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labor Checking In With the Starbucks Union as a Supreme Court Labor Decision Looms

Glacier Northwest vs. Teamsters could drastically change how unions are able to strike. Here’s how Starbucks Workers United is preparing.

Workers on strike
Starbucks workers rally and march in Seattle WA,Elliot Stoller, Flickr

The strike is the worker’s most powerful tool. The action directly demonstrates the worker’s value — how hospitals don’t run without nurses, how websites don’t run without writers, how schools don’t run without adjunct professors. And with both the Red Cup Day strike and the Double Down strike in 2022, how Starbucks can’t run without its baristas. But the Supreme Court is currently hearing a case that could drastically affect workers’ ability to strike, and thus have huge ramifications for the wave of organizing within the food service industry.

Glacier Northwest v. The International Brotherhood of Teamsters concerns the decision of 1959’s San Diego Building Trades Council v. Garmon, which protects unions from being sued for striking. In the case, which the Supreme Court began hearing on January 10, Glacier Northwest, a building material company, claims the Teamsters deliberately timed a 2017 strike so that mixing trucks would be filled with concrete, which could have resulted in damaged equipment and destroyed product. Glacier Northwest v. Teamsters could potentially water down the previous ruling, which states that employer-union disputes must first go through the National Labor Relations Board — historically, the NLRB has sided with the workers’ right to strike in instances where product loss could be a result.

If the Supreme Court rules in favor of Glacier Northwest, that could weaken the NLRB’s ability to act as a buffer between employers and striking unions. “One important reason the Garmon process exists is that it shields unions from lawsuits that could drain their finances and discourage workers from exercising their right to strike,” writes Ian Millhiser for Vox. “After all, that right means very little if well-moneyed employers can bombard unions with lawsuits the union cannot afford to litigate.”

A major concern for some employees is the idea that unintentionally damaged product could make employers more likely to sue over a strike. Jacob Welsh, a shift supervisor at the Bloomfield Starbucks in Pittsburgh and an active union leader in Starbucks Workers United, outlines how that affects Starbucks workers in particular, where part of the job is prepping food and machines for the next day. “It feels it would be a ‘damned if we do, damned if we don’t’ thing. If we do our job duties correctly — pulling food or cleaning espresso machines a day ahead — that means that if we go on strike the next day, there will be a lot of waste. So we either do our job and waste a bunch of food, and then get put in a situation where we can be held legally accountable for that, or we don’t do our job and all of a sudden we’re accountable to the company for not doing our job.”

Then again, Starbucks has already faced an antagonistic CEO, and a company refusing to give certain benefits to unionized stores. Eater spoke to Welsh about the potential ruling, and what SBWU has in store this year.

Eater: When Starbucks Workers United organized strikes and walkouts last year, what sort of precautions were you taking in advance of those events?

Jacob Welsh: The point of the strike is to flex our labor power, right? To show the company, “No, you actually need us.” We do need you because you pay our paychecks, but you also need us because you pay us to do work. If the coffee doesn’t get made, the money doesn’t get made.

For my store specifically, our approach was just to do our jobs as normal and the next day we’re on strike. But I know that other stores will do things like not pull as much food so that it doesn’t expire as quickly, or they’ll turn the machines off so that they don’t need that maintenance. On my store’s end, the precaution is we don’t want to be told that we didn’t fulfill our job duties and be disciplined for it. Their precaution was like, “Well, we don’t want to create a bunch of waste.” The result of this [Supreme Court] decision could undermine both of those positions, I think.

Even if the Supreme Court rules in favor of the Teamsters here, how do you feel about them taking this case in general and what it means for this country’s public perception of labor and unions?

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My understanding is that they never should have taken this case in the first place. Really, this is within the purview of the National Labor Relations Board. They’re the governing body that’s supposed to make decisions around this sort of thing. I won’t lie. I am very pessimistic about the direction that our government is taking towards unions, even though there’s the claim that the executive branch is the most pro-union executive branch in a long time. I personally don’t see that, and especially with the way that the PRO Act is stalled [which would strengthen labor law by, among other things, penalizing companies for union busting and ending “right to work” laws]. The legislative branch, and now the Supreme Court, is showing they also are the same way. It’s the three main governmental branches that are all taking, very recently I think, these anti-labor stances.

So I’m personally not super optimistic about the future of the law there. But it’s our job, as organizers, to organize anyway. The law, from my perspective, was never meant to be on our side. U.S. labor law has always been terrible, and it really comes from a directive from the rank-and-file workers themselves to win the things that they need through their own activity. The law might help us sometimes, but it’s not designed to, and we shouldn’t count on it.

What does it feel like coming into 2023 with all this organizing power, and how is Starbucks reacting to it?

It seems like they’re counting on us slowing down. And on some level, we have definitely slowed down. It’s nothing like it was last year where we were getting eight stores [to unionize] a day. But at the same time, we definitely aren’t stopping and we’re here to stay. Until the company agrees to bargain with us — which they haven’t yet, they walk out of all of our bargaining sessions within the first five minutes — we probably won’t even be up for decertification dates anytime soon.

Can you say anything else about SBWU’s goals for 2023?

My goal is to get a contract, and to continue to grow — not just externally but internally. We’re building our communication structures every day, because our union is pretty decentralized and the different stores have a lot of autonomy. We had to file store by store. The question we have right now is: How do we simultaneously empower individual workers and stores and regions, while also maintaining a coordinated national strategy that gets us the things that we want? I’m looking forward to seeing that play out.