Calls for Starbucks Boycott Grow Amid Aggressive Union-Busting Activities
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Author: Steven Greenhouse
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Calls for a consumer boycott of Starbucks are growing amid mounting criticism of the coffee chain’s aggressive union-busting activities.

A boycott, supporters say, would aim to use consumer power to pressure Starbucks to stop its union-busting and illegal actions and to finally negotiate its first union contract.

The baristas’ union, Starbucks Workers United, is having internal discussions about when and whether to mount a boycott. At the moment, in addition to organizing stores, it is focused on increasing consumer support.

The union has scheduled a nationwide Day of Action on 14 September to urge “customers and allies to join the fight” to get Starbucks to “respect workers’ fundamental right to organize and bargain a fair contract”.

“Starbucks is doing everything in its power to ignore its unionized workers, but it has to listen to its customers,” said Daisy Pitkin, field director of the unionization drive. “We’re calling on customers to join the fight and stand with Starbucks workers on September 14.” Pitkin said thousands of customers and allies would “join us at stores all across the country”.

She said, “Our theory is that if every customer who supports unionized Starbucks workers talks to 10 or 20 other customers, then we are building a powerful consumer network that Starbucks can’t ignore.”

Calls for a Starbucks boycott increased after Cornell University, facing intense student pressure, announced in August that it would kick the company off campus by no longer serving Starbucks in its dining halls. That came after students occupied Cornell’s main administrative building and after Starbucks closed all three of its stores in Ithaca, New York. All three were unionized, making Ithaca the first American city where every Starbucks was unionized.

“When we heard that Starbucks was closing all those stores, we asked, What can we do?” said Nick Wilson, a Cornell sophomore and a leader of the effort to oust Starbucks. “We thought if Starbucks is going to get out of Ithaca, we should get them all the way out. They shouldn’t be profiting off our campus and our community.”

Wilson said students from nearly 30 colleges had contacted him about launching efforts to kick Starbucks off their campuses. If the Starbucks union launches a consumer boycott, Wilson said, “young people would certainly be in favor. Young people’s support for unions is second nature at this point.”

Students at the University of Washington and across the University of California system have also called for ousting Starbucks from campus. Starbucks union members say they know of such efforts at a dozen other campuses.

“We’re seeing Cornell and other student actions popping up,” said Michelle Eisen, a Starbucks barista in Buffalo. “We welcome that. We think that’s amazing.”

Those calling for a boycott say they hope it will be as successful as the United Farm Workers’ famous 1960s grape boycott under the civil rights activist Cesar Chavez.

Marshall Ganz, who was that union’s organizing director under Chavez, told the Guardian, “I think a Starbucks boycott could be great. But it would take a lot of work.”

Ganz said the grape boycott succeeded because not just farm workers backed it, but because “it was students, civil rights groups, churches, labor unions. We organized constituencies to back us in this city and that city.”

Ganz, now a professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, said: “If they try driving Starbucks off campuses, that would be hell of a campaign. There’s a lot of leverage there.”

More than 350 Starbucks have been unionized, the first ones 21 months ago, but Starbucks hasn’t reached a contract with even one of them. The US labor law watchdog, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), has filed 100 complaints against Starbucks, an extraordinarily high number, that accuse it of more than 1,000 illegal actions, including illegally firing dozens of pro-union baristas, closing recently unionized stores and not bargaining in good faith.

The former labor secretary Robert Reich, who is a Guardian columnist, said: “Until Starbucks enters into good-faith negotiations with its unionized employees – and ceases its union-busting efforts – we consumers must stop enabling this anti-worker, anti-union behavior. A boycott is the most direct and effective means the rest of us have to signal our unwillingness to go along with what Starbucks is doing.” Reich recently made a video urging a boycott, saying, “Starbucks should be getting publicly roasted for union-busting.”

Some labor experts say Starbucks is the country’s most notorious union buster since JP Stevens, a major textile company that mounted a fierce anti-union campaign in the 1960s and 1970s that included widespread illegalities.The textile workers union launched a nationwide boycott against Stevens in 1976 that succeeded in getting the company to sign a union contract four years later.

Asked to comment about a possible boycott, Starbucks officials declined. But they insisted that the company was bargaining in good faith. “Starbucks has approached bargaining with consistency and an earnest desire to progress negotiations for partners at every single store represented by a union,” said May Jensen, Starbucks’ senior vice-president of partner resources. (Starbucks calls its workers “partners”.) Jensen repeated Starbucks’ assertion that the union had not made any effort to bargain for more than 250 stores, although the NLRB has repeatedly accused Starbucks, not the union, of refusing to bargain.

Casey Moore, a union spokesperson, said the union had not responded about the 250 stores because, she said, Starbucks was seeking to impose illegal conditions on who from the union can join the negotiations. “In the very few places that Starbucks has actually sat down,” Moore said, “workers have made comprehensive proposals covering all aspects of our working conditions. Starbucks has never accepted a single proposal and never offered a single counterproposal. That is not bargaining in good faith.”

Some Starbucks union members say it isn’t yet time to launch a boycott, asserting that the union needs to first line up more consumer support to assure success. But others say the time has come, maintaining that the excitement and publicity from launching a boycott would quickly galvanize huge support. Advocates of a boycott say it would be easy to get prominent politicians and celebrities to back a boycott – Jane Fonda recently spoke out on the union’s behalf against Starbucks’ union-busting.

Victor Narro, a UCLA labor studies professor who has often taught courses on the United Farm Workers, said a Starbucks boycott would have one distinct advantage over the grape boycott. “One thing we have today that we didn’t have then is digital and social media,” Narro said. “You can reach a lot of Starbucks consumers that way, especially the young generation. That’s a powerful tool.” To succeed, he added, a Starbucks boycott would need to “build alliances with students and communities” and be framed as a “social justice movement”.

A Starbucks boycott might have a harder time winning public sympathy than the farm workers’ boycott did. Many farm workers lived in abject poverty and dilapidated housing and did arduous work in the hot sun.

“What do you do for Starbucks workers?” Ganz said. “You tell a narrative. They have low wages, too, but there’s also something about the use of arbitrary power to attack workers’ dignity and self-respect. That kind of dehumanizing behavior always serves as more of a spark than issues about wages.”

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