Labor Power Against the Odds

Labor Starbucks Unions Wade's World Workers

Marble Falls     A federal judge has granted a nationwide 10j injunction against Starbucks banning them from firing any workers involved in organizing a union or any form of concerted, collective activity.  Additionally, the judge ordered the reinstatement of the barista named in the specific charge brought forward in the request for the injunction by the National Labor Relations Board.  The NLRB says they have found merit in the unfair labor practice firings of fifty workers so far, while they are still investigating other charges.  The Starbucks union, Workers United / SEIU says that 200 workers have been fired for union activity.  Starbucks refuted the judge’s injunction order, saying that they will appeal, and it was not proportionate to the discipline it administered.  Failure of the company to comply could lead to fines and additional restrictions on the company.

This is good news for the fired workers, but it’s not a quick fix.  The wheels of justice move very slowly, even when the NLRB is on its job and the judges are doing right.  This barista was fired last April.  It’s now mid-February, almost ten months later, and, given appeals and delays, no end is in sight for these workers.  The same is true for the union as it continues to try and convert success in certification elections in 275 stores into a collective bargaining agreement.

The organizing success at Starbucks came up in the conversation on Wade’s World with John Womack, Jr., Harvard professor emeritus, and Peter Olney, retired organizing director of the International Longshore & Warehouse Union (ILWU) about their new book, Labor Power and Strategy.  The book is based on a series of dialogues between Peter and John that they call the “Foundry Interviews” after the café in Somerville, Massachusetts where they hashed out these problems.  There are also commentaries and responses from others on the topic.  The heart of the book is whether labor power sufficient to contend with the dominance of capital and corporations can be built by leveraging chokepoints in the supply chain or specific technical needs of employers by organizing strategically placed groups of workers.  Womack was less than sanguine about how much power for workers could be built through the Starbucks campaign given that the 275 stores are only a small part of the 9000 or so in the chain, even if the campaign has been inspiring to similar workers throughout the country.

There were also questions, pro and con, about the role of “associational power” in such labor organizing, which can range from what ACORN has developed in community-labor partnerships to what Womack defined somewhat deprecatingly as simply public support.  On the other hand, he cited the importance of what might be called an associational history of struggle which could sustain workers in building labor power by referencing a fight some years ago involving CWA in Nacogdoches, Texas, and the workers background in other civil rights struggles in the past.  I knew that fight against the cafeteria subcontractor well, since it was organized by Judy Graves, an ACORN and SEIU veteran before serving out her career in the CWA organizing department.


Both Womack and Olney claimed to be optimistic about the contemporary outlook for labor power.  Olney particularly saw hope in reform movements underway in the UFCW, UAW, and other unions.  Womack believed that the negotiations between the Teamsters and United Parcel Service over their contract covering hundreds of thousands of members could be critical, particularly if there was a strike.  Trucking, like shipping and railroads, is part of the lifeblood of all supply chains now, so could be not only a chokepoint, but might trigger other workers to take action even among the giants like Amazon and Walmart.

I didn’t show it in the interview, I pray, but I’m less cheery about our current situation, than I was even a year ago.  But, as Womack pointed out repeatedly in his classic, Zapata and the Mexican Revolution, more than fifty years ago, real power requires a deep base and a commitment to continual struggle over a long timeline.  If we can link these small steps into the kind of network that Womack advocates, then who knows what might be possible? Perhaps then, as Eugene Debs famously said, then our “victory is as inevitable as the rising of the sun.”