Tired of Being Worked to Death, Labor Strikes Back

Photograph Source: andrewarchy from Toronto, Canada – CC BY 2.0

It’s been a good year for labor organizing at Starbucks. On April 21, workers at the Starbucks flagship Reserve Roastery in Seattle voted to unionize. This is one of the more recent of roughly 250 Starbucks unionization campaigns nationwide since last summer. According to K-5 Seattle TV, Roastery workers “were the second group of flagship store employees to file a petition to join Starbucks Workers United. Employees at a roastery in New York City were the first.” Roasteries are elite Starbucks superstores, and only six exist worldwide. So clearly corporate Starbucks bigwigs are not thrilled that two of them unionized.

Meanwhile also in Seattle on April 21, baristas struck at the Chinatown-International District store. Earlier that month, employees at two other Starbucks walked out. At April’s end, workers voted to unionize stores in Wisconsin and North Carolina. So with pickets popping up all over the place, workers on strike, and vociferous employee complaints about being overworked, underpaid and shocking stories of threats and retaliation against union leaders, Starbucks’ corporate image took a dive lately, to say the least. The corporation’s founder, Howard Schultz, didn’t help matters by proclaiming in early April that his companies were being “assaulted” by unions.

According to Vice News, Schultz issued this memorable lament “the very same day the company fired a union organizer at a store in Arizona.” In fact, it has fired quite a few organizers across the nation and quite shamelessly plays dirty. Remember that Schultz was the guy heading Hillary Clinton’s 2016 list to lead the labor department, if she ascended to the white house. Good to know, in case you still harbored the delusion that the Clintons are in any way, or ever were, friendly to unions.

Schultz made his Starbucks comeback in early April as interim ceo. To judge from his gabble about labor’s depredations, his purpose in returning did not entail sitting down peaceably with union organizers across the bargaining table. No. His aim, it appears, is to bust unions. Laila Dalton, the 19-year-old organizer fired from the Arizona Starbucks, was canned because she recorded store managers. She did that, she explained, to prove harassment. “I’m always expecting it,” Vice quoted her, “because I’m harassed every single day. I never know when someone’s going to come harassing me, so I always want to be recording.”

The week that ended April 15, “Starbucks workers at four U.S. locations voted unanimously to form a union,” Jake Johnson reported for In These times. This, despite Schultz’s pronunciamento that he would expand benefits but might exclude unionized staff from such generosity. One National Labor Relations Board law expert called this a “union avoidance technique.” Meanwhile management “continued firing and disciplining union organizers,” inducing the NLRB to seek to require “Starbucks to stop union busting.”

Over at Amazon, unions racked up a rare win at a Staten Island warehouse in late April. It involved a small independent union that others in the labor movement did not take seriously at first. They were mistaken. That error has now been corrected. Also this spring, organized farm-workers in Washington state struck, winning a laundry list of demands. Graduate workers walked out at the University of Indiana. The American Federation of Teachers is striking at locations in Los Angeles and Illinois, San Antonio symphony musicians also struck, as did stagehands in Secaucus, New Jersey, United Mine Workers in Brookwood, Alabama, United Steel Workers in Huntington, West Virginia, and Teamsters in Rhode Island, while roughly eight other strikes of already organized workers progress elsewhere in the country. And as Aparna Gopalan reported for In These Times April 20, 700 nurses “walked off the job at St. Vincent Hospital in Worcester, Mass., on March 8, 2021.” They struck for almost a year, till January 3, thus notching up the longest work stoppage of 2021.

Their new contract comes with staffing increases, proof, the reporter writes, of a drift toward bargaining for the common good. This is excellent news. I’m glad unions are doing something for the common good, because nobody else is. Certainly not corporations, busy, as they are, impoverishing employees, destroying the climate and shipping weapons to any luckless hamlet on earth where there’s a chance of people slaughtering each other. Somebody has to look out for the common good. “In Connecticut, care workers negotiated higher Medicaid funding for nursing homes…In West Virginia, Los Angeles, Chicago and Minneapolis teachers went on strike for the right to a robust public education.” If you’re surprised congressional reactionary idiots didn’t smear them as critical race theorists, just wait. That comes next.

All is not rosy. Private sector unionization dropped a bit, by .1 percent in 2021. So now only 6.1 percent of private sector workers belong to a union. In 2021, public sector unions boasted seven million members, as did the private sector. But proportionally, public union membership is much higher – 33.9 percent. If the private sector boosted its percentage comparably, that would constitute a tsunami of labor organizing.

Polls show lots of workers want unions. One in 2017 put that number at 48 percent. But “only an overhaul of current labor law will make it possible,” according to a January 20 Economic Policy Institute report. The authors cite “fierce corporate opposition to union organizing” as the main roadblock. Uh, ya think? That perhaps might be what’s signified by the ferocious, relentless and usually underhanded union-busting we’ve seen over the past year. And though that’s illegal, the penalties are pitiful. So bosses do it all the time.

More specifically, the problem is that labor law is rooted in the Commerce Clause. Shaun Richman argued this in his book, Tell the Bosses We’re Coming, and that we should instead anchor labor rights in constitutional rights. The pinch of course comes in getting such an improvement through an extremely rightwing congress, where luminaries like Andy “the Bolsheviks Are Coming” Biggs and Mo “Bulletproof Vest” Brooks doubtless regard any union activity as violent leftwing Marxism.

And don’t even mention the supreme court, which has absolutely zero interest, zip, nada, in the rights of anybody in the workplace aside from ceos and corporations themselves, which the high court endowed with super-personhood – all the privileges of human beings and none of the obligations. You should expect something else from the supremes. Like maybe mandatory prayer at the start of the workday.

These Ubermenschen – corporations – dominate politics, the economy and society, and their sworn enemy is, of course, organized labor. But even though they hold so many cards, there’s one they lack – solidarity. That’s what’s happening at Starbucks and all the other corporate employers shocked that their workers object to being deprived of bathroom breaks or that, for instance, Frito Lay workers revolted last summer against forced overtime and 84-hour work weeks. They didn’t like how they were treated in the Topeka, Kansas plant, which involved a worker collapsing on the job and dying, and co-workers ordered to move the body out of the way, put in another worker, and keep going. (Frito Lay denies this charge.) These workers won a two-year contract, by the way, that raised wages and gave them one day off each week.

What, you may wonder, ever happened to the eight-hour day, the 40-hour work week and the weekend as a sacred time of rest and relaxation? They went the way of the defined-benefit plan. That’s the way of the dodo. Like most of labor’s twentieth century wins, they were hunted to extinction. Congress and the high court are fine with that. So don’t make the mistake of looking to them for help.

But workers still retain one weapon in their depleted arsenal: the right to strike. To judge from recent events and corporate defeats, they’re making the most of it. That’s good news, because lots of employees are being worked to death. They deserve better, and, pace Frito Lay, they even deserve more than one day off each week.

Eve Ottenberg is a novelist and journalist. Her latest book is Lizard People. She can be reached at her website.