In the watered-down version of what passes for history these days, what the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was doing when he was assassinated is left out. In the current atmosphere of unbridled hostility to labor organizing, it’s worthwhile to recall those final days of his life.
Dr. King traveled to Memphis in support of a watershed strike of mostly black city sanitation workers. The workers initiated their historic work stoppage to vindicate the basic right of free association in the form of a labor union. The government deemed their efforts illegal and worked aggressively to defeat them.
While wages and working conditions including health and safety were critical issues, there’s no doubt that the strike was also about human dignity itself. Indeed, many of the workers and their community supporters carried picket signs readings simply, “I AM A MAN.”
This was the struggle, a union struggle, which brought Dr. King to Memphis where he was felled by a sniper’s bullet, the day after he gave his unforgettable “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech.
Dr. King was a champion of working people years before those fateful days in Memphis in 1968. In addition to supporting union organizing efforts, King spoke emphatically in favor of a living wage and decried the sham cynically known as a “right to work” law, among other things.
On unions, Dr. King argued that, “the labor movement was the principal force that transformed misery and despair into hope and progress.” And King didn’t shy away from emphasizing that, “the captains of industry did not lead this transformation; they resisted it until they were overcome.”
Contrary to the treatment we’re sure to get from the corporate media in this 40th anniversary year of Dr. King’s murder, the dream he fought and died for was not some formalistic conception of civil rights devoid of economic rights. Dr. King spoke forcefully on behalf of economic justice and gave his concrete support to the labor movement as the means to get there.
A Simple Demand
Mindful of this legacy, last month a group of Starbucks baristas struggling hard to exercise their right to join a union, called on the world’s largest coffee chain to respect the federal holiday on Monday commemorating Dr. King’s birthday.
While Starbucks pays a holiday premium to baristas who work through several other federal holidays, it refuses to do so for Dr. King’s day.
Many baristas, like many Americans and people around the world, hold Dr. King to be a hero. The IWW Starbucks Workers Union (Industrial Workers of the World) suggests that paying the time and a half holiday premium on MLK Day would be a good first step for the company toward making a meaningful commitment to diversity.
In Starbucks’ mission statement, the coffee giant says it will, “embrace diversity as an essential component in the way we do business.”
But while Starbucks pays lip service to diversity and social responsibility, workers of color are disproportionately underrepresented in upper management. While 30% of the Starbucks workforce is of color, just 15% of executives are people of color, according to company statistics. The company hires workers of color for low-wage, part-time barista positions but much less so for higher paying management jobs.
The case of Simone Gordon, a member of the Starbucks Workers Union and a former barista at the company, also raises serious questions about the coffee giant’s commitment to diversity. Ms. Gordon was subjected to an appalling and racist intimidation campaign by her store manager who claimed without any basis whatsoever that Ms. Gordon was bigoted against white people. One customer who got wind of the manager’s slander, complained that she didn’t want, “the black girl who doesn’t like white people” to touch her drink. Ms. Gordon resisted the urge to quit and fought back. Here’s what she said at the time:
I always had to fight for things- I’ve been on my own since I was 17. I want to fight because if they’re going to do this to other people I’m not going to allow it. No one should be treated like trash. We’re all human; we’re all taxpayers. No matter our salary, no matter a fancy car, we’re all equal.
Since they couldn’t get her to quit, Starbucks management eventually fired Simone Gordon because she had the audacity to stand up for herself alongside her union.
The African, Latin American, and Asian farmers growing coffee beans for Starbucks are another painful example of the company’s disrespect for communities of color. Tom Knudson of the Sacramento Bee recently concluded a months-long investigation in Ethiopia comparing Starbucks’ claims regarding its coffee farmers with the reality of life on the ground for the farmers.
Knudson found that the farmers growing beans for Starbucks and their families were living in severe poverty and that the company’s PR claims that the farmers were properly nourished, had access to clean water, and could send their children to school were essentially smoke and mirrors.
For example, Starbucks makes much of a bridge it built in the famed Sidamo coffee-growing region of Ethiopia for farmers to use. Knudson was able to find the bridge and described it thus, ” it is but a simple yellow-brown concrete slab, 10 paces long.”
Instead of patronizing PR and 10-foot concrete slabs, the farmers and their representatives conveyed a very clear demand for Starbucks: pay us a fair price for the fruits of our labor.
The conclusions of the Sacramento Bee investigation are wholly consistent with the findings of a delegation that the Starbucks Workers Union sent to Ethiopia to build solidarity between coffee farmers and baristas.
1 out of 3 employers give workers a paid day off for Martin Luther King Day. The IWW Starbucks Workers Union is making the modest demand that the company simply pay the same time and a half holiday premium on Dr. King’s day that it pays on several other federal holidays to baristas who work on those days. Starbucks workers, who make as low as $6 or $7 per hour, could use the extra money and the move would be a positive first step for the company toward a real commitment to diversity.
On December 27th, Starbucks issued a denial of the union’s demand to pay a holiday premium on Dr. King’s day, stating that the company was in accord with the (abysmally low standards) of the food service industry. It’s strange how Starbucks vehemently denies being a fast food chain until it needs a benchmark with which to compare its low-wage, 100% part-time employment model.
To prove its respect for Dr. King’s legacy, Starbucks has instructed store managers to intercept union baristas and their supporters who are visiting Starbucks stores around the country to give “Honor MLK Day” postcards to baristas.
In response to the company’s denial, the union has pledged to vigorously fight on.
Starbucks baristas around the country are waging a determined campaign for a living wage, secure work hours, and affordable health care from a company that insures a lower percentage of its workforce than Wal-Mart (40.9% for Starbucks v. 47% for Wal-Mart). With the help of the law firm Akin Gump and the public relations firm Edelman, the company is responding with shameful and illegal union-busting including terminations, threats, surveillance, and interrogations that have earned it multiple complaints from the National Labor Relations Board.
As the union continues to grow around the country despite the relentless anti-union campaign, baristas absolutely need support to win a lasting independent voice at work.
A great way to lend a hand is to join the union’s call that on January 21, 2008, Starbucks honor the holiday commemorating the birth of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., as well as the baristas inspired by his memory. You can go to www.StarbucksUnion.org to join the call.
And the strike in Memphis? After the death of King, courageous solidarity from Coretta Scott King following his murder, and 65 days of rank and file endurance on the picket line, the sanitation workers prevailed and won their right to free association in the form of a labor union.
DANIEL GROSS is a former Starbucks barista, an organizer with the Industrial Workers of the World, and the founding director of Brandworkers International, a new non-profit for retail and food employees. He is co-author with Staughton Lynd of the revised and expanded Labor Law for the Rank-and-Filer: Building Solidarity While Staying Clear of the Law, forthcoming from PM Press in 2008. He can be reached at dgross (at) iww.org.