By Chris Townsend
August 8, 2022
Organizing Momentum Not Seen in Decades
As of this writing in early August, 2022, the Starbucks Workers United union movement has successfully won government-run NLRB elections in more than 200 of the coffee shops across the United States. An additional 100 stores have union elections scheduled, or in the works.
All-told, more than 5,000 workers – and climbing every day – are directly involved. Thousands are awaiting company-delayed union elections or are just joining the organizing wave. Starbucks organizing also appears to have taken root now in western Canada, opening a new front against the multi-national coffee giant. The scrappy and overwhelmingly young workforce has so far withstood an all-out union-smashing program by the company. The U.S. labor movement has not seen such a spreading union contagion like this in many decades. The kind of organizing momentum that many on the left daydream about seems to have arrived at least in one company.
Starbucks Company Fully Mobilizes To Kill Union
No figures are available to account for the full financial cost of the fanatic anti-union company campaign, but it is likely that it exceeds several tens of millions of dollars so far – and growing daily. The company has hired one of the most expensive anti-union law firms to try to stop the rebellions. Thousands from management ranks – the rabidly anti-union Starbucks CEO among them – have been mobilized to browbeat union supporters hoping to crush the pro-union wave. Starbucks workers are threatened and held captive by the thousands, forced to listen to the company speeches and pronouncements with no equal time for the union whatsoever. And in a growing number of stores pro-union workers are being fired. Several strikes have been triggered by these firings as a result. The company is changing and twisting policies to specifically try to punish the workers who have supported the union. Certainly Starbucks has fully expressed its contempt for the right of its employees to organize.
While workers have endured the company onslaught and voted for the union in more than 70% of the elections so far, there have also been several dozen losses where workers were sufficiently coerced and threatened to vote against what are obviously their own class interests. For folks not acquainted with how union elections work in the United States, it should be noted that the company is compelled to hold a government-run election to determine if a majority of the workers want a union only after the workers have already run through an unbelievable and withering anti-union company counterattack. Most of these elections take place only after several months of bureaucratic delay and employer stalling, giving the company ample time to destroy pro-union sentiment.
Dirty Little Secret
There is nothing fair or free about these NLRB elections. It is, however, miraculous that workers and their unions win any of these contests at all. The long-established legal standard that these elections are supposedly going to happen under “laboratory conditions” is farcical. The employer has virtually unlimited opportunities to bribe and threaten workers into voting “no”. Only in situations where the workers have resolved against all-odds to stick together and join the union are these elections won. No U.S. politician would accept these lopsided, one-sided, and outrageously unfair conditions as legitimate – for their own elections that is. Yet workers and their unions have no choice but to live with this shameful and corrupted “democratic” process. Amazingly, labor still manages to organize workers every day in spite of this reality. Unions and their supporters plunge ahead and still win these elections as the only practical means available to establish real union presence in the workplace.
Human Rights USA Style
This largely unknown reality goes to the heart of a far larger scandal here in the United States. The facts would bear out that the workplace in the United States is a dictatorship, plain and simple. Basic human rights just barely exist in the U.S. workplace, if at all. The boss rules with an iron hand – often a fist. In the small number of workplaces where a union has fought to become established, the situation is still difficult. Trade unions in the U.S. can put a brake on the most outrageous anti-worker conduct of the boss, but even with a union contract the workplace is still largely controlled and dominated by the employer. Every worker in the U.S. sooner or later might wonder where all the “freedom” and “democracy” is at when they hear Republican and Democrat politicians lecture the rest of the globe about “human rights.” Human rights do not apply in the U.S. workplace. More than 90% of U.S. workers can be fired at any time, for any reason, or no reason. There is no free speech right at work, no freedom of assembly. This is, at its root, the fraud of “Human Rights USA.”
Buffalo Workers Launch Insurrection
When the Starbucks workers in Buffalo decided to try to organize their union late last year it was not an academic exercise. It was a clandestine act, forced underground by the company dictatorship and our miserably weak labor laws. What they were organizing was a rebellion against the all-powerful Starbucks machine. It was nothing short of an insurrection. For those unfamiliar with how employers behave when their workers attempt to form a union this scenario may seem a bit unreal, possibly exaggerated. But the plain facts would reveal that the low number of union elections and the otherwise mediocre levels of success for the unions are the direct result of massive, systematic, and frequently illegal employer repression, not a lack of support from workers. Workers organize unions every day, but it must be taken into account that for every union election that is held there are untold more workplace union insurrections that are destroyed in secret and obscurity. Sadly, the mass repression meted out by corporations when they smash union campaigns is the norm, making the success of the workers at Starbucks so far truly extraordinary.
All-Out Support Required
I know some of the Starbucks workers at the epicenter of where the current insurrection began, in Buffalo, New York. We all should marvel at their bravery, tenacity, and their willingness to take on a fight so much larger than themselves. And against steep odds. Public sentiment seems to be with the workers, and many on the left and in the labor movement have been boosted to read daily news of the ever-growing tally of union “wins” at Starbucks. Among us there are unfortunately – but not unexpectedly – defeatists and “experts” all around who dream up more reasons why this movement cannot succeed – rather than reasons why it has to succeed. The questions on all our minds are daunting. Can they really win? Will the union ever get a contract? Isn’t the company too big to organize? What if the company closes all of them down? Why organize a company that’s not critical to the overall economy?
For the left organizations and individuals to make a contribution beyond “wishing the union well” an end must be put to this crippling “what if?” thinking.
The uprising that these workers began just 10 months ago has now spread into all corners of the land and shows all signs of continuing. These workers have cast the die; should they succeed in permanently establishing their union in this company it will be an historic win for labor. It will provide valuable impetus for further mass campaigns of organization. But should they be destroyed, it will be a painful setback, like so many others. William Z. Foster observed in his American Trade Unionism that:
“The organization of the unorganized is of tremendous importance to the left wing. It tends to revolutionize the labor movement… and to create generally a more favorable situation in which the left wing can operate… It will also give the left wing invaluable experience in mass work and leadership… We must realize the vital importance of the great campaigns of organization and the leading role the left has to play in it.” -William Z. Foster, The Question of the Unorganized, 1925.
Marx and Engels
In this truly amazing moment, it falls on the rest of us, the left, the trade union supporters, young and old, working and retired, union members or unorganized, to do what we can to help propel this insurrection even further. As I have watched, rooted for the workers, and sometimes played my own small part in supporting the Starbucks Workers United movement, many times I have been reminded of the observations of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels on insurrection. While from a different time, their thoughts on the mechanics of rebellion do hold many relevant lessons for the current union organizing at Starbucks. It is also a modern call to action by those of us in a position to join the battle however we are able. Marx and Engels summed-up their thoughts on the European insurrections of 1848 and 1849, and to me it rings clearly as the guiding and required strategy of the current fight. Uncannily so. Writing after the revolutions and counter-revolutions that had run across Europe they drew some key lessons:
“Now, insurrection is an art quite as much as war or any other, and subject to certain rules of proceeding, which, when neglected, will produce the ruin of the party neglecting them…. Firstly, never play with insurrection unless you are fully prepared to face the consequences of your play. Insurrection is a calculus with very indefinite magnitudes, the value of which may change every day; the forces opposed to you have all the advantage of organization, discipline, and habitual authority: unless you bring strong odds against them you are defeated and ruined. Secondly, the insurrectionary career once entered upon, act with the greatest determination, and on the offensive. The defensive is the death of every armed rising; it is lost before it measures itself with its enemies. Surprise your antagonists while their forces are scattering, prepare new successes, however small, but daily; keep up the moral ascendancy which the first successful rising has given to you; rally those vacillating elements to your side which always follow the strongest impulse, and which always look out for the safer side; force your enemies to a retreat before they can collect their strength against you; in the words of Danton, the greatest master of revolutionary policy yet known, de l’audace, de l’audace, encore de l’audace!” –Marx and Engels, Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Germany, section 17, Insurrection.
Everyone Out To Support the Starbucks Workers!
With the Starbucks Workers United insurrection now spreading, as Marx and Engels cautioned the battle must expand for the battle to be won. So, what are you doing to play your part? Have you visited Starbucks to encourage the workers to contact the Starbucks Workers United web site and make contact with the Union? Done that more than once or twice? Have you encouraged them to organize and join the Union? To Vote “yes” when that day comes? Do you know anyone who works at Starbucks, or used to work there, and have you spoken to them? Have you thought about getting hired there yourself to help organize? Have you donated funds to any of the Go Fund Me pages supporting the illegally fired Starbucks Workers? Have you contacted your lawmakers to express your outrage at the illegal and undemocratic tactics of the company? Have you demanded that these same leaders prevail on the company to embrace a truly fair election process, where the company is prevented from threatening and holding the workers hostage to sit through captive anti-union meetings? What have you done? If you are reading this, you have already heard about this epic fight – but what have you done to support this insurrection? Time is short, taking action is the order of the day. All of us can play a part, perhaps small, but make that contribution whatever it is over and over and over again and it will be a valuable contribution.
Starbucks may well turn out to be the defining labor organizing battle of our era. It may already have won that distinction given its size and national reach. Or, it might be crushed, stall in the face of the company counterattack, run its course. This workplace insurrection wave may be the key to others, in other industries, but only if it succeeds. Success here being defined in the near time by an expanding insurgency that expands and roots itself in the company somehow, defying all attempts to dislodge it. It will have been successful if it lends support to the growing waves of young workers and leftists confronting the corporate dictatorship in other workplaces. There are ongoing signs of workers in organizing motion at Amazon, at Trader Joe’s, Target, at Chipotle, and at a hundred other sweatshop companies and employers. These young workers are taking on some of the biggest, and most fanatic anti-union corporate fortresses in the country. They set a fine example for all of us on the left. Some are leftists, most are militants, and they are indicating by their actions that they are willing to challenge the bosses despite the dangers or steep odds.
Comrades and fellow workers, to the front! All-in to keep the Starbucks momentum going! Commend the audacity of the young workers leading and initiating these rebellions and insurrections against the tyranny of the bosses. Follow their example – do something audacious yourselves! Stop bemoaning the sad state of things, the indifference and lethargy of the labor leadership. Stop wishing and waiting for perfect struggles that meet your approval. Stop waiting on the “the Union” to make it convenient for you to do something. Do your part! The time is now!
-Chris Townsend is the recently retired Organizing Director of the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU), and was for 25 years an International Representative with the United Electrical Workers Union (UE). He has supported the Starbucks Workers United organizing movement from its inception, and every single day he does something to lend support.