Thursday, July 31, 2008 : Saturday June 26 was like any other busy Saturday at the Mall of America 1 Starbucks. A barista had called in sick during the morning shift, another had walked out in disgust the weekend prior. A Manager from another store was covering the shift of a barista who had been fired for union activity two weeks before.
But this Saturday was different. By 3:00, the grinding cacaphony of the frappuccino blenders died down, as a chorus of Solidarity Forever echoed through the Mall.
“When the union’s inspiration through the workers’ blood shall run…”
Workers stepped back from their tasks to crowd around the front counter. Managers looked on in silence. About two dozen Wobblies streamed into the Mall of America 1 Starbucks to welcome the workers to the union… with a cake.
A Bigger Piece of the Pie for Baristas
On the previous Monday, the MOA baristas had declared their affiliation with the Starbucks Workers Union, a campaign of the Industrial Workers of the World. The workers issued several demands to Management: fair severance pay for baristas at closing stores, a living wage, cost of living pay increases, guaranteed minimum work hours, and an end to chronic understaffing of the stores. In short, the baristas demanded that Starbucks live up to its own rhetoric of being a “great work environment.”
The Mall of America Starbucks became the first store with a union presence in the Mall of America, and the first union Starbucks in Minnesota.
The Return of the Wobblies
The Industrial Workers of the World first rose to prominence in the early years of the 20th century. Then, as now, the labor movement was in crisis. The institutional labor movement, organized along craft lines, excluded the vast majority of workers in the mass industries– primarily women and immigrants. Under the red-and-black banner of the IWW, these workers organized, fought, and won major gains until the repression of the IWW by state forces during and after World War I.
Today, union density in the private sector has fallen to an all-time low of 9%. Working conditions that our parents’ generation would have considered unthinkable are becoming the norm. The Eight Hour Day, long the centerpiece of the labor movement’s trophy case, has been stolen out from under us. Many service workers spend 14-hour days behind the counter at two ‘part time’ jobs. The middle class is no more. The ‘America Dream’ has become an unattainable mirage for millions of workers stuck on the treadmill of debt and low-wage part-time work.
IWW baristas have taken a stand. We want to show that even at Starbucks, even in the Mall of America, we can organize, fight, and win. We are rebuilding the labor movement from the ground up, based on the only true foundation of workers power: solidarity between workers.
We call our approach to workplace organizing ‘Solidarity Unionism.’ This means that workers build power by having each others’ backs, working together to demand change and get results, as opposed to depending on the goodwill of the bosses, or our fragile legal right to form unions. The task ahead of us is not easy. Fortunately, the workers movement has left us a wealth of lessons about how to organize in this climate.
Before the passage of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) in 1935, every union was a solidarity union. Section 7 of the NLRA grants workers the right to “engage in concerted activity for the purposes of mutual aid or protection.” Yet, even without the legal protections of the NLRA, workers built a powerful labor movement. The story of the 1934 Truckers’ Strike is a one of the most famous examples of solidarity unionism in practice.
In the early 1930s, workers in the Minneapolis trucking industry had almost no organization in the workplace. The Great Depression was in full swing. Working conditions were terrible, turnover was high. In the winter of 1933, all that would start to change. The Minneapolis Teamsters Local 574, numbering only 75 members, successfully organized a strike of coal drivers during the coldest months of the year. The strike victory set the stage for organizing across the entire trucking industry.
Workers from non-union shops began pouring into the union. On May 16, 1934, the Union shut down the entire trucking industry in the city by sending cars full of strikers to stop any trucks that tried to make deliveries. The workers depended on their power to stop production to win the strike, rather than using the weak provisions of the newly-inked National Industrial Recovery Act. By May 25, the employers conceded recognition of the union and reinstatement for all strikers. But it was a qualified victory. The bosses refused to include the warehouse workers in the bargaining unit.
Not willing to allow employer divide-and-conquer tactics to succeed, the workers went back on strike on July 17. After a brutal struggle involving police attacks on unarmed picketers, the workers were finally victorious. The bosses’ opposition was broken, and Minneapolis became a union town.
In an era of scarce union victories, the story of 1934 can remind us of the power workers have, when we choose to use it. This lesson was on our minds as we marched into the Mall of America on Saturday. We brought the Starbucks baristas a cake, but they brought us something much sweeter: proof that solidarity unionism lives on, even at Starbucks, even in the Mall of America.
Get in touch with the Twin Cities Starbucks Workers Union/Industrial Workers of the World: email us at firstname.lastname@example.org, visit us on the web at http://starbucksunion.org or http://iww.org, or call us at 612-245-4871.