This article appeared originally in Jacobin Magazine.
It’s time for an all-labor national day of action to defend Starbucks workers.
The Starbucks baristas, REI retail workers, Amazon warehouse workers, striking Warrior Met mineworkers and concrete truck drivers, along with other workers bravely organizing and fighting back, are at the forefront of resisting unbridled corporate greed in this new Gilded Age. But they won’t succeed if the fights are limited by region or industry. We need to mobilize workers throughout the labor movement to demonstrate that there’s still substance to the labor maxim, “An injury to one is an injury to all.”
It mystifies and disturbs me that regional and national labor bodies that ought to be pulling out all stops for these baristas, retail workers, and others don’t seem to recognize that this moment demands their full energy and focus.
Last week, Starbucks workers in several New York City stores petitioned for union elections, bringing the number of unionizing stores to seventy-two since the fall. The weekly spate of new Starbucks election filings represents a breakthrough for labor with potentially historic implications.
The executives are counterattacking: last week, they fired seven Memphis baristas who had led the organizing in that city. Yet the AFL-CIO’s pinned tweet in the aftermath blathered on about “another victory for working people today with the release of the first report from the White House Task Force on Worker Organizing and Empowerment.”
Victory? Really? It’s a report. But this is the most important thing the AFL-CIO leadership wants us to get animated about—not the bravery of low-paid workers taking on the billionaire class.
Local rallies and press conferences are a good step. I attended one a few weeks ago in Seattle, organized by Starbucks Workers United, socialist city councilmember Kshama Sawant, and a bunch of local unions that stepped up (but notably not the central labor council, unfortunately). It was exciting to hear from Starbucks workers who had flown in from the East Coast and to see the local solidarity from other unions.
Yet scattered local efforts will not be sufficient to force the companies to pull back on their union-busting. The shameful but not surprising firing of the seven Memphis Starbucks workers and the aggressive REI anti-union captive-audience meetings this past week confirm that the bosses have run the calculations and determined that any reputational harm they suffer from these over-the-top tactics is a price worth paying if it stops union momentum. They are okay with maybe being required by the labor board to make back pay settlements to fired workers—in two years? three years?—because a slap on the corporate hand is a pittance to pay for tactics that cast widespread fear throughout the workforce and deter other workers from standing up.
We won’t win unions at places like Starbucks and REI simply by reacting with outrage to the bosses’ attacks on workers. Absent union escalation, there will be more firings, more shakedowns, more union-busting. We, the labor movement, must escalate the fight and demonstrate that when workers in Memphis, or New York, or Arizona are under attack, then workers from California to Maine will fight back.
There’s no better way to ramp up than with demonstrations at Starbucks stores in every state in this country. From there, we should organize escalating actions that create a crisis for the CEOs who try to stymie the workers’ democratic decisions.
Years ago, in my hometown of Seattle, professional union musicians struck the 5th Avenue Theatre after eighteen of them were fired during contract negotiations. It was a tiny walkout. The local Jobs With Justice coalition and labor council mobilized more than a thousand people nightly to attend rallies in front of the struck theater. Boeing machinists, longshore workers, city employees, health care workers, construction workers, tugboat operators, grocery workers, university workers, teachers, and more—all joined in to block the downtown street in front of the theater and prevent the show from opening with scabs.
Within a week, the musicians won full reinstatement and a new contract. It was not just a musicians’ win—it was a win for the entire working class.
The 5th Avenue Theatre strike is hardly unique. Think about what the West Virginia teachers did, on a much larger scale, just four years ago, and how their leadership and sacrifice inspired educators throughout the country to stand up and fight for public education. Or recall how the 2019 sickout by a handful of air traffic controllers, on top of strike calls by the flight attendants’ union, forced the end of Donald Trump’s national government shutdown.
What the Starbucks workers need now is to see that the entire US labor movement has their back. We need a decisive national demonstration of class solidarity—one that sends a message to bosses everywhere that in 2022, when you mess with a single barista, you mess with all of us.
About the Author
Jonathan Rosenblum is a union and community organizer based in Seattle. He is the author of Beyond $15: Immigrant Workers, Faith Activists, and the Revival of the Labor Movement and a member of the National Writers Union.