Lessons in Starbucks rising

by Wade Rathke
January 14, 2022



Marble Falls     You have to keep these things in perspective of course. Winning union elections in two of Starbucks 9000 stores is not exactly an example of workers bringing a huge company and mega-brand to its knees, but it means something big and could be teaching some lessons about workers now and how to organize them that are demanding that all of us pay attention in the class that they are teaching.

First, a reminder and a disclosure. I want to say “I told you so,” and therefore I’m totally biased on this as an organizing opportunity. Previously, I went on record arguing that the giant Service Employees International Union (SEIU), the parent of Workers’ United and therefore the home for these unionized and wannabe union Starbucks workers, should pivot hard from its long, and now longshot, effort to organize McDonalds, and throw everything they have that’s not bolted down at taking advantage of this moment by supporting Starbucks worker organizing everywhere they can. Workers are moving on their own. There’s heat. This is the right workforce at the right time, and SEIU should throw gas on the fire.

Workers have already filed for an election in Mesa, Arizona, the cheek-to-jowl suburb of Phoenix. Reportedly there are organizing efforts in at least another fifteen stores where they have also filed with the NLRB. Things are popping across the country: Chicago, Nashville, Tallahassee, Boston, Denver, and of course in Seattle, where Starbucks has its headquarters. Undoubtedly, Starbucks workers across the USA are all having a conversation with their co-workers about whether or not they should pass cards, too, and go union. That’s very exciting. It’s not spontaneous of course, but it is driven by rank-and-file workers.

The key lesson I think is one we learned with ACORN in the United Kingdom before the pandemic, but has allowed us to surge during the pandemic. You can’t let the scale of the organizing be narrowed based on the size and range of your organizing staff. You have to empower anyone and everyone who reaches out expressing an interest in organizing. In the UK, we send every member a packet when they join about how they can organize a branch. Not everyone will do so, but some will. We then implement a system to support them regularly with benchmarks on membership growth and actions on their way to establishing a full-fledged chapter in their area. In the UK, tenants have driven the growth. They tend to be younger, some have university education, but everyone is facing rising rents, and they are comfortable politically in pushing for change. This also seems to be true of a lot of the Starbucks constituency that is on the move.

The union strategy with Starbucks of encouraging workers to move forward on their own in a similar way allows the organizing to spread based on success. It also outstrips the company’s ability and human resources capabilities to duplicate the all-hands-on approach they used, unsuccessfully in two of the three stores, in Buffalo, where the first beachhead has been established. Focusing on organizing committees and benchmarks on card signing, like ours on membership, makes the job clear and the steps forward certain.

Whether SEIU goes whole hog or not, Workers’ United is clearly committed. Hiring Richard Bensinger is a key marker of their seriousness. Using him as a spokesman for the drive is unusual, but is an important message of their commitment both to the company and within the labor movement. Richard has been a seminal figure in labor organizing in our generation. He headed the AFL-CIO’s Organizing Institute. He popularized the “blitz” as a technique in NLRB organizing. Some of these methodologies have gone out of favor as politics within institutional labor break different ways and other strategies about leverage and direct recognition became dominant, but Bensinger has stayed the course and been central in many large organizing drives. He is a brilliant “get” for the Starbucks drive. Wisely, he’s showing his cards early. He’s not pretending the union can take a majority of Starbucks stores or workers at this point, but making it clear they want the company to be neutral. The recent NLRB hand slap at Amazon giving workers a sign they are willing to protect concerted activity more aggressively, should be a message that he will use well in letting a thousand flowers bloom at Starbucks coffee bars across the country.

What may have seemed a bit of a flash-in-the-pan has gotten very interesting now. With more resources and attention, these drives could be a gamechanger if workers take the lead with institutional labor keeping out of their way, while backing them 100%.

Wade Rathke is founder and chief organizer of ACORN and ACORN International. You can find Wade’s recent past posts here Chief Organizer Reports. And you can link to his website here Chief Organizer ACORN/ACORN International.

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