Starbucks Workers and the Community

Starbucks Unions Workers

             New Orleans      I don’t drink Starbucks coffee, unless I have to do so, like being stuck in an airport or something.   It’s neither fair trade nor do they serve my New Orleans favorite coffee-and-chicory. It always tastes a little burned, even to what’s left of my taste buds.  There’s one around the corner from our building.  I’ve never crossed the threshold.  On the other hand, we open our hall some nights for the workers there to meet since they are organizing a union now and seeking to join the other 375 stores that have voted to be represented by Workers United, SEIU.  You know how it is, I don’t like the coffee, but I love the workers.

One thing and others led me into a conversation with a bunch of Starbucks’ activists and in-shop organizers.  It was interesting.  I wasn’t sure what they wanted to talk about or exactly why they invited me to join them for a minute, but I was glad to jump on and ride with them a bit.  They wanted to know about ACORN and how we approached community organizing.  This was a young group that didn’t know ACORN except by rumor and legend, if at all.  Needless to say, it was also the first experience with a union many, maybe all of them, had ever had until becoming baristas for Starbucks.  I mainly talked about our support and experience for community union or community-labor alliances.  I discussed our experience with Walmart from 2005 forward in a coalition of ACORN, SEIU, UFCW, and the AFL-CIO and what we learned that might help them think about their own situation in trying to convert their shop election victories into something more.

Interestingly, the questions seem to bunch up around how to reconcile the counter staff that tended to blend minority and working class young and older folks who were there for a job with a more political, young, educated, and woke a bunch of other baristas.  I gathered for the discussion that there was a certain bridge that they needed to build in their stores, but that this same gulf also came to how they viewed the community.  Like everyone, I had followed their two years of victories in elections and frustrations both legally and at the bargaining table with Starbucks, but as an informed bystander had never really tried to put myself in the organizer’s shoes.

Nonetheless, on these questions, I found myself arguing that they really needed to have a program to reach out for support to the communities where their stores were located, not just to their affinity groups and social media friends.  From our experience of running Fair Grinds Coffeehouse, I argued that 80% or more of the customers were consistent comebacks drawn from the community, even in an Airbnb and tourist area like New Orleans and Faubourg St. John.  Furthermore, baristas knew their regulars, and there were always other coffeehouses ready to serve them, if they didn’t come to us.  The same thing must be true for Starbucks, I thought.  What would happen if in fact the baristas canvassed their community deeply to gain support, and did so on a national basis, asking customers and neighbors to support other coffeehouses until they won justice on their jobs?  I remember a successful campaign for Chicago homecare workers when we couldn’t settle a contract at a recalcitrant company, and our homecare workers moved themselves and their clients to union homes and away from the holdout.  Sure, a barista and a homecare worker have different relationships with their clients, but even weak links can be strengthened with work.

Starbucks stores are located in a lot of different communities.  The press never fails to mention that the union stores are 375 and counting out of maybe 9000 US locations.  True enough, but if enough pressure from came from joining the workers’ struggle with the community in an action that was a cross between a boycott and a permanent alienation of consumers to competitors in close to 400 stores, that might put more pressure on Starbucks to settle than just another NLRB complaint.  It’s a bit of a suicide run, since, if effective, it could push many of the stores out of business, but given the high turnover of workers, including union supporters, I’m not sure that there’s that much to lose, especially when the alternative continues to be the current war of attrition and company stalemate.