The Battle to Unionize Starbucks in Chile: an Interview with Andrés Giordano Salazar


After six years of intense battles, two strikes, a hunger strike, and four legal sentences for anti-union activities, Starbucks reluctantly agreed to sign a collective agreement with unionized workers in Chile in May 2015. This was a huge concession for the world’s largest coffee shop chain that has long aggressively fought off unionization efforts among its 150,000 employees in 64 countries.

“In the end, to humanize capitalism is like humanizing war,” says union president Andrés Giordano Salazar, reflecting on the fierce struggles he and others have waged against the company, “no matter how much you disguise it, it is still going to be bloody and cruel.”

In a global food and retail industry notorious for anti-union activities, and for cutting wages, benefits, and full time positions to keep profits high,[1] Starbucks has long been able to maintain a reputation as a leader in “corporate social responsibility.” The company offers relatively better pay and benefits than many low-pay, low-benefit competitors, although it has received significant criticism[2] for its scheduling and sick days policies.

As is so often the case with “corporate social responsibility,” usually more about branding and marketing than anything else, Starbucks’ ethical claims are replete with contradictions and limitations. Well-known for its support of fair trade coffee, for instance, few “ethical consumers” realize that only 8.6% of its coffee beans[3] are independently certified as fair trade. Starbucks has its own program for the remainder of its beans, without genuine independent verification and weaker standards.[4]

Perhaps the greatest contradiction, however, is how fiercely anti-union Starbucks is and has long been, fighting off unionization efforts at every turn, challenging the very idea of what it means to be a leading “corporate citizen.” In Canada, for instance, when employees from 10 stores in Vancouver, B.C. successfully unionized in 2000,[5] Starbucks refused to negotiate over a collective agreement, gradually wearing the workers down until the union collapsed.

Starbucks attempted a similar strategy in Chile, refusing to negotiate with the Starbucks Coffee Chile Trade Union after it was created in 2009 to represent workers at 57 stores. Under intense pressure, the union has lost members, who can chose as individuals to join or leave a union under Chilean law. Organizers have persisted, however, launching labour strikes, a 12-day hunger strike, and winning several legal battles in Chilean court[6] against the company, for interfering with the activities of the union, intimidating and retaliating against unionized workers, and providing misleading information about the union while refusing to acknowledge its legal role.

In 2015, after the Chilean representative of the OECD’s Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises, criticized the company [7] for its failure to recognize the validity of the union, Starbucks backed down and agreed to collective bargaining. While a major victory for the union, Starbucks has not been fully deterred, and is currently in Chilean court for the fifth time, facing new allegations of anti-union activities.

In December 2015, Gavin Fridell interviewed Andrés Giordano Salazar, the President of the Starbucks Coffee Chile Trade Union, about the campaign to unionize Starbucks and the lessons to be learned.

Before the struggle over collective bargaining, there was the drive to create the union in the first place. What were or remain some of the main issues driving unionization?

I would say that the constitution of the union was a response to Starbucks’ reaction after the start of the “Great Recession,” which led to a dramatic reduction of personnel in Chile, as well as many changes in Starbucks’ operative policies. When many workers who expressed their concern and discontent were victims of reprisals (dismissals, discrimination in promotions, harassment), we decided to legally organize through a union that could protect us.

I still remember when I had to inform the company that we had formed a union. Francesca Faraggi, the Human Resources manager, said they felt betrayed and that unions were not needed at Starbucks. From then on, to defend our right to be democratically represented by a union became the prerogative. But the simple idea that workers should have a say over their work environment, benefits, and conditions, goes against Starbucks’ paternalistic ideology, and for that sole reason, real dialogue has been almost impossible in virtually six years. We have achieved many things, though, but sadly, almost every victory we have had, has been under the pressure of trial, a fine, a legal complaint or a strike.

Over the past six years, what would you say were some of the worst examples of anti-union tactics on the part of Starbucks?

One tends to believe that dismissal is the most vicious form of anti-unionism, but it is not. The worst tactics are those that are less obvious: all the strategies used to promote the idea that “unions are unnecessary,” such as refusing to bargain collectively and then granting benefits originally proposed by the union to all workers, competing with benefits provided by the union to its members to discourage union affiliation, denying the union’s participation in obtaining improvements for workers; and all the strategies used to convince workers that “unionizing is prejudicial,” such as threatening to eliminate benefits or employment, discrimination around promotions, in-store stigmatization of union members, etc.

In fact, in Chile, Starbucks has been the subject of study for their anti-unionism, as our courts of justice have ruled against the company and sentenced them for committing all of the major anti-union practices that are exist in our labor law. Some of the most reprehensible conduct of the company includes advising and financing a group of workers to sabotage the union and infiltrate the union with labor spies. We have evidence that the company is still closely monitoring us and our publications on Facebook and Twitter, our e- mail newsletters, and every comment made ​​by workers on our Facebook page, etc.

At one point during negotiations, you and two other union leaders went on a 12-day hunger strike. What was that like, and what impact do you think it had?

This happened in 2011. As in Canada, Starbucks also refused here in Chile to even negotiate our proposals. We tried all sorts of actions and strategies with no effect, and after 20 days of legal strike, the three leaders, Estefanía Larenas, Miguel Cartagena and myself, decided to radicalize the protest. We went on a hunger strike that lasted 12 days, during which time we literally camped outside the headquarters of Starbucks in Santiago, and each one of us lost an average of 12 kilos. Naively, we believed that this so called socially responsible company would agree to negotiate to avoid risking the lives of its workers. It turned out that we underestimated Starbucks: they didn’t care and maintained their refusal to negotiate until the end, and I’m sure that if we had not stopped, Starbucks would have let us die rather than doing what was right. Surprisingly, once the strike ended with no agreement, the company “voluntarily” increased the salaries of all baristas.

I have noticed that workers in Chile appear to be able to sign on and off of the union based on individual selection, as opposed to the union covering all workers once the original unionization drive has been won. Could you explain how this works and what sort of challenges it has posed to your efforts?

Every worker in the private sector has the right to join a union, if it exists within their enterprise. And as you can imagine, it is extremely hard to have a strong union like this, and especially for us, considering the high turnover in our industry. We have a national union, so any Starbucks worker in Chile can join the union at any time, but can also leave the union when they please, so our level of representation is constantly changing: one day we can have a store completely unionized, and the next day we have no members at all. In addition, we must keep an eye on the company’s sophisticated anti-union efforts that also have an impact on us. There’s still a lot of fear around joining the union, therefore, recruitment campaigns must be well planned and conducted. We have lots of work to do all the time (they say we don’t sleep, ha!)

Around half of Starbucks employees in Chile are students with an average age of 23 years old. Has the battle to unionize Starbucks been, to some extent, a student’s movement, or have student’s groups been strong supporters of it?

With the military dictatorship that lasted from 1973 to 1989, the average Chilean lost his social identity and political role, so, our generation of students represent an awakening, giving birth to a new era in the social construction of Chile. That flame has had and still has an impact on our work, as most of the leaders who have led the union and some of its members have also been student leaders. It’s a bond we can’t deny and that has not been lost. Furthermore, we firmly believe that the only way we can think of a different Chile is by having students and workers together, so we’ll keep encouraging both movements working together.

“Corporate Social Responsibility” seems to have played a key role in the story. On the one hand, Starbucks has used corporate social responsibility to claim it does not need unions, on the other hand, appeals to the OECD’s non-binding Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises seems to have helped the union in the end. Do you think there are lessons here for the global left around corporate social responsibility and workers’ rights?

We see the phenomenon of Corporate Social Responsibility as a corporate response over the past decades to the unbridled crises of capitalism, looking for ways to conceal the harshness of this economic system, which societies have learned to conform with. But, in the end, to humanize capitalism is like humanizing war: no matter how much you disguise it, it is still going to be bloody and cruel. CSR, although based on human rights and internationally recognized good practices is almost exclusively used by multinationals as a product, a slogan, as advertising that is sold as added value to go along with your coffee, your burger or your monthly food purchase. So while Starbucks, McDonalds and Walmart plant trees and give part of their profits to charities, they have not undergone a profound ethical change and remain capitalist enterprises—and for them, there is nothing more important than capital. In addition, multinationals tend to forget that being socially responsible also means respecting freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining; to this day, I know of no “socially responsible” company that defends these rights in practice.

That said, we believe that any tool that allows us to defend ourselves from savage capitalism and defend our workers should be assimilated and used when needed. We believe in dialogue, but we also believe in strikes; we believe in going to trial and going to the streets. Each union must know how and when to use each of these without fear or shame, keeping in mind that we have to do our job because we are building social justice. To face multinational companies and policies, we must know how to use international resources, promote global trade union unity and keep up with companies in the development of our communications campaigns and technological resources. This struggle is not happening here in Chile, the U.S.A. or Canada alone, is happening everywhere. We’ve got to go global in new ways. Strategy, perseverance, innovation and solidarity are the keys to a new labor movement.


[1] http://www.sustainalytics.com/sites/default/files/workerequity_october2012.pdf

[2] http://www.nytimes.com/2015/09/24/business/starbucks-falls-short-after-pledging-better-labor-practices.html

[3] http://www.starbucks.com/responsibility/global-report

[4] http://www.polity.co.uk/book.asp?ref=9780745670768

[5] https://www.academia.edu/1168322/The_co-operative_and_the_corporation_competing_visions_of_the_future_of_Fair_Trade

[6] http://www.tuacoecdmneguidelines.org/CaseDescription.asp?id=179

[7] http://www.direcon.gob.cl/wp-content/uploads/2014/06/DECLARACIÓN-FINAL..pdf

More articles by:

Gavin Fridell, PhD Canada Research Chair in International Development Studies, Associate Professor at the International Development Studies, Saint Mary’s University, Halifax, Nova Scotia.

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