It can seem so quiet, until it explodes
By DON McINTOSH
Over the last six months, an extraordinary union movement has been brewing in the unlikeliest of places. A December union win at a Starbucks in Buffalo—the first ever—inspired first a trickle, then a flood. Today, Starbucks stores are going union so fast it’s hard to keep up. As I write this, workers have unionized 171 Starbucks in 30 states, with elections pending at 104 others.
What makes this seem so improbable is that for decades in the labor world it was thought to be impossible for for entry-level service industry workers to unionize. Turnover is too high to maintain a stable core of union supporters. Wages are too low for union dues to support professional staff. When workers tired of conditions, they reacted as individuals, moving on to the next job.
But today, legions of young workers are defying that assumption. The faith of these Starbucks workers in the union idea, which is a faith in each other, is profoundly inspiring. So is their increasing boldness as they take risks together for a movement that they themselves are creating.
All this validates a private theory I’ve been nursing for a while. I call my theory “latency.” Latency is a measurement of readiness for action. It’s potential energy poised to become kinetic, dry timber waiting for the arrival of a match. Today, polls show not just that union approval is the highest it’s been in 50 years, but that the youngest workers are the most pro-union. That’s the kind of latency that movements are made of.
Just when you think the union movement is breathing its dying breath, it can come roaring back to life. That was the lesson of the 1930s. Once the movement got rolling, millions of workers simply organized themselves. They didn’t wait for staff organizers to come calling. Often they didn’t even wait for a government election. They announced themselves as a union, and they acted like one, often going on strike in a matter of days. Delegations of workers would arrive at union halls, announcing that they’d organized their workplaces. Whole industries unionized in the space of a few years.
Of course it’s too soon to make bets. There are, after all, 9,000 company-owned Starbucks locations in the United States. And looking ahead, it’s clear that for Starbucks workers to win their union elections is only the first step. Winning union contracts is where the real battle will be.
Already, at the towering heights of the corporation, heads are rolling as Starbucks’ girds for war. CEO Kevin Johnson retired in March. Rossann Williams, Starbucks’ president of U.S. retail and Canada, left for parts unknown on June 21.
And 68-year-old billionaire Howard Schultz is back at his old helm, showing great vigor in his anti-union vehemence. “No,” he sputtered in a live interview when Aaron Ross Sorkin of the New York Times asked if he could ever see himself working with a union. It’s almost like he’s auditioning for the role of corporate supervillain.
With an adversary as implacable as Schultz, I have no doubt it’s going to take labor’s toughest tactic, the strike, for workers to get a contract. That’s why it’s so encouraging that Starbucks strikes are already beginning, first one, then two, then a dozen. And the legacy union they’re joining, Workers United, is getting ready to back them to the hilt, last month announcing the creation of a $1 million strike fund.
They’re going to need all of us supporting them. Because honestly, if Starbucks goes union, who’s next? Just in the last week, workers won a union at an Apple store. Union campaigns erupted at Trader Joes stores in Minneapolis and Massachusetts. If young workers are ready to put their jobs on the line moments after Googling “What is a union,” all the rest of us need to be ready to give, to picket, and to back them until victory.