxaca, Mexico. Brad was a fixture at Starbucks Union benefit events; no one felt the radical folk music more deeply than he, fully alive, dancing arm-in-arm with his long-time friend and anarchist comrade, Priya Warcry. Brad is well remembered for his contribution to many movements - environmental, squatters’, anti-corporate globalisation, and many more. I hope Brad’s legacy will also include the fact that he was often a wage earner, a stage technician and a true supporter of labouring people.
NoN!: Have any authoritarian socialist groups helped your struggle?
DG: Groups of this type have also been supportive of the struggle: publicising information about the campaign, turning out people to picket lines, and so forth.
NoN!: What reaction have you received from the general public?
DG: What you’d expect. Support generally from working people; opposition from capitalist interests, their political operatives and their media (with a couple exceptions).
Starbucks has a public relations machine unparalleled in the corporate world. It has convinced many people that Starbucks is a different kind of corporation and a good place to work. Health care is its biggest myth. In reality, the company insures a lower percentage of its workforce than notorious Wal-Mart, just 42%. So there is an educational process we have to engage in sometimes to move folks past the myths.
NoN!: Politically, what would you describe yourself as? Has your experience with the Starbucks Union changed your views at all?
DG: It’s important to note first that the IWW is a non-partisan union and I speak only for myself here. We’ve never endorsed a political candidate or contributed funds to a political party. This is how it should be in my opinion. The IWW should continue to be an independent workers’ organisation that is not beholden to any political party, ideology, or government. It should, in my view, be welcoming to all members of the working class, regardless of political affiliation, except prison guards, police, and prosecutors.
The IWW pursues a vision of a world where workers control their workplaces and community members control their community. To get there, we organise as a rank and file union. That is, unions where workers themselves control their own campaigns, formulate strategy, and carry out tactics. There’s no professional bureaucracy or “representatives” in the IWW.
I am an anarchist. The Starbucks campaign hasn’t changed my views so much as deepened them. Forming a union at Starbucks has put certain issues in sharp relief, for example: the moral imperative of overcoming the tyranny of the multinational corporations on the job and in the community; the State’s role in protecting class privilege and capitalist hegemony; the marginalisation of labour issues in the corporate media; and the fundamental decency and beauty of the working class. The class that builds and creates.
I half-joke with folks who have read about class struggle but aren’t sure if it exists; I tell them, try to organise your workplace and then get back to me.
NoN!: In your opinion, what does the future hold for the Starbucks Workers Union?
DG: Well it’s impossible to say for certain since the direction of the campaign is controlled horizontally by the entirety of the membership but as you suggest I’ll offer my view.
If we continue to develop and deploy strategies that win material gains on the job, cultivate the initiative and skills of members, and increase our power as a campaign and movement, I think we’ll continue to do well. If we neglect these pillars, we’ll falter.
We should keep innovating and challenging paradigms because being without a voice at work is just not an option and existing traditional models just aren’t doing it for retail workers. We work closely with the worker centre movement in the U.S. which has delivered powerful results with workers who had been left out of many traditional labour unions especially immigrant workers.
To keep building on the gains we have won thus far though, we need to grapple with the anti-union terminations. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention how devastating they can be. Firing someone for union activism not only deprives them of their ability to pay the bills, it sends an unmistakable chill to other co-workers contemplating union membership. When Starbucks fires a worker for asserting their right to free association in the form a union, it commits a grave and intensely personal wrong.
There’s no way we can do this alone and that’s why the SWU situates itself as part of the global justice movement. From supporting baristas in New Zealand to farm workers in Florida or Ethiopia to indigenous Oaxacan rebels, we’re committed to global solidarity.
We’re very excited about our Justice from Bean to Cup! initiative. It’s the first time we know of that rank and file retail workers have reached across the supply chain and across borders to build power. Our barista delegation just returned from Ethiopia where we built relationships with impoverished farmers growing coffee for Starbucks and we will be doing a lot of work in this area going forward.
Let there be no mistake that it will take a movement to reclaim our autonomy from the multinational corporations and arrive at the day when Wal-Mart “associates”, Starbucks “partners”, Borders “booksellers”, and the rest, march together under the red and black banner: “Abolition of the Wage System.”
For folks interested in staying connected with the campaign, our website is StarbucksUnion.org.
NoN!: And what about the future of the IWW in general?
DG: We’re in our 102nd year and things are looking better than they have in quite a while. A combination of repression and co-optation of course delivered a brutal but not fatal blow against our union in the early part of the 20th Century. Yet, the Wobbly ethos of Direct Action, rank and file control, and solidarity that rejects racism and xenophobia is as relevant today as it ever was.
An organising renaissance has emerged in the IWW. Whether it’s the Starbucks campaign, movie theatre workers in California, bike messengers in Chicago, retail and restaurant workers in Philadelphia, troqueros in Los Angeles, education workers in Michigan or Scotland, immigrant food warehouse workers in Brooklyn or the Baristas United campaign in the British Isles, the IWW is back as a serious organising force.
The heroism of our martyrs and class struggle prisoners, folks like Frank Little - organising in the copper mines, Judi Bari - uniting timber workers, or Ben Fletcher - organising on the docks, and most importantly the Wobblies, first on the picket lines and last to go home whose names we may never know, inspire us and offer us a practical guide to a life in solidarity.
Building an agile and effective grassroots union is a tremendously difficult task no doubt and we need all the help we can get. I’ll mention the website for folks who want to get involved; it’s iww.org.
NoN!: What advice would you give to someone who wanted to organise their own workplace?
DG: Do it. Don’t talk yourself out of it. You can convince yourself with a million bad reasons why you shouldn’t fight and you’ll keep getting screwed. By organising you’ll improve your life on and off the job while becoming part of a global justice movement for a more humane society. Shortly after the Starbucks campaign went public, a progressive woman got in touch to express support. She told us, “workers are heroes, workers who organise are superheroes.”
Organisers help co-workers overcome fear all the time. But organisers too have to overcome our own fear. The media, schools, politicians, many religious institutions inculcate deference to authority - and the bosses love it. Confront your fear of sitting down with a co-worker to talk union or looking the boss in the eyes and overcome it.
IWW martyr Joe Hill, murdered by the state of Utah, said it well when he wrote: “If the workers take a notion… They can tie with mighty chains; Every mine and every mill, Fleets and armies of the nation, Will at their command stand still.”
Your best bet is to contact a union as early as possible to gain the support you’re going to need to win. My preference is for unions which are member-controlled in theory and in fact, whether it’s the IWW, CNT, or Frente Autentico del Trabajo in Mexico.
If you’re going to go independent (or with an existing union for that matter) build deep coalitions with other groups to carry out your work.
There’s a lot more I’d share, too much to go into here, but in brief I’d say: research your target intensively and identify its strengths and weaknesses; spend ample time learning organising skills like how to have a union conversation with a co-worker and how to map a workplace; think critically about sustainability issues and organising strategies in the face of asymmetric resources; tackle racism and sexism from day one; create mechanisms to share skills with members; develop and articulate compelling campaign narratives; harness the power of the internet and digital video; facilitate workers to tell their own stories; finally, know your labour history, familiarise yourself with contemporary union campaigns and worker struggles, but don’t be afraid to experiment with new approaches.
Finally, develop the determination to prevail because it’s not going to be easy. But it is rewarding, the prospect of a just world is so sweet, and together we win.
NoN!: What would you say to someone who was considering working at Starbucks?
DG: Get hired and contact the Starbucks Workers Union. If you’re in the UK contact Baristas United at www.baritasunited.org.uk.
Also see starbucksunion.org