(infoshop.org) Starbucks baristas across the United States for the first time this year will begin receiving a time-and-a-half holiday premium for working on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. The move comes after a spirited three-year initiative of the IWW Starbucks Workers Union (SWU) which Photo: Tom Good, Next Left Notes Baristas march on MLK Day, 2008 in New York. made public the company’s second-class treatment of Dr. King’s birthday and called on the coffee giant to pay the same premium that it pays workers on six other federal holidays. After Starbucks refused to change its policy, union workers and their supporters launched a determined campaign of grassroots actions in Starbucks stores and communities all across the country in support of equal treatment for MLK Day.
Starbucks union members say this is an especially emotional victory, given that the SWU has long-cited the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as a major inspiration. Dr. King, who was assassinated in Memphis while supporting the effort of striking sanitation workers to form a union, was a staunch and outspoken defender of workers’ rights, including the right to a living wage and the right to join a labor union.
“We’re deeply moved to have been able in our modest way to increase respect for Dr. King’s legacy while ensuring that Starbucks employees who work on his holiday are fairly compensated,” said Anja Witek, a Starbucks barista and SWU member in Minnesota. “This is a great example of what baristas and all low-wage workers can achieve by getting organized and taking direct action in support of workplace justice issues.”
While Starbucks claims to “embrace diversity,” it doggedly resisted the SWU’s call for equal treatment of MLK Day for three years. The company based its refusal on the claim that its holiday policy was in line with the (abysmally low) standards of the food service sector. The SWU made the case that Starbucks’ commitment to diversity was illusory, citing the disproportionate number of workers of color in the lowest-paid positions in the company and its intense exploitation of coffee farmers including the Ethiopian workers who grew some of Starbucks’ most expensive beans but received just 2.2 percent of the retail price.
“This is a great step forward and a moving victory yet we’re mindful that there is much work to be done to make Starbucks a living wage employer that offers reliable work hours and respects the right of workers to join the union,” said Daniel Gross, a former Starbucks barista and SWU member in New York City. “We’re thrilled to continue building the SWU and demonstrating just how compelling a model solidarity unionism is for fast food workers and all working people.”
Commonly misunderstood by the news media and denounced by corporate executives frightened by its effectiveness, solidarity unionism is a simple and powerful method of organizing outside of the government certification bureaucracy. In a solidarity union, workers simply self organize and come to an agreement on workplace justice issues to pursue like fair raises, affordable health care, and respectful treatment from management. The workers’ group then creates a strategic plan and leads workplace actions, community solidarity, and grassroots advocacy to win the desired job improvements.
The Industrial Workers of the World union effort at Starbucks is the first time a labor organization in the United States has succeeded in building a base of organized baristas at the company. With over 300 worker-organizers across the country and growing, the SWU has consistently chalked up victories at Starbucks including across-the-board raises, more secure work hours, and respectful treatment from previously abusive managers whose conduct improved due to union pressure campaigns. The SWU has repeatedly prevailed against Starbucks in the legal arena across multiple cities including in a lengthy New York City trial over pervasive illegal unionbusting, the first time the company had to square off against baristas in open court regarding unfair labor practices.
By the Starbucks Workers Union
Industrial Worker – January – February 2011