A member of the Buffalo Starbucks Workers Organizing Committee tweeted on Monday morning that Starbucks “has finally released an anti-union website of its own” and advises that people “have fun checking it out.” It’s chock-full of the we’re-all-in-this-together “partner” drivel we’ve been hearing from Starbucks as the movement for unionization expands across the country, rhetoric aimed at masking the real nature of the company’s assault on the workers it calls “partners.” Not all bosses take this carrot-and-stick approach, but Starbucks has launched its “friendly” website only days after firing seven union organizers at one of its Memphis locations — almost the entire organizing committee — for allegedly violating “safety and security” policies.
Reading through the website’s Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ), you’d think Starbucks is all about helping its employees make an informed decision. But what do its answers to these questions really mean?
The FAQ begins with the reason Starbucks is providing the information. The answer given is simple: workers are “hearing from union organizers” and the bosses whine that they “should hear from us too.” They encourage workers to “get all the facts” about this important decision. “We want every single partner’s rights to be respected.” Maybe they should tell that to the fired workers in Memphis.
It doesn’t take long to reach a much more provocative question. Second on the list is: “What can I do if another partner won’t leave me alone about supporting a union?” Yeah, says Starbucks, this can be “annoying” if you’ve already said you “don’t want to hear any more,” but it’s still “legally protected communication.” Show “kindness and respect,” the bosses implore, before encouraging employees to rat out their coworkers to managers and providing a phone number for “confidential guidance and support” at the corporate level.
Another FAQ asks what the company can do to help workers who “have said that they will quit working for Starbucks if [the union] is voted in?” — a rather dubious prospect. The bosses throw up their hands, responding, “The best thing we can all do is to provide the facts and options available so that every partner can make an informed decision.”
But that masks everything else the company is doing. Just like in Memphis, the company has been using other means to show its own version of “kindness and respect.” At a Starbucks in the Hyde Park neighborhood of Chicago, the bosses have been using the emergency messaging service, which is supposed to be used only to let workers know about extreme weather or other dangers, to encourage a “no” vote for the union.
And last June, a National Labor Relations Board administrative law judge (ALJ) ruled that Starbucks had unlawfully retaliated against two Philadelphia baristas who had been working to unionize their location. “The ALJ found that Starbucks closely monitored their public social media activity, attempted to gauge employees’ support for the employees’ efforts, and unlawfully spied on protected conversations one of the employees initiated with coworkers. Ultimately, [he] concluded, Starbucks retaliated against the employees and discharged them in an attempt to quell the organizing drive.” The company was ordered to cease and desist from interfering with their workers’ rights to organize a union — a message it has, like just about every boss before it, either directly ignored or worked to get around.
That NLRB ruling was the rare case of the government stepping in to enforce the few laws that protect workers. As Human Rights Watch has written, “The NLRB is authorized to stop the unfair practice more immediately [but] rarely does so.” What it calls “excessive delays” end up “rendering the already weak remedies for labor law violation virtually meaningless.”
Most of the FAQ address what would change at Starbucks stores if the union was to succeed. This is where most of the age-old capitalist arguments against unionization can be found, in the form of misrepresentations, half-truths, and outright lies aimed at making low-wage workers worry that a union is going to have an adverse effect on their economic well being.
Of course, there’s the time-honored attack on union dues. “Unions get their revenue from dues, which could come out of your pay each week or month. Unions use dues to pay for their office overhead, staff salaries and other expenses. Workers United [the organization spearheading the unionization campaign] may require you to pay dues to them to continue working in your store and any dues it collects from your paycheck would go to Workers United, not to partners.”
By referring to “revenues,” the implication is that the union is a money-making venture, all about taking workers’ hard-earned money for nothing in return. Pay your dues, “partner,” or the union is going to take your job away from you.
None of this diminishes the need for the working class to deal with the union bureaucracies that have become allies of the bosses through their corporatist approach to class struggle and, time and again, by failing their rank-and-file members when they subvert or even refuse to use the most powerful weapons workers have to confront employers, especially the strike. Nevertheless, research has proven that just being a member of a union and paying dues is associated with a significant premium in pay and benefits in this country. In the United States, the government’s own Bureau of Labor Statistics reported in late January that unionized workers across all sectors make 17 percent more in median weekly earnings than non-unionized workers (some other researchers have put the figure at 20 to 30 percent, depending on the sector). And being in a union is associated with greater benefits: for instance, more than 90 percent of unionized workers have job-related health coverage, but that number is much, much lower for non-unionized workers. Unionized workers are also much more likely to have guaranteed pensions and other retirement plans.
On top of that, unions protect workers from the very kind of retaliation Starbucks has been meting out.
The FAQ also state that voting for the union “will not automatically change your pay and benefits or how we operate in any way,” only that the union negotiators will have “the right to ask for changes to be made.” The company would have to agree to make any changes in negotiations.” All that’s true. What the company leaves out, though, is that unions allow workers to negotiate collectively, strengthening their ability to win higher pay and better benefits.
“Big Bill” Haywood, a founder of the Industrial Workers of the World, famously used the metaphor of the clenched fist during the 1913 Paterson silk strike to describe the union as greater than the sum of its parts — individual workers being individual “fingers.” Of course, Starbucks makes no mention on its website — and we wouldn’t expect any — of the increased power that unionized workers have. Instead, the coffee giant presents a list of what workers will supposedly lose out on.
The union, says Starbucks, will become workers’ “exclusive bargaining representative” and workers would “rely on them to speak for you on important issues.” — the implication being that managers would gladly address labor issues if individual workers would just behave and ask nicely. That may sound ridiculous, but similar crap has long been a staple of what anti-union campaigners tell workers. Retailers like Target and WalMart have used similar arguments in their own propaganda against unions.
The FAQ concludes with a promise from Starbucks that it will “100 percent follow” the NLRB’s process. That comes in response to a question regarding whether the company will sign the “Fair Election Principles” drafted by Workers United. In other words, no. But there is an explanation of why the company has hired Littler Mendelson, the largest anti-union law firm in the United States. “We want to make sure that what we say and do is lawful, and most importantly, that the rights of our partners are respected. To do that, we need to have strong representation and support from legal counsel.”
The idea that this is about the “rights” of Starbucks “partners” would be laughable if the history of Little Mendelson and other firms of its ilk weren’t so sordid.
In short, the new Starbucks anti-union website is an effort to muddy the waters, promulgate falsehoods, and drive a wedge between union organizers and the exploited workers at the company’s nearly 6,500 locations in the United States. Unions are powerful tools of the working class, weapons with the potential to wrest concessions from the bosses and challenge the continual drive of corporations to increase their profits by maintaining low wages and meager benefits. Unionized workers secure greater pay, more and better benefits, and more say over their workplace conditions.
Nothing scares the bosses more than having to sacrifice profits for their workers’ well being. To Starbucks, workers are mere cogs in a wheel of exploitation, even if the company calls them “partners” in public. We know what kinds of words the bosses use when they’re behind their corporate closed doors.