The State of the Starbucks Struggle: Current Obstacles as Red Cup Day Strikes Near

The struggle thus far is best characterized by the failed strategies of labor bureaucrats in the union to deliver decisive wins, and the necessity of class unionism to revive the labor movement. Material wins for Starbucks workers cannot be sustained outside of conscious efforts in the class struggle.

The Starbucks Workers United (SBWU) union has been making the rounds in the media as Unfair Labor Practice complaints pile up against Starbucks, and at the same time more Starbucks cafes are winning their union elections nationwide. Recurring headlines in the media aim to suggest a growing resurgence of a strong labor movement, but in reality the media sensationalism more so reflects a growing labor bureaucracy within Workers United in the absence of a militant worker-led struggle. While it’s true that thousands of Starbucks workers have voted to unionize with SBWU, the organization from the top is led with the political direction of careerist liberal bureaucrats as opposed to the leadership of the militant working class themselves. While clearly less than ideal, these are the developments that are challenging workers who deserve a strong union contract, but to win that contract workers must play an active role in fighting business unionism as well as the Starbucks executives. This is the true orientation because the organizational relation between the regime-union Service Employees International Union (SEIU, the parent union of Workers United) and the unorganized working class at Starbucks is one of top-down liberal collaboration. Even though the primary obstacle of the union workers is the Starbucks corporation as a coffee empire run on starvation wages and backbreaking labor, any real analysis of the Starbucks struggle must name all immediate obstacles between Starbucks workers winning a strong contract, and that includes a business union bureaucracy that wishes to collaborate with private executives for “the betterment of the company.” There can be no mutual arm-in-arm relation between workers and bosses. What workers seek to win, bosses must lose, and what bosses seek to gain, workers must lose.

In the broader perspective of the US labor movement, working people in the United States have not seen a fighting labor movement on the ground since the Great Depression, and this generation of workers is shaken with the trauma that capitalism dishes out, but the system strips workers of the political education and practical activity they need to bring the fight to the bosses. The contradiction between our economic struggles and the working class’ inability to respond is in a way expressed by an overwhelming 71% of Americans who approve of labor unions, but an historic low of only 10% of the workforce currently unionized. Workers have to take it upon themselves to develop the skills necessary to revive a socialist labor movement in the states, or else we will continue to see the steam of our struggles caught up in government maneuvering and forgotten. The ongoing Starbucks union drive is a promising beginning for working people to participate actively in the struggle and develop those skills to keep the momentum going.

While a union drive has potential for working people to unite and win strong benefits, the matter of business-unionism and class-unionism follows as the next most important consideration. The Starbucks union drive began covertly with Workers United paying an exorbitant compensation for union salts to agitate on the shop floor around unionizing. Incredibly, compensation to union salts was a far greater expense than the entire national strike fund that SEIU arranged for the purpose of escalating strike action – one of the first public failures in strategy, underestimating the investment necessary to organize a workforce increasingly desperate for real change. Once a solid economic base of dues-paying cafes unionized, union careers and unpaid internships were built out of the most politically active Starbucks workers. Strike strategy was put to the test for the purpose of stifling militant expressions on the picket line while encouraging toothless liberal collaboration among idealist workers. Rather than using the union resources as a tool for militant education and militant strike strategy, the union resources are used for democratic party political lobbying, pricey hotel and travel expenses, and new union careers; the bulk of whose administrative labor will be woefully caught in an endless legal dance between corporations and government agencies.

Because of the union’s exploitative relation to workers and its behind the scenes liberal strategizing, it’s appropriate to take a perspective of the initial Starbucks union drive as a top-down agitation of workers in their workplace, rather than a militant bottom-up groundswell of workers uniting. Starbucks union organizing kicked off with the first store unionized at Elmwood Avenue, Buffalo New York on December 12, 2021. After the first store filed for unionization, Workers United crafted a meager strategy to get union organizing off the ground in Starbucks cafes around the nation. Starbucks workers had every reason to desire the benefits that only a union contract could win them. Workers in their stores were facing starvation wages at $12/hr, inconsistent schedules, insufficient staffing, lack of electronic card tipping, job insecurity, and abysmal healthcare benefits. Because of these economic struggles, any strategy that would amount to even a slight nudge of the workforce towards unionization would encourage the most politically sensitive among them to actively participate. Sure enough, many activists became involved and the union drive kicked off.

To date, in the United States there are only 350 Starbucks stores unionized out of 9,000 total company-operated Starbucks stores. The unionization rate has mostly plateaued, but could pick up steam with a large investment from the union for the purpose of reviving organizing efforts. 350 unionized stores makes less than 4% of all company-operated Starbucks stores unionized in the country. This paltry showing of worker power is not nearly large enough to threaten Starbucks’ profits, but enough workers to develop a union bureaucracy in the absence of a real militant labor struggle. Despite a growing bureaucracy and its historic relation to corruption and often reactionary tendencies, unions are vital as the expression of the organized working class, and it is in times of real struggle that working people must increasingly understand the necessity of class unionism, and its enemy in regime/business unionism.

Last year, more than 100 Starbucks stores went on a one day strike with the demands to bring Starbucks to the negotiation table and to resolve understaffing issues nationwide. The Strike was held on Starbucks’ annual “Red Cup Day,” one of the most profitable days for the corporation because it’s the launch day of Christmas seasonal beverages along with the limited offer of every seasonal beverage transaction including a novelty red cup. A year after these strikes, not a single contract has been produced for any Starbucks store in the nation. It underscores the need for real strike action which are always indefinite until the workers demands are met and never announced in advane so the employer can plan to hire scabs or otherwise ease the economic impact of workers strike. Starbucks’ annual Red Cup Day for 2023 is coming up, and is slated for early November. Until that time, it is crucial for Starbucks union stores to be strike ready, and to organize unions in neighboring cafes to have the strongest strike possible while pushing for its extension. This upcoming Red Cup Day will be a test for workers to improve upon last year’s strikes, and draw out the lessons upon the victories and failures in strike strategy. Workers should be thinking of how they may work together to turn away delivery trucks, give politically charged speeches and chants, escalate strike action, increase visibility with marches and signs, and inform the community how they can show solidarity in the struggle. Strikes are the strongest tool that union workers have to make demands of their bosses. Strikes are also a good setting for workers to practice leadership skills among their coworkers.

For Starbucks workers, more often than not, this will be the first time many of us will be exposed to a strike, or to union organization at our workplace. Mistakes and errors of judgment and practice are inevitable, but what’s important is that we learn from our practice and develop a stronger strike readiness as the fight for a contract continues. We know from experience now that we cannot wait for internal motions of bureaucrats anywhere to deliver the solutions to our struggles from behind the scenes, but we take organizing into our own hands as workers who have all the labor experience necessary to know we must demand more.

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