Organizing vote passes at Starbucks in Buffalo, New York
A Workers United organizing campaign at three Starbucks coffee shops in Buffalo and surrounding area, New York, succeeded in establishing the first union at a Starbucks company in the United States last Thursday. Of the 27 workers at the Elmwood Avenue store, 19 voted to unionize with Workers United, which is affiliated with the Service Employees International Union (SEIU).
Workers at a second site in neighboring Hamburg, New York, voted 12-8 against joining the union. The vote at a third store in Cheektowaga, another Buffalo suburb, was 15-9 in favor of unionizing, but there were seven disputed ballots, so the outcome of the vote remains in limbo pending. a review by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB).
Union organizers from the three stores initially filed petitions with the NLRB in early September. Workers at Starbucks had complained of serious problems with understaffing, overwork and faulty machinery even before the pandemic began. Workers are regularly pressed for time to fill the complicated orders that customers place quickly online. Many Buffalo area employees work in more than one store based on demand, and Starbucks wants to retain the ability to move them between locations.
Workers at Starbucks, whom the company condescendingly calls “partners,” clashed with company management throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. When the virus began to spread in the United States in early 2020, the company took little action to protect workers and left its 8,000 company-owned U.S. stores open until a threat of walkout forces Starbucks to temporarily offer a risk premium and promise salary increases.
Starbucks management had made a concerted effort over the past four months to push workers to reject unionization. High-level executives were airlifted across the continent to stores in New York State. Additional staff were sent to places that were part of the organizing campaign, and workers were forced to attend meetings where company representatives threatened to cut benefits.
At the same time, the campaign to appeal to Workers United in Buffalo received considerable attention and resources from the union bureaucracy.
Richard Bensinger, former national director of the AFL-CIO trade union federation and founder of its organizing institute, closely supervised the campaign. Since leaving his official post with the AFL-CIO in the late 1990s, Bensinger has been a highly paid consultant to a number of unions, including Workers United, SEIU, United Auto Workers, Amalgamated Transit Union and d ‘others. According to documents filed by unions with the Department of Labor, Bensinger has received more than $ 4.8 million in payments since 2005 for his services.
Despite the small number of workers involved, the Buffalo organizing campaign garnered considerable attention in the national press. In an article on the Thursday vote, the New York Times wrote that forming a union at a Starbucks coffee shop is “an important symbolic victory for workers at a time when workers across the country are expressing frustration with wages and working conditions.”
The reality, however, is that the union campaign at Starbucks is not the product of grassroots anger, but of an intense campaign by the Democratic Party and its associated media to build support for pro-business unions, who they consider it as a bulwark against the development of the class struggle.
The unionization vote has been hailed as “historic” by a number of senior Democratic Party politicians. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, known as “Senator of Wall Street” for his long submission to financial interests, wrote on Twitter after the announcement: “. @SBWorkersUnited on their revolutionary effort of solidarity and proving that Buffalo is and always will be a union city. Next step: a fair contract! “
Marty Walsh, secretary of labor in the Biden administration and himself a former union bureaucrat, tweeted: “Congratulations to these Starbucks workers in Buffalo on their historic victory. Unions have given my family peace of mind and access to the American Dream, and it’s good to see more workers organizing for better wages and benefits.
Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who met with Starbucks union organizers in Buffalo last month, wrote: “Damn yeah! Nothing like the smell of Union coffee in the morning.
On Monday, days before the results of the organizing vote were announced, Senator Bernie Sanders held a live town hall with members of the Buffalo-area Starbucks Union organizing committee, where he said workers in the United States were starting to stand up and demand union representation. .
“We will, over the next few weeks and months, focus on the needs and struggles of workers, and we will take a close look at the increasing level of organizing activity that we are now seeing everywhere. this country ”, he declared to the town hall.
Sanders indulged in his standard false left demagoguery, contrasting Starbucks’ vast profits over the past year with the pittance wages the company pays its workers, while portraying the union campaign at Starbucks as a “major breakthrough for all workers in the lower-wage service industry as a whole.”
Under the Biden administration, the Democratic Party, with the support of its pseudo-left deputies such as the Democratic Socialists of America, led a virtually unprecedented effort to build support for unions. Earlier this year, Biden gave his official support to a Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) organizing campaign at an Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama. Despite extensive media coverage and the backing of top politicians and celebrities, the union was unable to garner substantial support, with just 13% of workers at the facility voting for it.
However, in a sign of the importance the White House views the matter with, Biden’s NLRB ordered a new vote in Bessemer, claiming that Amazon destroyed the election’s “lab conditions” by installing a letterbox. in its premises.
The pressures facing Starbucks workers and others in service and retail are real, and an organized response is needed to lead successful struggles in the future. However, the workers cannot entrust these fights to the corporatist unions and the Democratic Party.
Promoting unions as supposed vehicles of struggle is part of the Biden administration’s corporate strategy to use “unions” to counter the growing grassroots movement and subordinate the working class to corporate demands. . financial elite.
For four decades, unions have cracked down on strikes and other struggles and oversaw a disastrous decline in workers’ living standards, while upper-middle-class union officials and bureaucrats have grown richer. Indeed, wages across the country would not be so appallingly low if it had not been for the collaboration of unions to reduce the incomes of workers in broad sectors of key industries, such as the automotive industry, where the salaries of all new hires were cut in half in a deal between the Big Three, the UAW, and the Obama administration in 2009.
The SEIU, the parent organization of Workers United, has played a particularly nefarious role in betraying the struggles of the workers. In July, SEIU called a last-minute strike by 1,500 Pennsylvania nursing home workers after reaching a tentative deal with hospital owners. Workers United itself flouted the rights of its members, unilaterally forcing a sold-out contract on 460 Amcor’s packaging workers in Indiana earlier this year, which they twice rejected by two votes. .
The American ruling class is extremely concerned about the growth of opposition in the working class, in particular the growing rebellion against unions, expressed in a series of overwhelming rejections of union-backed contracts. About 1,400 workers have been on strike at four Kellogg’s factories in the United States for more than two months. Workers have also taken action at John Deere, Volvo Trucks, snack makers Mondelez and Frito-Lay, and elsewhere.
In a number of these struggles, workers set up new organizations, grassroots factory committees and workplaces, to fight for their interests in opposition to both companies and unions. These committees sought to overcome information blackouts and union-imposed isolation, calling on broader sections of workers in the United States and around the world to mobilize in a common struggle for higher wages and conditions. safe working conditions.
Unlike pro-business unions, which tirelessly defend corporate profit interests, insisting that they cannot afford decent wages, these grassroots committees have raised demands based on what workers really need. , including increases exceeding inflation, the reinstatement of previous concessions abandoned by unions, and worker oversight of health and safety measures during the pandemic.
The success of future Starbucks workers’ struggles will not come from the top-down and state-backed imposition of union bureaucracies, but rather from the formation of bottom-up, democratically controlled and worker-led organizations. Starbucks themselves.