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Why a Rhodes Scholar’s Ambition Led Her to a Job at Starbucks

Jaz Brisack became a union organizer and barista for the same reasons that talented young people have long chosen their career paths: a mix of idealism and ambition.

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Most weekend mornings, Jaz Brisack gets up around 5, wills her semiconscious body into a Toyota Prius and winds her way through Buffalo, to the Starbucks on Elmwood Avenue. After a supervisor unlocks the door, she clocks in, checks herself for Covid symptoms and helps get the store ready for customers.

“I’m almost always on bar if I open,” said Ms. Brisack, who has a thrift-store aesthetic and long reddish-brown hair that she parts down the middle. “I like steaming milk, pouring lattes.”

The Starbucks door is not the only one that has been opened for her. As a University of Mississippi senior in 2018, Ms. Brisack was one of 32 Americans who won Rhodes scholarships, which fund study in Oxford, England.

Many students seek the scholarship because it can pave the way to a career in the top ranks of law, academia, government or business. They are motivated by a mix of ambition and idealism.

Ms. Brisack became a barista for similar reasons: She believed it was simply the most urgent claim on her time and her many talents.

When she joined Starbucks in late 2020, not a single one of the company’s 9,000 U.S. locations had a union. Ms. Brisack hoped to change that by helping to unionize its stores in Buffalo.

Improbably, she and her co-workers have far exceeded their goal. Since December, when her store became the only corporate-owned Starbucks in the United States with a certified union, more than 150 other stores have voted to unionize, and more than 275 have filed paperwork to hold elections. Their actions come amid an increase in public support for unions, which last year reached its highest point since the mid-1960s, and a growing consensus among center-left experts that rising union membership could move millions of workers into the middle class.

Ms. Brisack’s weekend shift represents all these trends, as well as one more: a change in the views of the most privileged Americans. According to Gallup, approval of unions among college graduates grew from 55 percent in the late 1990s to 70 percent last year.

I have seen this first hand in more than seven years of reporting on unions, as a growing interest among white-collar workers has coincided with a broader enthusiasm for the labor movement. 

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In talking with Ms. Brisack and her fellow Rhodes scholars, it became clear that the change had even reached that rarefied group. The American Rhodes scholars I encountered from a generation earlier typically said that, while at Oxford, they had been middle-of-the-road types who believed in a modest role for government. They did not spend much time thinking about unions as students, and what they did think was likely to be skeptical.

“I was a child of the 1980s and 1990s, steeped in the centrist politics of the era,” wrote Jake Sullivan, a 1998 Rhodes scholar who is President Biden’s national security adviser and was a top aide to Hillary Clinton.

By contrast, many of Ms. Brisack’s Rhodes classmates express reservations about the market-oriented policies of the ’80s and ’90s and strong support for unions. Several told me that they were enthusiastic about Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, who made reviving the labor movement a priority of their 2020 presidential campaigns.

Even more so than other indicators, such a shift could foretell a comeback for unions, whose membership in the United States stands at its lowest percentage in roughly a century. That’s because the kinds of people who win prestigious scholarships are the kinds who later hold positions of power — who make decisions about whether to fight unions or negotiate with them, about whether the law should make it easier or harder for workers to organize.

As the recent union campaigns at companies like Starbucks, Amazon and Apple show, the terms of the fight are still largely set by corporate leaders. If these people are increasingly sympathetic to labor, then some of the key obstacles to unions may be dissolving.

Ms. Brisack moved to Buffalo after Oxford for another job, as an organizer with the union Workers United, where a mentor she had met in college also worked. Once there, she decided to take a second gig at Starbucks.

“Her philosophy was get on the job and organize. She wanted to learn the industry,” said Gary Bonadonna Jr., the top Workers United official in upstate New York. “I said, ‘OK.’”

In its pushback against the campaign, Starbucks has often blamed “outside union forces” intent on harming the company, as its chief executive, Howard Schultz, suggested in April. The company has identified Ms. Brisack as one of these interlopers, noting that she draws a salary from Workers United. (Mr. Bonadonna said she was the only Starbucks employee on the union’s payroll.)

But the impression that Ms. Brisack and her fellow employee-organizers give off is one of fondness for the company. Even as they point out flaws — understaffing, insufficient training, low seniority pay, all of which they want to improve — they embrace Starbucks and its distinctive culture. 

They talk up their sense of camaraderie and community — many count regular customers among their friends — and delight in their coffee expertise. On mornings when Ms. Brisack’s store isn’t busy, employees often hold tastings.

A Starbucks spokesman said that Mr. Schultz believes employees don’t need a union if they have faith in him and his motives, and the company has said that seniority-based pay increases will take effect this summer.

One Friday in late February, Ms. Brisack and another barista, Casey Moore, met at the two-bedroom rental that Ms. Brisack shares with three cats, to talk union strategy over breakfast. Naturally, the conversation turned to coffee.

“Jaz has a very barista drink,” Ms. Moore said.

Ms. Brisack elaborated: “It’s four blonde ristretto shots — that’s a lighter roast of espresso — with oat milk. It’s basically an iced latte with oat milk. If we had sugar-cookie syrup, I would get that. Now that that’s no more, it’s usually plain.”

That afternoon, Ms. Brisack held a Zoom call from her living room with a group of Starbucks employees who were interested in unionizing. It is an exercise that she and other organizers in Buffalo have repeated hundreds of times since last fall, as workers around the country sought to follow their lead. But in almost every case, the Starbucks workers outside Buffalo have reached out to the organizers, rather than vice versa.

This particular group of workers, in Ms. Brisack’s college town of Oxford, Miss., seemed to require even less of a hard sell than most. When Ms. Brisack said she, too, had attended the University of Mississippi, one of the workers waved her off, as if her celebrity preceded her. “Oh, yeah, we know Jaz,” the worker gushed.

A few hours later, Ms. Brisack, Ms. Moore and Michelle Eisen, a longtime Starbucks employee also involved in the organizing, gathered with two union lawyers at the union office in a onetime auto plant. The National Labor Relations Board was counting ballots for an election at a Starbucks in Mesa, Ariz. — the first real test of whether the campaign was taking root nationally, and not just in a union stronghold like New York. The room was tense as the first results trickled in.

“Can you feel my heart beating?” Ms. Moore asked her colleagues.

Within a few minutes, however, it became clear that the union would win in a rout — the final count was 25 to 3. Everyone turned slightly punchy, as if they had all suddenly entered a dream world where unions were far more popular than they had ever imagined. One of the lawyers let out an expletive before musing, “Whoever organized down there …”

Ms. Brisack seemed to capture the mood when she read a text from a co-worker to the group: “I’m so happy I’m crying and eating a week-old ice cream cake.”

Ms. Brisack once appeared to be on a different path. As a child, she idolized Lyndon Johnson and imagined running for office. At the University of Mississippi, she was elected president of the college Democrats.

She had developed an interest in labor history as a teenager, when money was sometimes tight, but it was largely an academic interest. “She had read Eugene Debs,” said Tim Dolan, the university’s national scholarship adviser at the time. “It was like, ‘Oh, gosh. Wow.’”

When Richard Bensinger, a former organizing director with the A.F.L.-C.I.O. and the United Automobile Workers, came to speak on campus, she realized that union organizing was more than a historical curiosity. She talked her way into an internship on a union campaign he was involved with at a nearby Nissan plant. It did not go well. The union accused the company of running a racially divisive campaign, and Ms. Brisack was disillusioned by the loss.

“Nissan never paid a consequence for what it did,” she said. (In response to charges of “scare tactics,” the company said at the timethat it had sought to provide information to workers and clear up misperceptions.)

Mr. Dolan noticed that she was becoming jaded about mainstream politics. “There were times between her sophomore and junior year when I’d steer her toward something and she’d say, ‘Oh, they’re way too conservative.’ I’d send her a New York Times article and she’d say, ‘Neoliberalism is dead.’”

In England, where she arrived during the fall of 2019 at age 22, Ms. Brisack was a regular at a “solidarity” film club that screened movies about labor struggles worldwide, and wore a sweatshirt that featured a head shot of Karl Marx. She liberally reinterpreted the term “black tie” at an annual Rhodes dinner, wearing a black dress-coat over a black antifa T-shirt.

“I went and got gowns and everything — I wanted to fit in,” said a friend and fellow Rhodes scholar, Leah Crowder. “I always loved how she never tried to fit into Oxford.”

But Ms. Brisack’s politics didn’t stand out the way her formal wear did. In talking with eight other American Rhodes scholars from her year, I got the sense that progressive politics were generally in the ether. Almost all expressed some skepticism of markets and agreed that workers should have more power. The only one who questioned aspects of collective bargaining told me that few of his classmates would have agreed, and that he might have been loudly jeered for expressing reservations.

Some in the group even said they had incorporated pro-labor views into their career aspirations.

Claire Wang has focused on helping fossil fuel workers find family-sustaining jobs as the world transitions to green energy. “Unions are a critical partner in this work,” she told me. Rayan Semery-Palumbo, who is finishing a dissertation on inequality and meritocracy while working for a climate technology start-up, lamented that workers had too little leverage. “Labor unions may be the most effective way of implementing change going forward for a lot of people, including myself,” he told me. “I might find myself in labor organizing work.”

This is not what talking to Rhodes scholars used to sound like. At least not in my experience.

I was a Rhodes scholar in 1998, when centrist politicians like Bill Clinton and Tony Blair were ascendant, and before “neoliberalism” became such a dirty word. Though we were dimly aware of a time, decades earlier, when radicalism and pro-labor views were more common among American elites — and when, not coincidentally, the U.S. labor movement was much more powerful — those views were far less in evidence by the time I got to Oxford.

Some of my classmates were interested in issues like race and poverty, as they reminded me in interviews for this article. A few had nuanced views of labor — they had worked a blue-collar job, or had parents who belonged to a union, or had studied their Marx. Still, most of my classmates would have regarded people who talked at length about unions and class the way they would have regarded religious fundamentalists: probably earnest but slightly preachy, and clearly stuck in the past.

Kris Abrams, one of the few U.S. Rhodes Scholars in our cohort who thought a lot about the working class and labor organizing, told me recently that she felt isolated at Oxford, at least among other Americans. “Honestly, I didn’t feel like there was much room for discussion,” Ms. Abrams said.

By contrast, it was common within our cohort to revere business and markets and globalization. As an undergraduate, my friend and Rhodes classmate Roy Bahat led a large public-service organization that periodically worked with unions. But as the “new” economy boomed in 1999, he interned at a large corporation. It dawned on him that a career in business might be more desirable — a way to make a larger impact on the world.

“There was a major shift in my own mentality,” Roy told me. “I became more open to business.” It didn’t hurt that the pay was good, too.

Roy would go on to work for McKinsey & Company, the City of New York and the executive ranks of News Corp, then start a venture capital fund focused on technologies that change how business operates. More recently, in a sign of the times, his investment portfolio has included companies that make it easier for workers to organize.

On some level, Roy Bahat and Jaz Brisack are not so different: Both are chronic overachievers; both are ambitious about changing society for the better; both are sympathetic to the underdog by way of intellect and disposition. But the world was telling Roy in the late 1990s to go into business if he wanted to influence events. The world was telling Ms. Brisack in 2020 to move to Buffalo and organize workers.

The first time I met Ms. Brisack was in October, at a Starbucks near the Buffalo airport.

I was there to cover the union election. She was there, unsolicited, to brief me. “I don’t think we can lose,” she said of the vote at her store. At the time, not a single corporate-owned Starbucks in the country was unionized. The union would go on to win there by more than a two-to-one ratio.

It’s hard to overstate the challenge of unionizing a major corporation that doesn’t want to be unionized. Employers are allowed to inundate workers with anti-union messaging, whereas unions have no protected access to workers on the job. And while it is officially illegal to threaten, discipline or fire workers who seek to unionize, the consequences for doing so are typically minor and long in coming.

At Starbucks, the National Labor Relations Board has issuedcomplaints finding merit in such accusations. Yet the union continues to win elections — over 80 percent of the more than 175 votes in which the board has declared a winner. (Starbucks denies that it has broken the law, and a federal judge recently rejected a request to reinstate pro-union workers whom the labor board said Starbucks had forced out illegally.)

Though Ms. Brisack was one of dozens of early leaders of the union campaign, the imprint of her personality is visible. In store after store around the country, workers who support the union give no ground in meetings with company officials. 

Even prospective allies are not spared. In May, after Time ran a favorable piece, Ms. Brisack’s response on Twitter was: “We appreciate TIME magazine’s coverage of our union campaign. TIME should make sure they’re giving the same union rights and protections that we’re fighting for to the amazing journalists, photographers, and staff who make this coverage possible!”

The tweet reminded me of a story that Mr. Dolan, her scholarship adviser, had told about a reception that the University of Mississippi held in her honor in 2018. Ms. Brisack had just won a Truman scholarship, another prestigious award. She took the opportunity to urge the university’s chancellor to remove a Confederate monument from campus. The chancellor looked pained, according to several attendees.

“My boss was like, ‘Wow, you couldn’t have talked her out of doing that?’” Mr. Dolan said. “I was like, ‘That’s what made her win. If she wasn’t that person, you all wouldn’t have a Truman now.’”

(Mr. Dolan’s boss at the time did not recall this conversation, and the former chancellor did not recall any drama at the event.)

The challenge for Ms. Brisack and her colleagues is that while younger people, even younger elites, are increasingly pro-union, the shift has not yet reached many of the country’s most powerful leaders. Or, more to the point, the shift has not yet reached Mr. Schultz, the 68-year-old now in his third tour as Starbucks’s chief executive.

Mr. Schultz has long opposed unions at Starbucks, but Ms. Brisack, for one, believes that even business executives are persuadable. 

She recently spoke at an Aspen Institute panel on workers’ rights. She has even mused about using her Rhodes connections to make a personal appeal to Mr. Schultz, something that Mr. Bensinger has pooh-poohed but that other organizers believe she just may pull off.

“Richard has been making fun of me for thinking of asking one of the Rhodes people to broker a meeting with Howard Schultz,” Ms. Brisack said in February.

“I’m sure if you met Howard Schultz, he’d be like, ‘She’s so nice,’” responded Ms. Moore, her co-worker. “He’d be like, ‘I get it. I would want to be in a union with you, too.’”

Noam Scheiber is a Chicago-based reporter who covers workers and the workplace. He spent nearly 15 years at The New Republic, where he covered economic policy and three presidential campaigns. He is the author of “The Escape Artists.” @noamscheiber