Solidarity Unionism at Starbucks

Solidarity Unionism at Starbucks

by Staughton Lynd, Daniel Gross

View All Available Formats & Editions

Legendary legal scholar Staughton Lynd teams up with influential labor organizer Daniel Gross in this exposition on solidarity unionism, the do-it-yourself workplace organizing system that is rapidly gaining prominence around the country and around the world. Lynd and Gross make the audacious argument that workers themselves on the shop floor, not outside union…  See more details below


Legendary legal scholar Staughton Lynd teams up with influential labor organizer Daniel Gross in this exposition on solidarity unionism, the do-it-yourself workplace organizing system that is rapidly gaining prominence around the country and around the world. Lynd and Gross make the audacious argument that workers themselves on the shop floor, not outside union officials, are the real hope for labor's future. Utilizing the principles of solidarity unionism, any group of co-workers, like the workers at Starbucks, can start building an organization to win an independent voice at work without waiting for a traditional trade union to come and “organize” them. Indeed, in a leaked recording of a conference call, the nation's most prominent union-busting lobbyist coined a term, “the Starbucks problem,” as a warning to business executives about the risk of working people organizing themselves and taking direct action to improve issues at work.
Combining history and theory with the groundbreaking practice of the model by Starbucks workers, Lynd and Gross make a compelling case for solidarity unionism as an effective, resilient, and deeply democratic approach to winning a voice on the job and in society.

Read More

Product Details

PM Press
Publication date:
PM Pamphlet
Sold by:
Barnes & Noble
File size:
3 MB

Read an Excerpt

Solidarity Unionism at Starbucks

By Daniel Gross, Staughton Lynd

PM Press

Copyright © 2011 Daniel Gross & Staughton Lynd
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-60486-504-2



Many proposals to solve the labor movement's problems are on the table. There is the idea of operating completely outside the framework of any labor law, state or federal, as the Farmworkers did initially. A second proposal would require employers to bargain with unions that represent less than a majority of workers in an appropriate bargaining unit. Another suggestion is to make the Thirteenth Amendment rather than the Commerce Clause the jurisdictional basis of an amended Labor Management Relations Act (LMRA). Perhaps workers' centers utilizing state and federal wage and hour laws could put movement back in the movement, others say. And of course, the mainstream trade union movement advocates card-check designation of an exclusive bargaining representative as their solution of choice.

Each of these thoughts comes to us as the change that might turn things around. None of them have lifted very far off the ground in the real world. In none of them can one find any strategy for combating the flight of capital to low-wage economies. All are constrained by the assumptions of a Social Democratic mindset: first one finds a "progressive" union leader (such as Lewis, Reuther, Murray, Bridges, Chávez, Miller, Sadlowski, Carey, etc.), then that leader calls for the creation of a labor party, then that labor party peacefully ushers in a new day. It is as if history had stopped in 1913, before the betrayal of socialism by most of the world's Social Democratic parties in August 1914 demonstrated the inadequacy of that perspective once and for all.

Meantime, a group of organizers for the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) have pursued what at first glance may seem a more conventional strategy: to pursue direct action and to file charges with the National Labor Relations Board pursuant to Sections 7 and 8 of the LMRA, while wholly avoiding the provisions for elections in Section 9.

In the second part of what follows, Daniel Gross of the IWW tells the story of using this approach at Starbucks establishments in New York City. First, however, Staughton Lynd offers a rationale for this bifurcated strategy.



From the very beginning, the Wagner Act or National Labor Relations Act (later, as amended, the Labor Management Relations Act) had two contradictory objectives.

The first goal of the Wagner Act was to protect workers when they acted together, whether to picket, to strike, or to form a union. Before 1935, workers pursued this objective by seeking to prevent courts from issuing injunctions in labor disputes — that is, by getting the government off their backs. Between enactment of the Norris-LaGuardia Act in 1932 and passage of the Wagner Act three years later, workers got very little assistance from either the government or national unions, but they also were more free to engage in self-activity than at any time before or since. Not coincidentally, these were the years of successful local general strikes in Minneapolis, Toledo, and San Francisco, and of a very nearly successful national textile strike.

The Wagner Act represented a different approach. Agents of the federal government stepped forward to protect workers when they engaged in direct action and organizing. A worker or group of workers who believed the right to engage in concerted activity for mutual aid or protection had been infringed, could file an Unfair Labor Practice (ULP) charge. The government would investigate, and if it agreed, thenceforth represent the complaining worker or workers before an administrative law judge.

But this proffered aid came with a price.

The draftspersons of the bill (and, one presumes, the large Congressional majority that voted for it) had a second objective, namely, labor peace. The Wagner Act's preamble says more about achieving the uninterrupted flow of commerce than about creating a workplace equivalent of the First Amendment. The essential idea, often repeated by Senator Wagner himself, was: let workers organize unions; let unions then act for their members in collective bargaining and, if need be, in restraining anarchic direct action by individual workers; and, paradoxically, by thus creating freedom the undesirable exercise of freedom will be restrained. It was a statutory embodiment of Herbert Marcuse's idea of repressive tolerance.

The cruel corollaries of this two-headed approach soon became apparent. Despite language to the contrary in the law itself, workers who went on strike could be "replaced," that is, fired. Once a collective bargaining agreement was ratified that prohibited strikes during the life of the contract — as almost all CIO contracts did from the very beginning — workers could no longer wildcat at will. Direct actions in opposition to decisions at the "core of entrepreneurial control," like closing a factory and taking away your job, were presumptively disfavored. Even African-American workers who asked consumers to boycott their boss because of the employer's racial discrimination were subject to discipline for engaging in concerted activity on their own, rather than filing a grievance. "Workplace contractualism," that is, negotiation of collective bargaining agreements by unions empowered by law to act as the exclusive representative of all workers in an appropriate bargaining unit, shouldered aside the solidarity and collective direct action on which workers had always depended.

The means for thus disempowering the rank and file was, of course, Section 9. This is the part of the Act that provides for election of a union as an exclusive collective bargaining representative. In the minds of most union organizers and administrators of the Act, the pieces fit together this way: Section 7 (especially the words that guarantee the right to form a union) is what workers do before a union is recognized; Section 9 is how unions put themselves in position to act on behalf of their membership after a Labor Board election.

It is, simply, an unholy bargain. In unionized workplaces, the right to strike exists only in a predictable and hence easily-controlled manner at the end of the union-negotiated contract. Because of the dues check-off, unions are accountable to their members only in instances of extreme misconduct. The "labor movement," feisty and irreverent, has become the "union movement," whose functionaries have essentially the same life style as the bosses they ostensibly combat. And not incidentally, a domesticated, tabby cat union movement has altogether failed to find the means or the will to combat the downsizing and closing of manufacturing plants in the United States as capital has moved, first to the South, and then to other countries.

The best potential answer to these intractable and often unacknowledged problems may be a small, but growing network of organizers who are reviving the IWW.

Let us begin by acknowledging the grave problems faced by this effort as Staughton sees them.

1. Most present-day Wobblies (IWW) are young, and most of their organizing goes on in enterprises such as bookstores, health food stores, restaurants, and co-ops of various descriptions (although there are early signs that organizing in other sectors is increasing). These enterprises are not what Lenin had in mind by a capitalist economy's "commanding heights."

2. Wobblies like so many other radicals in the 1920s and 1930s believed that industrial unions would of necessity be more class- conscious, and more politically radical, than the craft unionism of the old AFofL. That has not proved to be the case.

3. IWW theory has not progressed beyond the 1905 Preamble. Solitary comrades like the late Marty Glaberman and Stan Weir have had to try to do the theoretical work that the IWW should have done.

4. In the absence of a coherent theoretical framework evolving in response to new conditions, present-day Wobblies have in practice done that which their founding brothers and sisters would have abhorred: they have turned to the instrumentalities of the state to establish revolutionary unions. That is, Wobblies have engaged in elections sponsored by the NLRB (pursuant to Section 9 of the LMRA) as well as filing Unfair Labor Practice charges with the NLRB (pursuant to Section 7).

Given all of the above, why look to the work of IWW organizers for a path through the minefield of Social Democracy? The second part of this article, by IWW organizer Daniel Gross, suggests the beginning of an answer.

The limitations of Wobbly organizing also contain latent strengths. For example, small enterprises that offer a service are vulnerable to picketing, perhaps the easiest and most protected form of direct action available to workers and their supporters. Also, in warehouses in Brooklyn and Queens and among truck drivers in several parts of the country, the IWW has begun to reach out to enterprises that directly impact industrial manufacturing.

The IWW's orientation to worldwide class solidarity makes possible organizing that traditional unions eschew. The most significant rank-and- file formation within traditional trade unionism, Teamsters for a Democratic Union, supports the effort to keep Mexican teamsters from bringing their trucks across the Rio Grande. Such opposition to immigrant workers recapitulates Samuel Gompers' support for Chinese exclusion. In contrast, independent truckers in Los Angeles, working with the IWW, succeeded in shutting down the port of Los Angeles on May 1, 2007, in support of nationwide immigrant-rights protests. Ernesto Navarez, spokesperson for the drivers, explained that the Port Authority knew the truckers were going to strike, and by calling it a legal holiday avoided liability for the shutdown. "We forced them to recognize May Day."

This article considers organizing at Starbucks around the United States and now in Canada as a case study in a strategy we call "solidarity unionism." Workers for Starbucks are not meaningfully able to seek NLRB-sponsored elections, even should they wish to do so. This is because Starbucks maintains that the appropriate bargaining unit for workers employed by Starbucks would be a large assembly of Starbucks stores in a given region.

Therefore, except for a brief testing of the waters early in the campaign, Starbucks workers have not used the statutory mechanism designed to produce exclusive bargaining representatives with the power to bargain away their members' rights to concerted direct action.

But Starbucks workers have made persistent and creative use of Section 7. As a result, the narrative below tells the important story of how one might use Section 7 in building a new workers' movement while maintaining a prophylactic distance from NLRB-sponsored elections under Section 9.

1 Canadian Wobbly baristas also invoked the certification process early on in their organizing effort.



Laura de Anda

Laura de Anda, twenty years old, has just started her shift at Star-bucks in her hat and green apron, and after two years on the job, it's hard for her to manage a smile. Born and raised in Chicago's Mexican immigrant neighborhood, Pilsen, Ms. de Anda moved to New York to pursue her dream of getting an education in the arts.

The line for lattes and frappuccinos is almost out the door. Staffing is short as usual, so Ms. de Anda is moving extra quickly at the espresso bar, running to ring customers up at the registers while espresso shots are shooting and milk is steaming at the bar. When she has a few free seconds, she spins to the back counter to prepare the frappuccino mix before it runs out. The din of the steaming milk, blenders, and workers sprinting back and forth would be overwhelming to the uninitiated, yet Ms. de Anda is holding her own.

It seems that every time she turns around, an assistant manager or the store manager is right on her back, nagging or nitpicking. "The lemon loaf is on the wrong side of the banana loaf. ... Your shirt is too wrinkled. ... There's a fingerprint on the front door. ... You took too long waiting in line to go to the bathroom." Ms. de Anda has heard it all. The managers' bonuses are tied to selling more and more things to customers who don't need them, and getting fewer "baristas" to do more work so as to hold down labor costs.

Thousands of dollars in revenue later, night has fallen and Ms. de Anda has meticulously cleaned the espresso bar inside and out. There's supposed to be a third worker, but the manager "forgot" to put someone else on the schedule. Before leaving, the two workers present must scrub the bathroom, do the dishes, sweep and mop the floor, vacuum the pastry case, haul the milk into the bar refrigerator, take out the trash, Windex all the glass, restock the cups, and fill the condiment bar. The store closes at 12:30 a.m. on Saturday and they have forty-five minutes to complete these assigned tasks. They will be disciplined if at the end of that time anything is not sparkling.

Starbucks management expects workers to stay after their shifts when it's busy, no matter what after-work commitments they may have. Working the closing and then the opening shifts — dubbed the "clopener" according to some Starbucks workers — is a common source of frustration. And heaven forbid if you have to leave work a little early to get to a doctor's appointment.

The grandmother of one Starbucks barista died a few hours before a shift was to begin. The worker called the manager to explain that she was responsible for her grandmother's funeral and burial arrangements, and couldn't make it to work that day. The manager first expressed disbelief in the worker's explanation and then ordered her, on threat of termination, to call other baristas so as to cover her shift.

Ms. de Anda finishes on time and walks to the subway station for her thirty-five minute ride to Brooklyn. Exhausted, she closes her fierce brown eyes and immediately falls asleep.

There is not much to smile about. Promised wage increases have never materialized. Ms. de Anda is not getting enough hours of work each week to deal with her bills. While Starbucks pays freight costs for coffee or paper cups, labor "inputs" must deliver themselves to the boss and a thirty-day pass on the subway costs $76. In short, Ms. de Anda is mired in retail worker poverty.

The State of Affairs in Retail

Retail workers receive wages far below what is needed to live with dignity. In 2003, a cashier earned an average of $8.40 per hour. Food counter workers earned $6.99 per hour. In contrast, Star-bucks made a profit of almost $500 million in 2005 on revenues of $6.4 billion; in 2006 Starbucks Chairman Howard Schultz received $102 million in compensation.

It is often supposed that retail workers are kids looking for beer and video game money. In New York City, 47 percent of retail workers are at least thirty-five years old and 69 percent are over twenty-five. And 48 percent of retail workers have children under the age of eighteen.

In retail, full-time employment is on the way out in favor of "flexibility." There are 115,000 Starbucks employees. Star-bucks Chairman Howard Schultz downgraded every retail position in the company to part-time, with no guaranteed number of work hours per week. A Starbucks worker can get fifteen hours of work one week, thirty hours the next week, and ten hours the week after that.

Health benefits provided by the company are a far-off dream for most retail workers. Starbucks has claimed that it provides health care to all of its employee "partners." But first, Starbucks employees without a guaranteed work-week must work 240 hours per quarter to qualify for coverage. Second, even workers who qualify must pay premiums, co- pays, and deductibles that they often cannot afford. After repeated public challenges from the IWW Starbucks Workers Union, the company conceded that only 42 percent of Starbucks employees (including management personnel whose higher pay makes health care more affordable) are covered by company health care.

According to government statistics, in 2001 over eighty thousand retail workers suffered from musculoskeletal disorders such as carpal tunnel syndrome. Repetitive stress injuries are rampant at Starbucks. Management deliberately under-staffs and endlessly insists on "speed of service." Moreover, Starbucks fails to implement the most elementary ergonomic standards. Every drink served requires an unnecessarily long reach to place the cup on Starbucks' trademark half-moon counter; depositing $20 bills requires workers at many Starbucks shops to bend almost to the floor; and workers are often not permitted to shift from one task to another.

Suley Ayala

Sexual harassment, infantilization, verbal abuse, camera surveil-lance, and arbitrary write-ups are the order of the day at Star-bucks. For Suley Ayala, psychological torment took the form of religious discrimination.


Excerpted from Solidarity Unionism at Starbucks by Daniel Gross, Staughton Lynd. Copyright © 2011 Daniel Gross & Staughton Lynd. Excerpted by permission of PM Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Read More

Meet the Author

Staughton Lynd practiced employment law as a Legal Services attorney in Youngstown, Ohio. He is the author of Solidarity Unionism and editor of We Are All Leaders: The Alternative Unionism of the Early 1930s. He and his wife Alice Lynd edited Rank and File and The New Rank and File. Daniel Gross began working for Starbucks in 2003. He helped to organize the IWW Starbucks Workers Union (SWU), founded on May 17, 2004. In 2006, Daniel was fired after taking part in a picket line protest. The National Labor Relations Board has recently found his discharge to be an unfair labor practice. He is the co-author with Staughton Lynd of Labor Law for the Rank and Filer: Building Solidarity While Staying Clear of the Law (PM Press).

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Write a Review

and post it to your social network


Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews >