Starbucks Signals a Change in SEIU’s Organizing Strategy

Labor Organizing Organizing Starbucks

San Pedro Sula           Workers at three Starbucks stores in the Buffalo area successfully petitioned the NLRB for elections as part of the SEIU’s Service Workers Union.  The company fought ferociously, and it’s a long way from over, but the results of the first elections are now in.  The union won in one store outright by more than 2 to 1.  They lost in another, though they likely have grounds to challenge.  Another they possibly won, depending on the NLRB determination of employee status in resolving the challenges which are determinate in the outcome.  Not bad.  This wasn’t Bessemer, but Buffalo, and even a split decision is something for the union to crow about.

            Reporters, pundits, lawyers, and unions all have something to say about this.  There is agreement that this is a union victory, though all acknowledge it is a small one.  The disagreement lies in whether or not this is meaningless in the larger assessment of where the labor movement is, and where it is going.

            I think the election, and its results, are in fact significant, but not in the way outsiders might think, because it signals what may be a fundamental shift in strategy and organizing for the Service Employees International Union, the largest in the United States, and inside labor, that’s huge, regardless of what folks in the cheap seats might see.  But, first, some disclaimers.  I was on the International Board of SEIU for eight years, but was that sixteen years ago.  Our local was part of SEIU for twenty-five years, but that was more than a decade ago.  I ran some big organizing projects for SEIU, but few there now, would know much about that, and, frankly, I’m way out of touch, so none of this is based on an inside track, but I did spend a lot of years and sat where the view was better, and the seats were more expensive.

            SEIU spent untold millions on the Fight for $15 and, more pointedly, on the McDonalds’ campaign in what was mostly an advocacy campaign, rather than an organizing campaign.  One of ACORN’s affiliates continues to work on the McDonalds effort overseas, but with specific instructions NOT to actually organize a union of the workers in any of the stores.  The McDonalds’ strategy was based on a ground game of agitation and premised for success on political leverage in the US, Brazil, the UK, and France, most of which didn’t materialize.

Like McDonalds, Starbucks is a big name, service sector brand, so an SEIU decision to take the election is itself huge and a signal throughout the labor movement of a change in strategy.  I wouldn’t discount the report that these workers have heard from hundreds of others around the country who want to follow.  By taking the election, and now winning it, SEIU is signaling that it will in fact return those calls.  They are signally that they will increasingly claim fast food workers as an SEIU jurisdiction, bought and paid for in recent years significantly enough to potentially win Article XX raiding protection, if they were still in the AFL-CIO, but greenlighting this small division, part of the half-won HERE affiliation, and other locals that they can call the dogs out and go for it, if they see the opportunity and have the stomach.  Without sending a letter, they are also telling UNITE/HERE, which would normally claim this jurisdiction within the federation, but is now a smaller union more focused on casinos and larger, often publicly leveraged hotels, that they will be working in this yard more seriously.

It’s no small footnote that after decades of arguing for a dominant organizing strategy of market concentration and leverage that was adamantly opposed to any NLRB election, SEIU is now willing to go there.  They aren’t true believers, but under a Biden-influenced NLRB and General Counsel, they’re willing to take their chances now in a bolder and more expansive way than they were before.

None of this is to say that getting a contract at a couple of Buffalo Starbucks stores will be easy, but they have chosen a company that in fact cares about its public image and reputation as a better than average employer.  This is a company that has seen its franchise holders unionized in Canada and other countries, even if not in the United States.  SEIU is big enough and smart enough to have reckoned closely that Starbucks is not McDonalds, and enough heat – and, in fact, on-the-ground, worker-driven organizing, might give the union the corporate leverage to win not only locally, but something like labor peace on a national basis that would take the company out of store-by-store campaigns.  Starbucks is a blue-state, Democratic company in a national labor environment that is still red-state all the way.  This is also a company of younger workers in a demographic that now says 77% of them support unions.  This is the kind of target that SEIU knows how to organize, and their new willingness to go to election, coupled with this victory in Buffalo, could mean that we will soon see them going hard on Starbucks everywhere.

If you care about unions, and, if you care about service workers, this is big!