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Organizing on Wobbly Ground: Lessons From Unionizing Efforts at Starbucks

The pamphlet "Solidarity Unionism at Starbucks" highlights an increasingly important feature of today's labor movement—nonunion workers using direct action strategies.

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This means workers joining together to change conditions and terms of work, regardless of what or where their work is. In a recent and typical Arise Chicago action, a retired factory worker, social worker and home healthcare worker joined a butcher to confront his boss about paying the minimum wage, signing a discrimination-free workplace statement, and covering the medical costs of a work-related injury. Worker centers are effective in mobilizing marginalized and low-wage workers because they are rooted in the communities they organize, address workers’ immediate needs and develop them into leaders.

Gross and Lynd describe how IWW-SWU members take bold actions to win concrete gains. We learn how workers disobeyed management to create a comfortable break area, and organized a work stoppage to demand affordable healthcare options and sick days. Besides being dramatic and attention-grabbing, some of these campaigns are notable for their tactical use of legal complaints.

Organizations like the SWU are successful in part because the workers they organize are covered by the NLRA. When people think of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB)—the agency charged with regulating union elections and protecting workers’ rights in the process—most often they think of union organizing campaigns. But if one studies the NLRA, the pamphlet authors point out, any workers have the right to engage in “collective concerted activity” and are protected from retaliation for doing so. 

SWU workers in New York City won a complaint and were reinstated, changing a company policy against distributing union information in the process. In the example cited above, the threat of filing a legal charge for violation of protected concerted activity was sufficient to win demands related to a comfortable break area.

The IWW has a long and fascinating history of solidarity unionism, even before the passage of the NLRA in 1935. From its founding in 1905, the IWW was radical in its aim to organize workers as a single class, instead of as members of a particular trade or industry.

The IWW faces enormous challenges, however. Though it has a history to be proud of, the union would do well to update its image for the 21st-century worker. I have witnessed earnest IWW organizers dressed with newsboy-styled caps, singing “Solidarity Forever” by themselves at a rally. I suspect that some Wobblies are moved by the romanticism of the union’s heyday, but do not know how to speak the language of the 21st century service worker. 

I’ve observed IWW activists feverishly discuss the power of the general strike, but strain to develop a strategy for combating wage theft in the workplace. The IWW has begun to revive the “Chicago Idea” (a combination of anarchism and unionism), but thus far has not managed to create a Chicago presence.

Solidarity Unionism at Starbucks provides a glimpse into campaigns that have successfully spoken to disgruntled workers in need of organization. None of the campaigns described in its pages attribute their success to appealing to co-workers’ innate yet hidden thirst for revolutionary activity. On the contrary, SWU appears to be successful because of its appeal to workers’ immediate and basic needs: a fan; a breakroom; sick days.

Gross and Lynd’s good storytelling and legal tutorial should serve as a basic introduction to solidarity unionism for rank-and-file worker activists. And with its attractive and portable zine design, political cartoons and accessible text, the pamphlet speaks to today’s workers in a way that should serve as a model to other IWW activists and worker center activists alike.

Adam Kader, the director of the Arise Chicago Worker Center, blogs for Labor Notes.

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