Let ‘partners’ become partners

By BOB BUSSEL, U of O Labor Education and Research Center professor emeritus

Have you noticed that we don’t seem to have workers or employees in America anymore? 

Instead, we have “associates” (Walmart), “team members” (Whole Foods and Target), “crew members” (Trader Joe’s), “cast members” (Walt Disney), and “partners” (Starbucks), just to name a few.  

These terms—often used at non-union companies—suggest a spirit of teamwork and collaboration between workers and managers. “Associate” and “partner” go the furthest, implying equality and parity in the labor-management relationship.

Language like this has historical roots in management policies known as “welfare capitalism.” After using “sticks” to fight unions during the fierce class conflicts of the early 20th century, employers decided to offer “carrots” to win the loyalty of workers following World War I.  U.S. Steel chair Elbert Gary, a strong foe of unions back then, said granting workers profit sharing and stock ownership would “make the wage earner an actual partner.” Other firms formed company unions or created official channels for workers to voice their concerns directly to management. 

George Johnson, the president of the Endicott-Johnson Shoe Company and a leading welfare capitalist in the 1920s, explained the “contract” he was willing to offer his workers: “If you are faithful, loyal, and reliable, you will earn a good living under fair conditions.” Johnson went on to proclaim that the “square deal” he offered his workers made them part of a “happy family.” 

It is tempting to dismiss these initiatives as obvious attempts to buy workers’ loyalty, blur class consciousness, and undercut unions. Indeed, these initiatives might have endured if two events had not occurred: The Depression limited the financial ability of companies to provide workers a “square deal,” and the 1935 Wagner Act banned company unions. 

For many workers, the promise of more empathetic management had appeal. But when companies failed to uphold the “square deal,” Depression era workers embraced unions and collective bargaining as the best means to have an effective voice at work.

Fast forward 90 years to the eruption of union organizing at Starbucks. Like earlier welfare capitalists, Starbucks provides its “partners” with a host of benefits: a retirement savings plan; discounted purchase of company stock; tuition coverage for higher education; and paid parental leave. The company has also announced plans to raise hourly pay to a $17 average by the summer of 2022.

Starbucks’ workers acknowledge these benefits. But they also report feeling “understaffed, overextended, exhausted, and burned-out” working under pandemic conditions. Notably, they do not reject the idea of partnership. Their slogan, “Partners Becoming Partners,” suggests a genuine loyalty to Starbucks’ mission. Yet it also reflects the belief that a real partnership cannot exist unless workers have a strong, independent voice. As they have explained, “Starbucks calls us partners, but you can’t have a solid partnership without equality.”

Starbucks advertises itself as a “different kind of company” that “balances profitability with social conscience” and prides itself on “having partners, not employees.” Regrettably, its hard-nosed anti-union campaign, which uses the same scare tactics as other less avowedly progressive companies, reveals the hollowness of these claims. 

The imbalance of power in the workplace that COVID-19 has exposed should put Starbucks and other companies on notice that their “associates” and “team members” take their rhetoric seriously. Rather than accepting a role as “junior” or “silent” partners, in the words of those organizing at Starbucks, workers are making it clear that they want “equal power to affect change and get things done.”

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