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Making Work Safer Through Direct Action

Requests have been routinely made and ignored for the purchase of a stepladder. It is vital for our safety that we have a stepladder available to use for such tasks as changing light bulbs, reaching boxes on high shelves, and cleaning ceiling tiles. Currently, we are forced to balance ourselves on unstable café tables to accomplish tasks in hard to reach places. Our store is not ergonomically designed and until it is, the purchase of a stepladder would be a simple solution to a number of safety concerns.

-Excerpted from an IWW Starbucks Workers Union demand letter and declaration of union membership served on management by baristas at a Chicago Starbucks on April 29, 2006Reckless Disregard for Worker Safety

For years, baristas at the Logan Square Starbucks in Chicago requested a stepladder to make their job safer. Baristas constantly strained muscles and risked serious falls to do their job without one. Workers would hoist themselves up on shelves to reach heavy boxes of coffee beans stacked out of reach. Toilet paper and other supplies were locked in a box suspended near the ceiling in the store’s bathroom. To reach the supplies, workers were forced to balance themselves on the toilet bowl and stand on tiptoes to maneuver the key into the lock and remove the needed bathroom products. Workers did a similar balancing act standing on café tables to clean the ceiling and change light bulbs.

In addition to the clear health risks stemming from musculo-skeletal strain and the possibility of serious falls, baristas were downright annoyed and outraged that Starbucks, a 23 billion dollar company and the world’s largest coffee chain, refused to purchase a simple stepladder that workers needed. Annoyed but not surprised. After years of insult and injury on safety and many others issues, a group of workers at Logan Square decided to join the IWW Starbucks Workers Union (www.StarbucksUnion.org).

Bringing Solidarity Unionism to Starbucks

The Chicago baristas were struck by gains Wobbly baristas had made in New York City since Starbucks had for years remained impervious to organization by the traditional trade unions. The Industrial Workers of the World was using the solidarity unionism model to make both systemic changes at the company and remedy individual grievances with management. Through direct pressure on Starbucks, the union had won three wage increases, more secure hours, and had successfully addressed a diverse array of issues from religious discrimination to rat infestation.

Solidarity unionism is a term coined by the great labor activist and author, Staughton Lynd, to describe a rank and file organization of workers who fight directly to win demands without resorting to government certification or union bureaucracy. One of the many benefits of the solidarity union approach is its scalability. A solidarity union is simply a group of workers uniting with each other and other workers in the community and (with the internet) around the world, to apply direct pressure around issues of concern at work. Therefore, with some hard work and a willingness to take a stand, baristas anywhere could join the IWW Starbucks Workers Union to fight collectively for a better life on the job and an independent voice in society.

Chicago Baristas Go Union

The night of Tuesday, April 29, 2006, baristas at the Logan Square Starbucks in Chicago demonstrated the scalability of solidarity unionism by becoming the first workers outside of New York City to declare their membership in the IWW Starbucks Workers Union. Workers chose a store meeting for the action. In addition to the declaration of union membership, the Wobbly baristas demanded a living wage; secure work hours; reinstatement of the baristas in NYC illegally fired for union activity; respect for the right to organize; and health and safety improvements including the stepladder. IWW baristas now had a union presence at seven Starbucks stores.

Through surveillance on workers, Starbucks management was prepared for the surprise action. Senior managers proceeded to disparage unions in general and the IWW in particular. One manager even went so far as to say the union didn’t exist as if the red IWW membership cards in baristas’ pockets were figments of their imagination. The bosses also handed out the preamble to the IWW constitution thinking it would scare off workers. Members were actually pleased that Starbucks handed out the document. The preamble is a text that Wobblies are proud of; it outlines a humane society where workers live in harmony with the Earth and are free from oppression. A society unlike the one Starbucks inhabits where its Chairman Howard Schultz is worth close to a billion dollars and Chicago baristas start at $7.50 per hour with no guaranteed number of work hours each week.

“It was called Direct Action, and it comes to us highly recommended.”

-Utah Phillips, IWW Folk Singer

Wobblies are known for good humor in the struggle for industrial freedom. But one thing the IWW doesn’t joke around about is health and safety. You only get one body and one mind in this life and the boss sure isn’t going to take care of you. After years of needless strain and balancing acts because the coffee giant was too cheap to buy a simple stepladder, baristas found themselves in a new workplace dynamic. Instead of individuals requesting a ladder and being denied again and again, the workers could fight union.

Direct Action entails doing what it takes to make things right.

For example, faced with employer opposition to the eight-hour day, Wobbly timber workers began blowing a whistle after eight-hours of work and going home. Essentially, they went on strike each day after eight hours on the job and the strike lasted until work started the next day. IWW timber workers won the eight-hour day in this manner and not through the ballot box or a union official. Direct Action is about more than winning demands though. It’s about how the demand is won, that is, through workers’ own initiative and self-organization. As Staughton Lynd has pointed out, such activity is the process through which workers take control of their own destinies and build towards a General Strike, a decisive historical moment where workers dramatically alter society by withholding their labor.

The IWW baristas picked Labor Day in the United States (the authentic workers’ holiday is May 1st), to launch their Direct Action. The plan was brilliant. First, the union bought a ladder. Next, workers placed a sticker on both sides of the ladder reading, “Brought to you by– IWW Starbucks Workers Union–for a safer, healthier workplace.” The workers knew that when they brought the ladder to work, Starbucks could respond in one of three ways.

First, the company could allow the ladder to stay in the store and workers would have the tool they needed to work safer. The Wobbly baristas knew that the company wouldn’t choose this first option. Starbucks is waging a fierce and unlawful anti-union campaign that resulted in a massive complaint from the National Labor Relations Board. The last thing Starbucks would want was a useful tool that workers needed with the IWW sticker on it. Allowing such a ladder to remain in the store would conflict with Starbucks’ message that unions are antiquated and not necessary in Starbucks’ “pro-partner” environment.

Second, the company could remove the ladder to rid the store of a useful gift from the IWW and reinstate the no-ladder status quo. This too would not be a good option for the company. Jettisoning a useful tool that workers needed to stay safe would make the company look bad to workers and to the public. Such a maneuver would conflict with Starbucks’ message that it’s a benevolent employer (notwithstanding the poverty wage and lack of full-time status), while the IWW is a radical organization outside of the mainstream.

Third, the company could remove the IWW ladder and purchase a comparable ladder for the store. While this option wouldn’t be perfect for Starbucks because they’d have to spend money and concede a union victory, workers predicted this was the way management would go. After years of being turned down for a simple tool that makes everyday life at work a whole lot easier, the baristas would have their ladder. In addition, the company would foot the bill for the ladder, as it should under the law. The union would then return its ladder to recoup the cost.

Does Direct Action Get the Goods?

September 4th came around and everything was set to go. Two Wobbly baristas from the Logan Square Starbucks including one of the authors, Joe Tessone, were selected to bring the ladder into the store. The contrast of the reactions to their entry into the store with the ladder was striking. Management, including a senior human resources official, looked absolutely shocked and mortified. On the other hand, workers were beaming with smiles cheek-to-cheek. The absolute power of their employer, which was first challenged less than a week ago, had been further eroded and they had set in motion a plan to get the ladder they needed! Afterwards, Joe’s partner in the action, Monica Karpuk, remarked that this was the most exciting thing she had ever done.

Management sprang into action running around visibly shaken. Then they moved outside the store to speak in private. Returning to the store still distraught, management informed workers that Starbucks could not accept the union’s ladder but that the company would purchase its own ladder. One hour later, after years of individual requests and less than one week as union members, the Logan Square baristas had the ladder they needed for a safer healthier workplace.
The IWW baristas and those acting with them in solidarity still have much work to do. Starbucks is still far from a decent place to work and the company continues union-busting with impunity. But with several key victories under its belt and a commitment to a powerful organizing model, the IWW Starbucks Workers Union is poised to continue growing and winning workplace demands.

Only one thing didn’t go according to plan in Chicago. The baristas decided not to return their ladder to get the money back. They kept it to remember their Direct Action and to preserve a symbol for the millions of working people looking for their own ladder to a better life on and off the job.

Daniel Gross and Joe Tessone are organizers with the IWW Starbucks Workers Union. Mr. Tessone is a barista at Starbucks in Chicago. Mr. Gross is a former barista at Starbucks in New York City fired for union activity. For more information log on to www.StarbucksUnion.org.
They can be reached at: dgross1959@yahoo.com

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