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labor Revolutionary Grounds

The main thing that I would say to comrades is: don't just do the propaganda. Don't just be in the campus group. Go and meet workers in your local high street and unionize them. That is the best thing a socialist could do: help to organize the working class where we find them today and fight the issues that they're facing today.

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On February 23, the DSA International Committee, Starbucks Workers United, and the Emergency Workplace Organizing Committee hosted Revolutionary Grounds to hear insights from Starbucks workers organizing from Buffalo, New York, to Valparaíso, Chile. Jana Silverman, a Post-Doctoral Researcher at the Center for Global Workers Rights, talked with Andrés Giordano, incoming leftist Chilean congressman and a founding leader of Sindicato Starbucks Chile; Jaz Brisack, member of the Elmwood Starbucks Bargaining Committee; RJ Red, member of the Genesee St. Starbucks Bargaining Committee; and Joe Carolan, an organizer in New Zealand. Below is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Jana Silverman: We are going to start off hearing from our comrade Andrés about how they formed a Starbucks union in Chile. Chile has some of the worst labor law in the entire world, so one of the hardest places to organize unions with real bargaining power, one of the hardest places in the world to go on strike, just to give you a sense of how amazing it is to have one of the first standalone Starbucks unions in the world be organized in Chile. So we're all dying to know how this happened. 

Andrés Giordano: Something very hopeful is happening in Chile.  We are living in revolutionary times; we are going to have a president and a government coalition that comes from the student movement, that is made up of young people. We are drafting a new, democratic constitution that leaves behind the legacy of the Pinochet dictatorship that destroyed all our social rights.

The Starbucks union was founded in Chile in 2009, at the same time as the student mobilizations.  These mobilizations were part of that seed that made it possible to form a union in a company like Starbucks and in an area like fast food, which is a very difficult area to organize. We had to sue and fight against dismissals by the hundreds. In Chile, we had to negotiate with a company that did not bargain collectively, that did not move, despite the fact that we were on strike in 2011 — and 12 days on a hunger strike. It was a very tough battle because these companies believe that, by crushing the will to organize, they can continue to apply their business model without any counterweight, without any opposition. Luckily, this student movement made it possible for us to resist this anti-unionism. 

If there is one piece of advice that one could take from it, it is that you have to be very persevering. I've been in this for 12 years. It took us from 2009 to 2015 to have the first fairly decent collective contract. We used strategies of various kinds — judicial, demonstrations, strikes. We managed to twist the arm of a colossus like Starbucks by presenting an international complaint for violation of the multinational guidelines of the OECD. After 12 years, we have a collective bargaining agreement, we are having readjustments that exceed 12 to 20 percent of salaries. We have around 50 percent of the unionized workers, and we hope that this new contract group allows us to advance to 75 or 100 percent, have an increasingly stronger union, and, in three years, have increasingly powerful negotiations. All these battles are part of the agenda that I also decided to represent in a candidacy for Congress in a leftist coalition. I hope, from the Congress, to be able to represent those rights that have been profoundly marginalized in Chile so that, once and for all, we recover what the Pinochet dictatorship took from us, which is the right to organize and the right to have true trade union freedom.

Silverman: We're going to go to North America now and hear from our comrades, RJ and Jaz, who are on the front lines of the struggle. They are two unionized Starbucks workers from Buffalo, New York. 

Jaz Brisack: I work at the Elmwood Starbucks in Buffalo, which was the first certified Starbucks union in the country. When we started our campaign back in August of last year, we were pretty naive about the kind of company that Starbucks was. We thought that they could really sign the fair election principles or not engage in the union busting. We very quickly found out that that was not the case. We filed for our first union elections on August 30th, and within a day, the president of Starbucks North America, Rossann Williams, was on a plane to Buffalo bringing in over 100 corporate managers, executives, senior vice presidents, regional directors, and the like to come into our stores, occupy them, spy on us, and tell us not to unionize.

We got Howard Schultz coming in, renting out the ballroom of a downtown hotel, and telling us that he had overcome the shame of being poor and that we should be feeling that same shame of being poor, that we were ungrateful for the benefits that Starbucks gives us, and that we should feel bad for not appreciating what we already have. And worst of all, in my view, he told us a story about Holocaust survivors sharing their blankets in Auschwitz and how Starbucks is a company that's tried to share its blanket with us and how we should be grateful for that as well. So solidarity with Howard Schultz putting his foot in his mouth. Winning our union elections was a very important milestone, and certainly the wave of unionizing that we've seen since.

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RJ Red: I work at the Genesee Street store — the second officially recognized unionized corporate-owned Starbucks in the US. I came in to work at Starbucks thinking, okay, I'm going to make some coffee and it's just going to be a fast food job. For a whole month before I actually started working, before they showed me how to pour any coffee, they had me attending these "anti-union listening sessions," they called it, and they basically were just teaching us why the union is bad and scary and evil, and why we should ask any questions that we have to our managers because they can set us right; it was just super bizarre. After almost a month and a half of going to these meetings, I met some of my coworkers, and I was like, is this normal that they make you do these before they actually teach you how to make coffee?

So eventually I approached them and I said, "Hey, I need to actually get some hours here. I can't just pay my rent by going to these meetings, so are you guys going to train me or what?" And then at that point it was pretty clear that we were essentially in the middle of what was a war that was being waged against the workers by the company, and I walked straight into the middle of it.

We've come pretty far. In the end, two of our stores came out victorious, and I know a lot more are going to. Now what we're looking forward to is this contract battle. We've had two sessions now that I've been in on, and I think so far it's going pretty good because we've got workers from different stores on the bargaining committee for the first contract. Even though we have to negotiate store by store, we are really trying to make a point to win a strong contract first. It makes it easier to win subsequent good contracts, but it also sends the message that we're all in it together and it's bigger than just 30 people at one store winning some benefits for themselves. We're all working-class people. We're all being held down and repressed by the same company.

One of the strong points about our bargaining committee is that we've got three of the Memphis Seven. And for anybody who's not aware of the Memphis Seven, we had seven union organizers and supporters in Memphis, Tennessee, mostly Black and brown workers, many of them women, who were actually targeted in a mass firing that the company carried out after this store filed. It can't be seen as anything other than a blatant union-busting operation; they really went through and cleaned the whole store out.

I do want to point out the particularly racist character of that mass firing. We've had over 100 stores announce that we filed for a union. Up to this point, a mass firing, where they cleaned out an entire committee in one day — it was unprecedented. They took it out on this Memphis committee, which was a majority Black and brown organizing committee. Starbucks has only intensified this anti-union crackdown, this purge of union supporters from the stores. So Starbucks is only turning up their heat, and we have to turn up ours as well because we have to show them that we're not just going to lay down and take it.

Giordano: There is a cultural logic, the corporate culture, that is profoundly anti-union. Just to give an example, Starbucks in Chile became the object of academic study for the number of legal violations for anti-union practices; it’s one of the companies in Chile with the most fines for anti-union practices.  All of that was conceived in the United States — it was conceived in Seattle, not in Chile. It was devised in the general headquarters, where probably today they are devising the same campaign that you are experiencing, which is a very tough campaign.

Today, Starbucks workers are better off because they have a union and they are better off because they have a strong union that can truly represent them. This advice really is very simple. I am not telling you anything new, but we tell you from a deep feeling of fraternity and pride, please, count on our organization and everything we can do to support in one way or another. You can also count on our comrades  from the fast food industry who have organized in Chile because they saw that it was possible to organize in Starbucks. They used to say, they will never organize, so our union has managed to be a leader. It has had the energy that old unions have lost, in part because they were very beaten by the  history of the dictatorship. It was necessary to have a renewal — young people that could push a new way of doing unionism that would make sense to the new generations, which also have other ideals and other ways of conceiving the world. We managed to make the union have a place in those new ideals. 

Silverman: What is your relationship with the bulk of the Chilean trade union movement?

Giordano: Since many of us who organized at Starbucks came from the student movement, one of our main objectives had to do with giving a political perspective beyond just Starbucks, to our organization. That, in Chile, is very complex because what the military dictatorship did was create a network of laws, regulations, and rules that made it so that the unions can manage only small quotas of benefits within the companies. There are no large union federations that have the right to negotiate.

For example, it was not possible to have a union that represented not only Starbucks but also other sectors; in Chile, everyone must save themselves as they can. Our perspective was to learn from the international labor movement and also to recover what had been lost with the 1973 coup and the dictatorship. So we had to think in a more political union, which would unite different demands that today are part of the ongoing constitutional  process. 

Our union managed to break with that small union model, which focuses only on issues at the company, and positioned itself, for example, to demand better pensions. In Chile, pensions are miserable because we have a totally private system where each person saves individually. Even though we were all very young, we mobilized for that; we mobilized for free and quality education. We also found meaning in the demands of the feminist movement. Today, we have a women’s committee within the union.  All this has given a very different meaning to our union, which we have achieved despite the fact that it is a very young union. 

Joe Carolan: New Zealand shared a lot with Chile in that neoliberalism was introduced as a shock doctrine here by the Labor Party. There was a huge split in Labor at the time, and trade unionism retreated to the high ground of the public service. Private sector workers were left to fend for themselves, wages collapsed, and there was a political response to that. There was quite a large left of the Labor Party — called the Alliance — who grew their strength and went into government. And when they were in government, they changed a couple of laws back. First, you could form a union with only two workers in a workplace. So we watch in America where you have to have all these elections to have your right, 50 percent of people, blah, blah, blah. Two workers can join and make a union in New Zealand.

And the second was that union organizers could access every workplace in New Zealand. That party fell out of government over the Afghanistan war. Fair play to them. Not one dead child was worth being in government. And the activists then went, "Well, what do we do now that we're out of parliament? What do we do? Well, we return to the working class." And quite a lot of other socialists, anarchists, and activists joined. I was a Battle of Seattle kid at the time, the anti-capitalist movement was on the ascent, but rather than throw a brick through the window of Starbucks, I found when I came to New Zealand with my partner, this magical campaign to actually go and talk to the workers about the evil corporations that they work for and see if they'd join unions, and boom, they did. The campaign supersized.

The first part of it was the mass recruitment, and 4,000 fast food workers joined the union in the space of a few months, mostly here in Auckland City, but around New Zealand as well. And so the Starbucks workers were the first workers of the fast food [chains] — McDonald's, KFC, etc, — to go on strike. I was here in the office with the bus just outside. We went down to our local mall in St. Luke's where Nick, the world’s first Starbucks striker, who was also suffering youth wages, which were less than the minimum wage. That was a big issue for them.

This was the time of rage against the machine. He took off his green apron and burned it on the picket, and we were wall-to-wall media, and everybody talked about this new punk rock union that had come on the scene that was out to smash youth rates, to smash zero hours, etc. And some of that took us years to do. We did abolish zero-hour contracts here in New Zealand — maybe 10, 15 years later — so it's been a long struggle for some of these key demands, but we hit them hard and fast.

The main thing that I would say to comrades is: don't just do the propaganda. Don't just be in the campus group. Go and meet workers in your local high street and unionize them. That is the best thing a socialist could do: help to organize the working class where we find them today and fight the issues that they're facing today, be it youth rates, low pay, etc.

The Super Size campaign lasted about three months, and we also created a lot of chances for the public to come and support us through rallies and marches, culminating in this thing we call the Big Payout. There was a music festival called the Big Day Out and we did our own music festival called the Big Payout, which also coincided with mass school student walkouts, school students strike walkouts with the main city out here, with thousands of fast food workers and thousands of students as well who were angry against youth rates, and they occupied every single fast food place up and down the street, sealing the whole city off. That day saw us being offered the contract, which was brilliant because it wasn't just protest activity. We had built a union, we'd created a union, and we'd proved those more despondent voices on the left wrong — that we were actually able to unionize from the bottom up.

Nelson Soza contributed to translating and editing this interview.