As workers across the country organize their Starbucks stores, anyone with a basic understanding of labor history (or anyone who’s ever worked a service industry job) know’s that the company wasn’t just going to sit back and let their workers gain any semblance of power. Sure enough, the company hired Littler Mendelson, an infamous law firm known for its anti-union tactics. Every store that has been organized has experienced some level of union-busting activity since this movement began last December with the first win in Buffalo, NY. Our experience organizing and winning in Peoria, IL on April 26th has been no different. Fake tweets, threatening to take away benefits, and throwing away union posters and other informational material are just some of the ways Starbucks is trying to break the law to stop the ever increasing spread of unionization.
What to expect from union busters
Union-busting at Starbucks starts slow. Many times it even starts by simply fixing the things that had been ignored before in order to say “See?! We are listening to you!” But along with the minor improvements, things start to shift in the store. Suddenly, flyers about unions appear in the back. It will read with an over-the-top neutrality in tone, but when you read the language it uses to describe the union process, it becomes clear that it’s nothing more than subtle propaganda.
After you’ve been primed by management with little anti-union tidbits, Starbucks is going to sit you down to have a talk. They’ll express emphatically their neutrality in the situation. Your manager will also probably wash their hands of any responsibility by reminding you that they’re just repeating what’s being given to them by corporate. But as they give you these mundane details of what joining a union entails, they’ll throw in a few uncertainties. Who knows what will happen to your benefits once bargaining starts? Do you really want to be giving up your voice to some “third party”? You’ll have many meetings like this. For some stores, there have been large captive audience meetings, where management sits everyone down, closes the store, and forces everyone to listen to anti-union propaganda together. In other stores, Starbucks chooses to have only one-on-one meetings. In a way, this is even more insidious, as it isolates workers, allowing management to regurgitate threats and lies sent from corporate higher-ups targeting workers who might not know otherwise.
Many of these lighter tactics can work for management if they aren’t actively challenged every day by the workers who are organizing. Sometimes this can look like hijacking a captive audience meeting by bringing your own set of questions and putting the managers on the spot, where they won’t have sufficient answers (Will you recognize our right to a union without further interference? You’ve said our transferring abilities could be affected, but by law you can’t retaliate by changing our working conditions from before we filed a petition, correct?). But if the meetings are one on one, challenging management’s narrative will require talking with your coworkers one on one after they’ve had their meeting. It’s important to meet people where they’re at and ask questions about what is concerning them, rather than pushing your perspective, making them feel stuck between a manager and a coworker both trying to coerce them. This open and compassionate communication gives a space to shut down what they were told in their meeting. For most workers, the hesitancy is a product of intimidation and uncertainty sown by management. By demystifying the union process and asking questions openly, organizers can find out what is worrying their coworkers. This creates the opportunity to show we’ve been lied to, and to talk through the protections and benefits a union brings. These are the moments that give openings to talking to your coworkers about class, workplace democracy, and capitalist exploitation. It’s an opportunity to move from a conversation about immediate improvements in your workplace to broader ideas about building power.
Starbucks gets dirty
Starbucks won’t just stop at the mild intimidation tactics though. They will go as far as directly lying, punishing, and ultimately firing organizers if they feel it’s worth their time and money. At least 18 pro union workers have been fired nationwide for a variety of low level excuses given by the company. The Memphis Seven being the most notable example. In Memphis, on February 8th, 7 workers—the entire organizing committee—was fired for low-level technicalities in policy that are not usually enforced. These workers have not been able to return to work despite nationwide protests the following week and legal support from the union. If we are to help our coworkers, we will need to continue to rally, continue to put pressure on the company, and build our forces so that our collective power can become great enough to lever genuine economic pressure.
We can expect all of this to continue, and for their attempts at stopping us to get more and more desperate. On April 20th, Starbucks put on their “Partner Hub” (an online space for Starbucks workers to access benefits information, reach out to HR, etc.) an update that they are filing unfair labor practice charges against Workers United. And then the next day, a leaked video emerged where long-time owner, and on-and-off CEO Howard Schultz asked management to increase their union busting efforts in careful language, no doubt crafted by PR and legal teams. But when Executive Vice President Rossann Williams addressed the video, she slipped up by admitting to union-busting activity. There is no ambiguity in the statement, “Please do your role as a store manager, make sure your partners get balanced information about what’s going on, especially in this role of us union-busting all over the country”. “Balanced information” translates to lies and intimidation. The information our manager gave us, directly from corporate, intentionally sowed fears that our benefits would be affected, that union dues would cut into our pay, making us make less, and that we would no long be able to communicate with management or the company. When you pose the question back, “but wouldn’t doing those things be retaliation and break labor law?”, the response would be, “well I just don’t know…”.
The long-term plan to prevent this movement from spreading throughout every Starbucks store seems to be much more calculated than the rapid paced and desperate attempts at misinformation campaigns and retribution.
Corporate’s plans won’t work
In a video that all Starbucks workers were forced to watch (a video that also features the new/old CEO telling us that his stores are being “assaulted… by the threat of unionization”), Schultz says that “by law, we are not permitted to give new benefits to partners in the collective bargaining process.” He says this in a tone that suggests this is new information that he is, through the goodness of his heart, trying to share with workers before they make a crucial mistake. While organizing, they will threaten the loss of benefits, ignoring the fact that our benefits are locked in when we win our election. But at the same time, they openly talk about the fact that benefits will be locked in, implying no union stores would get whatever new benefits they start to roll out until they can win them at the bargaining table. Schultz assures workers that he is doing everything he can to roll it out sooner than later, but that these things take time. “Hope is on its way”, he tells us.
By early May, this is the reality. Starbucks has now announced their new benefits and wages. At the bottom of the fliers that lay this out, posted in the back of stores, there is a paragraph detailing how it’s simply against the law for Starbucks to provide this to union stores. These benefits will apply to all workers at “stores where Starbucks has the right to unilaterally make these changes”, but “at stores where workers have union representation, federal law requires good faith collective bargaining over wages, benefits and working conditions which prohibits Starbucks from making or announcing unilateral changes”. They assure us they’ll “negotiate in good faith” when they’re “required to engage in collective bargaining”, but it’s just too bad for those stores who want actual power in their workplace.
On one hand, this isn’t unexpected. Starbucks has long used the method of bribing its workers with what appear to be progressive benefits packages and other small niceties to show that you truly are a “partner” in the company. You don’t need any sort of collective or democratic power in the company so long as they can paternalistically provide for you, their logic goes. Let’s even look at the language they use. These benefits will be implemented where Starbucks can “unilaterally make these changes”. Starbucks wants workers to believe that it is within their self interest to give them total power over our lives.
But the truth is that Starbucks has no incentive to provide decent pay and benefits without the union drive, and in the absence of a union, any concessions management gives will be temporary and unprotected. Our working conditions, pay, benefits, etc, are only protected when we build power in our workplace, and we will only win what the wages and benefits we deserve once we have that power.
Starbucks is inevitably going to try to drown us out by dragging out the bargaining process and making it as difficult as possible to win any concessions. That much is obvious. But now that the first major wave of stores are in negotiation, and other workers who are on the fence are looking at these stores to decide if the benefits of unionizing are worth their time, it seems an ideal moment for Starbucks to launch this new benefits package. At this time, only the stores who had not yet decided to go union will be rewarded with better working conditions and improved benefits. Those in contract negotiations on the other hand are fighting from the position they were in when they voted union. Starbucks would try to force union stores to accept contracts that are no longer as worker friendly as the non-union contracts. But any benefits or raises implemented in such a manner would be unstable and unprotected by a contract like unions could provide. The ploy is nothing but a disgusting attempt to dismantle the building of democratic power in the workplace and reinforce a dictatorial corporate model.
It’s time we take the power back
Spreading our organizing by winning more elections and securing fair contracts both present real challenges, but they can be overcome. Overcoming these challenges and building democratic power in the workplace requires exposing the tactics and propaganda of the bosses. We also have to continue sharing lessons from the unionization efforts across stores around the country.
To all those workers who are on the fence, remember: what Starbucks does not want is for you to have actual power in what your working conditions, benefits, and compensation are, or the protection to secure those conditions. They want total control in order to be able to exploit your labor at the highest rates it deems possible. Regardless of the tactics management uses, however, Starbucks relies on workers to keep running, and we ultimately have the real power in the workplace. Starbucks workers’ exercising that power is the only guarantee for securing and implementing our demands. What we are seeing is that even just the threat of a union is forcing the company to give workers better pay and better benefits. A union is the first step in taking back some of that power.
To fight management’s and corporate’s attack, we will need to have a high level of organization and radical consciousness among workers in unionized and not-yet-unionized stores. This can look like your entire store (or the pro union side if you’re in a store where some workers do not want to engage) developing collective and democratic decision making processes. It can look like organizing committees from all stores that are in the unionizing process in your region (or nationally) having meetings to share tactics and information, to be coordinated on larger scales. It can look like educating each other in the store to prepare for the psychological attack that corporate will bring. It will require an escalation of tactics and a capacity to match the escalation we will receive from the company. They will hope that we become passive in the period of bargaining, but we will need to become evermore offensive if we want to see our movement succeed, and to finally have power over our lives and over the value that we produce everyday as working people.
Contribute to the Peoria, IL Starbucks workers’ fund to support workers standing up to Starbucks: https://bit.ly/peoriasbuxworkers