labor Ben & Jerry’s Is the Anti-Starbucks
Something unusual happened in Vermont last week. The flagship location of Ben & Jerry’s in Burlington recognized the Scoopers United union after almost all 39 workers voted in favor of it. During the organizing campaign, no workers were fired for supporting the union. The company issued no Chicken Little predictions of imminent doom, no threats of closure or moving operations overseas (or worse, to New Hampshire). No sudden raises for union opponents, no newly stringent managers, no firing union supporters for clocking in 90 seconds late. Instead, true to its reputation, the company was simply … chill.
Ben & Jerrys, it seems, realized that a union is neither a dragon to slay nor an indictment of a company, but rather a way for its workforce to have a collective voice.’s statement on Twitter in response to this win? “We look forward to a sweet and collaborative future.”
The company’s recognition of the union followed an agreement it signed in April to abide by fair election principles, including giving the SEIU-affiliated Workers United Upstate time with employees and space to post material in the store, as well as not retaliating against union supporters.
This refreshingly lawful scenario is unfortunately an anomaly in the United States. Too frequently, employers respond with reflexive and overwhelming opposition to union efforts, violating the law (which badly needs reform) in more than 40 percent of election campaigns. Corporations routinely hire anti-union consultants and law firms costing thousands of dollars a day. Employers essentially go to war with their own people.
But there’s no law of nature requiring employers to oppose unions. There’s no federal or state statute demanding it. (In fact, there’s a federal law requiring employers to respect their workers’ right to unionize.) Nor do shareholders clamor for corporations to crush the workers. There’s no mandate, really, from anyone for employers to hire anti-union consultants with obscure names, like Road Warrior Productions or Labor Information Services, in contracts that have “no maximum number of hours.” As it happens, union pension funds are large institutional shareholders themselves; it’s hard to believe they would want workers’ retirement money used for high-priced anti-union consultants.
When workers want to unionize, America’s captains of industry actually have options. More of them should realize this. Too often, it’s easy to imagine only one version of labor relations, in which management has an almost religious belief that the union is the enemy. But Ben & Jerry’s shows that there are other possibilities, akin to the tradition of more collaborative union-management relations in many other countries.
It would be easy to dismiss Ben & Jerry’s as groovy unrealistic hippies from Vermont, taking an approach that would never work on a broader scale. But there’s nothing cloudy-brained about the company’s choice here.
unions can help business: They deepen workers’ investment in their employers. Unions can help reduce attrition and turnover—both of which have significant price tags—and by so doing, help build more skillful and stable workforces.
Besides, why would a union—composed of a company’s own workers—want an employer to fail? Workers want their company not just to be stable but also to thrive. They also want to have a voice on the job, and to enjoy a fair share of that fruitful success.
Other employers, especially those highly identified with a founder or CEO, may feel that a union campaign is a personal insult, an indictment of their leadership. Ben & Jerry’s understood that this was not the case; when they signed the fair election principles, they issued a statement saying, “This should be regarded as a step in solidarity in the spirit of constant improvement towards a fair, inclusive and equitable workplace.” In contrast, Starbucks founder and former CEO Howard Schultz, for example, bristled during Senate testimony in March at the idea that Starbucks workers might dare to want a union:
I think unions have served an important role in American business for many years. And if you look at the 50s and the 60s, unions generally, were working on behalf of people in a company where those people have not been treated fairly, where there’s been, in some cases, nefarious acts by the employer taking advantage of the employee. I can only say in my own company…We treat our people fairly. We do nothing that is nefarious.
Plenty of baristas, as well as the National Labor Relations Board, might disagree about whether Starbucks has done anything nefarious: The corporation has an extensive record of alleged labor law violations and a labor judge said the company has violated workers’ rights “hundreds of times,” with allegations of retaliatory firings and store closures, threats, and more.
But even taking Schultz’s comment at its face, his underlying assumption is that unions are appropriate only for workers who have been horribly exploited by an unusually depraved employer. But this implicit premise about when unions are appropriate (brutal sweatshops) and when they are not (all other jobs) fundamentally misapprehends why workers want unions.
People want to have a say in the workplace. This desire exists not only among baristas, but also among many others who also aren’t toiling deep in the mines: schoolteachers, professional athletes, journalists, even television and movie writers with the Writers Guild, currently on strike. There’s a human desire to have agency over what happens to us. As Jaysin Saxton, a former Starbucks shift supervisor, wrote in his own Senate hearing testimony, “All we want is respect, to have a little more dignity, and to have more of a say in what we have to do on a day to day basis.”
Despite the differences between their founders, Ben & Jerry’s and Starbucks started out with a lot in common. They’re both household-name, public-facing companies that purvey delightful treats, small luxuries that aren’t necessary for human life (although they may feel essential to some customers). Both companies have also long enjoyed a national reputation as businesses with progressive values.
But they’ve taken starkly different paths. Starbucks has utterly—probably irrevocably— squandered its progressive reputation. To the most pro-union generation in decades, Starbucks may soon be known less for its venti lattes and more for its relentless crushing of workers’ voice and agency. (Students at Cornell and the University of Washington are already organizing to get Starbucks off their campus; more are likely to follow.)
Ben & Jerry’s, meanwhile, is on a different journey. The next step is negotiating a first contract; this is usually a large hurdle that can take years, but there is reason to be optimistic: The company has agreed to mutually seek arbitration or mediation if a contract isn’t reached in six months.
The new union at Ben & Jerry’s is a solid win for the several dozen workers scooping out treats in Vermont. But it also has implications for workers and companies nationwide: Ben & Jerry’s has shown through its actions that American companies have the ability to make a different and better choice when their workers want to unionize. Coffee lovers or not, all of us should press other companies to follow this example.