Three years ago, union baristas at Starbucks made a simple demand of the world’s largest coffee chain: respect the federal holiday honoring Martin Luther King Jr. by paying baristas the same time-and-one-half holiday premium that you pay on six other federal holidays. It was an emotional and symbolic demand to make for two reasons. Many baristas are deeply inspired by Dr. King’s legacy on racial equality, and King was murdered while supporting sanitation workers who were on strike for the very right to form a union. This is the same struggle facing millions of Americans today who desire union membership but are denied by the prospect of relentless union-busting and terribly flawed labor laws. Calling for holiday pay on MLK Day also made sense for workers’ pocket books- with the low wages and inadequate work hours that Starbucks offers, holiday compensation is certainly welcomed to help make ends meet.
Starbucks’ treatment of MLK Day as a second-class holiday was particularly hypocritical. The company and its billionaire CEO Howard Schultz pay an incredible amount of lip-service to the idea of “embracing diversity.” Yet, their lack of respect for Dr. King’s holiday was typical of the company’s real orientation towards racial equality. For example, Starbucks employees of color are disproportionately represented in the lowest-paid entry-level jobs at the company, and while the company brands its coffee as ethically-sourced, farmworkers in the Global South growing coffee for Starbucks find themselves living in grinding poverty on the low prices that the coffee giant insists on paying.
Given the empty nature of Starbucks’ commitment to “embracing diversity”, the company was put into a difficult position when the IWW Starbucks Workers Union (SWU) called on it to honor Dr. King’s holiday starting in 2008. The company had never spoken publicly about its substandard treatment of MLK Day. When the Union made Starbucks’ MLK Day policy public, the company was faced with two options, neither of which it liked: a) refuse to pay the premium and allow a glaring hypocrisy to fester in the public arena, or b) pay the premium and concede an important victory to the SWU which it is fighting tooth and nail to delegitimize and to destroy.
For three full years, the company chose the former approach and resisted. The SWU’s campaign forced the company for the first time to discuss publicly its denial of holiday pay on MLK Day and offer a defense for the indefensible. Starbucks argued that the policy was justifiable in light of the (abysmally low) prevailing standards of the food service sector. It’s interesting that when Starbucks markets itself to prospective workers and prices products for its customers, it’s fanatical about distinguishing itself from its fast food competitors. But the Burger Kings and the Taco Bells of the world are where Starbucks runs for safety to cover up the huge gap between the company’s public relations hype and the reality on the ground for baristas.
In response to the company’s refusal to meet its demand, the SWU along with Industrial Workers of the World members around the country embarked on a determined effort to win time-and-one-half holiday pay for every worker that does a shift on MLK Day. Shop floor actions, pickets, rallies, massive e-mail actions, as well as creative media advocacy started takings its toll on the company. But instead of doing the right thing and ending the second-class status of MLK Day, the company chose more rhetoric- statements about its respect for MLK and promoting volunteer service unrelated to social or economic justice on his holiday. That’s the strategy of big business, the corporate non-profits, and the mainstream media: divorce Dr. King from his powerful actions for economic justice, racial equality, and peace in favor of a generic, non-confrontational charity model of “change” or “service”.
The elites don’t want us to know that the workers King was supporting during those fateful days in Memphis weren’t hosting a charity car wash, they were withholding their labor and demonstrating against a violent, racist government that was denying them the very right to freely associate in the form of a labor union. They don’t want us to know that King spoke out passionately for a living wage and against so-called right-to-work laws. They don’t want us to recall Dr. King’s words on the relationship between racism and union-busting: “…the labor-hater and labor-baiter is virtually always a twin-headed creature spewing anti-Negro epithets from one mouth and anti-labor propaganda from the other mouth.”
As Starbucks and its public relations firm Edelman ruthlessly carry out a large-scale anti-union operation, they certainly don’t want baristas to associate MLK Day with Dr. King’s positive view on labor unions:
“The labor movement was the principal force that transformed misery and despair into hope and progress….The captains of industry did not lead this transformation; they resisted it until they were overcome.”
Baristas persevered and continued carrying out creative and energetic actions year-after-year. After three years of struggle, Starbucks finally conceded to the Union’s demand and informed workers in November that the company will pay the holiday premium to employees who work this Monday and every Martin Luther King Day. It’s a moving and emotional victory for the Union to be able to honor Dr. King’s legacy in our own modest way.
While there is still a long way to go to win good jobs at Starbucks, the victory is significant for the tens of thousands of Starbucks employees who will end up with some well-deserved additional money on their paychecks. And it’s a great win for the solidarity unionism organizing model where rank & file workers organize their own unions and lead their own campaigns around workplace justice issues. Other fast food workers are following suit. IWW workers at the Jimmy John’s sandwich chain in Minnesota initiated a demand this holiday season for a time-and-one-half premium on Christmas Eve and New Year’s Day.
By one estimate, the holiday wage premium on MLK Day means Starbucks will pay something in the neighborhood of an additional one million dollars to employees each year. While a million dollars a year might not sound like a lot for a large corporation like Starbucks, it’s a tremendous figure to win for a grassroots labor organization forging an innovative path to justice in the massive and unorganized fast food sector.
In these times of economic hardship and escalating attacks on workers’ rights, I hope we can all pause on Dr. King’s holiday to assess how we can honor his true legacy of movement action for social justice and the ultimate sacrifice he made to rise up in solidarity with the striking sanitation workers of Memphis. No one will do it for us, least of all the corporate executives and their social responsibility rhetoric. Another world is inevitable; if we do the hard work together to achieve it.
DANIEL GROSS is a former Starbucks barista and a member of the IWW Starbucks Workers Union, online at www.StarbucksUnion.org. He is the co-author with Staughton Lynd of “Labor Law for the Rank and Filer: Building Solidarity While Steering Clear of the Law” and “Solidarity Unionism at Starbucks,” (artwork by Tom Keough), both available at www.pmpress.org.