New York, NY – At last count, the Starbucks unionization drive has spread to more than 50 stores in nearly 20 states. While AFL-CIO President Liz Shuler calls the need for U.S. labor law reform “urgent,” younger workers leading the Starbucks unionization charge are more likely to say, “Labor law reform? Sure — but we’re notk waiting on that.” 

“This is a generational shift,” says Casey Moore, a 25-year-old Starbucks United Workers barista from Buffalo, N.Y. “We’re seeing huge income inequality; I think people are standing up to that.”

Members of Starbucks Workers United are having success organizing in spite of existing U.S. labor laws that allow the corporation to subject employees to endless captive audience meetings, simply shutter well-organized stores ready to vote union and flood other workplaces with managers ready to stamp out further pro-labor fires.

‘It’s an organic movement of young people that are tired of corporations running the world, running their lives [and] ruining the planet.’ — Richard Bensinger, Starbucks Workers United organizer.

Starbucks Workers United organizer Richard Bensinger calls the trailblazing baristas members of “Generation Union” — or “Gen U.” It’s all can do these days to keep up with all the grassroots, partner-to-partner connections Starbucks workers are making with their counterparts nationwide.

“It’s an organic movement of young people that are tired of corporations running the world, running their lives [and] ruining the planet,” Bensinger says. “They see corporations as people who messed up the planet and messing up their lives because they don’t really share their success. These are young people, as I’ve gotten to know them, who have very little hope about their economic future.”

Declining Numbers

According to the latest federal labor statistics, there are 250,000 fewer union members in the U.S. than there were at the start of the pandemic.

“One of the main reasons that this has been successful so far, is everything that we’ve done is completely run by Starbucks partners,” Moore says. We’re the ones running our social media, talking to our coworkers, organizing, doing all of these things.”

Organized labor, at least in the first two decades of the 21st century, has largely eschewed “street heat” militancy in favor of policy and political advocacy. But decades of fealty to the Democratic Party have failed to bring organized labor any closer to the kind of labor law reforms the AFL-CIO now calls vital to the nation’s future. 

The umbrella organization representing some 12.5 million U.S. workers says US labor law — specifically the 1935 National Labor Relations Act giving workers the right to unionize and bargain collectively —  is “broken” and in need of immediate legislative action in the form of the all but dead-in-the-water Protecting the Right to Organize Act (PRO Act). 

Professor Joseph McCartin is executive director of the Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor at Georgetown University. He says labor law reform will enable more union organizing. But in order to have labor law reform you have to have organizing pressure from rank-and-file workers.  

“It’s a kind of chicken and egg thing that we face,” McCartin says. “Clearly, we need labor law reform. And labor law reform will enable organizing. However, in order to have labor law reform, you have to have organizing pressure developing.”

Despite organized labor’s demonstrated emphasis on policy reform, Bensinger says he’s never been much focused on legislation. 

“I’m old enough now where I’ve seen every other Democratic administration trying to pass this act or that,” he says. “Clearly, we need the PRO Act; Starbucks workers are the poster children for the PRO Act. But I think it’s less about the legislation and more about the movement. It’s more about where Gen Z — or Gen U is now. Whatever the law is, employers will always figure out the game and how to play it. The real issue is opposition and having the public stand up to a bully.”

No Pathway to Reform  

The need for that kind of organizing pressure could not be more apparent as the  world’s greatest deliberative body continues to act as the graveyard for all things progressive. 

“Right now, it’s clear that we don’t have the votes in the Senate to pass labor law reform — because we’re not going to even get it voted on unless we end the filibuster,” McCartin says. “And I don’t think there’s any path to labor law reform independent from ending the filibuster.” 

But how do you kill the filibuster? At one time, the parliamentary concoction not mentioned anywhere in the  Constitution actually required the act of “filibustering.” Today, however, the filibuster just means it takes 60 Senatorial votes to get anything done, as opposed to a simple majority.

“We’ve seen recently that even the central question of voting rights appears to not be enough to [scrap the filibuster,]” McCartin says. “If you were to add to that question, the question of labor rights it might begin to create enough pressure to accomplish the end of the filibuster. But to do that you really need to have the pressure from below that Workers United is trying to build in things like the Starbucks campaign. What’s important about what they’re doing is they’re not waiting for the law to change. I think that’s central. Workers have to be in motion to create the possibility of the law changing.”

For Bensinger, current conditions are analogous to the 1930s when the nation’s youth were also mired in an economic crisis and wondering how they were ever going to get out of it. 

“They turned to unions as the solution and built the middle-class,” Bensinger says. “People in the service sector at Starbucks are very similar dynamics of the 1930s — low unionization rates, income inequality — and they see, much like their great-grandparents saw, unions as a way to have a real voice on the job and have some type of future.”

Michelle Eisen, a production stage manager who came to Starbucks more than a decade ago, largely for the employer-based health insurance, says the gathering sea change that Starbucks Workers United represents is a long time coming.  She’s spent nearly the last seven years working at Starbucks’ Elmwood Avenue store in Buffalo — the first-ever Starbucks to unionize late last year.

“For my entire life in the arts I’ve needed another job to provide me with health benefits,” Eisen says. “There are no bad jobs. Everyone deserves to be paid fairly for their labor. Everyone desires to have  safe working conditions in a safe workplace regardless of what your profession is. There’s just this sort of universal lack of respect that comes with jobs like this that is completely unnecessary.”


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