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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.

The decline of unions does not mean the end of the labor movement. Indeed, the last few years have seen a proliferation of new kinds of worker organizations and workers' rights campaigns. Some of the most exciting of late have been conducted by community-based groups (rather than workplace-based unions), such as the Coalition of Immokalee Workers and those part of the National Domestic Workers Alliance.

In Solidarity Unionism at Starbucks, a recent pamphlet published by PM Press, Daniel Gross and Staughton Lynd highlight an increasingly important feature of today’s labor movement—nonunion workers using direct action strategies protected by the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA)—while examining the Industrial Workers of the World’s (IWW)'s ongoing efforts to organize Starbucks.

During the last decade, Chicago-based IWW has seen a resurgence of organizing activity and visibility. That's in part because the 106-year-old international union, which once had 100,000 members but is now only a fraction of that size, formed the Starbucks Workers Union (SWU) in 2004 in New York City. It was the coffee chain's first union, and it has since expanded.

The Starbucks campaign is remarkable because it draws from both IWW's history and the best practices of worker centers, which are the principal heir of the union's rich organizing legacy. Ironically, today’s IWW activists, or Wobblies, can learn from worker centers. In fact, one sign of the IWW's revival is the emergence of the IWW-affiliated Lucy Parsons Workers' Center in Chicago. Gross and Lynd’s pamphlet is particularly instructive to Wobblies who are challenged by the task of reaching out to workers in need of organizing.

Gross and Lynd, both proponents of rank-and-file unionism, union democracy, and direct action, focus on the practice of solidarity unionism among IWW members working for Starbucks. The story is compelling, in part because of the symbolic importance of the coffee chain. The ubiquitous corporate giant is emblematic of the precarity of the service economy. The authors make the important point that new organizational forms of business require new forms of worker organization. 

Starbucks, for instance, argues that a bargaining unit would necessarily include all of the stores in a given region. This, along with ideological reasons, is why the IWW is organizing Starbucks workers across coffee shop locations, rather than shop by shop.

Gross and Lynd share the stories of workers like Laura de Anda, who deal with overbearing managers, low-wages, unilateral scheduling and repetitive motion injuries. For readers without personal experience in service-sector jobs, some of these abuses may seem like mere annoyances; not nearly as exploitative or shocking as, those in say, the meat-packing industry. 

But taken together, the at-times idealized barista can find herself in a state of psychological pressure and physical strain. I should know—I did time as a barista in a coffee shop in Chicago’s banking district. My fingertips became so raw from the constant handling of coins and hand washing that I had to wear Band-Aids to prevent infection. I also had to corner my boss and make an appeal to his wife after he didn’t give me my promised raise at the end of my training period.

Solidarity Unionism at Starbucks is useful because it names and describes a collection of strategies nontraditional worker organizations like worker centers increasingly employ. This is particularly true for groups that do not limit their organizing by industry or geographic community. Instead of seeking geographic or industry monopoly power, worker centers like New Brunswick’s New Labor, Cincinnati Interfaith Workers Center, and the organization I work for, Arise Chicago, choose to build a base of workers organized around the principles and power of direct action and mutual aid. 

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