Posted on: April 13, 2023 Posted by: Glacier Staff Comments: 0

Graphic by Emily Stephens

By Glacier Editorial Board

When grabbing your cold brews, espressos, and frappuccinos from Starbucks, you may feel like you are supporting social inclusivity. Your eyes might catch workers—from drive-thru to front counter—in their own gay pride, trans rights, and BLM gear. In fact, the company itself has produced merchandise based on these movements and has a history of donating to some of them.

But one piece of progressive-Starbucks-gear you never see there is a shirt that makes an ironic statement against the company itself. This shirt (pictured to the right) symbolizes a struggle for the right to unionize.

This isn’t official merch. It was made by workers to symbolize the Starbucks union movement and the group behind it. Starbucks itself would never have made merch that supports unions.

Because like many multi-billion dollar companies, Starbucks loves to pour in support for progressive movements, until their workers demand progress.

In the last two years, employees across 300 Starbucks stores nationwide have unionized for better wages, benefits and working conditions.

This opportunity to unionize doesn’t just rely on worker participation. It doesn’t just rely on employers agreeing with negotiations. And it doesn’t just rely on the blue-collar image you think of when picturing a typical union worker.

This opportunity is a right, one without preference: Most private sector jobs can be unionized. The federal law on this explains the concept thoroughly.

Unions being used by the people making our cold brews to improve their pay and work conditions isn’t an absurdist idea. What can make unionization unheard of is when protective laws are undermined and the society meant to uphold them becomes passive. 

As Starbucks suppresses unionization from the inside, we see the bigger issue: Large company employers break laws that protect labor rights and make unionization harder to achieve, in turn hurting workers’ calls for social justice.

CEO Howard Schultz declared Starbucks isn’t busting unions or breaking laws in recent testimony to Congress. Yet, the National Labor Relations Board begs to differ, finding Starbucks union-busting 130 times across six states.  

Hundreds more unfair labor practice charges come along with these actions, including a slew of accusations: workers claiming to be fired and harassed because of organization involvement, cases of stores being closed tied to unionization, and barring unionized workplaces from pay raises and benefits like credit card tipping.

All would be clear illegal acts if convicted.

Starbucks is not the only giant company in the game of modern union busting: Chipotle has shut down unionized stores. Apple and Tesla have been accused of spying on workers supporting unions. Tesla workers cited the monitoring of keystrokes as a reason to unionize. Many of these actions are deemed violations by the NLRB.

What can make unionization unheard of is when protective laws are undermined and the society meant to uphold them becomes passive.” 

We should not underestimate this problem. Actions like these set precedents. They can do more than bust unions; they can stop movements before they start, or before they are even desired. 

There’s less drive to unionize your workplace when you know workers for the same company did so in another location, and got fired with a shut-down store.

And there’s no social progress either. 

The heads of Starbucks, Apple, Tesla, and Chipotle donate to social causes and market themselves as progressive. But the reality of their internal business speaks to their real interests: maximizing profit while still lowering costs.

Their interests aren’t in favor of all marginalized groups—because that would include low-wage workers. Their workers. The people who keep the lights on in these workplaces and get revenue flowing. Instead, they punish them for speaking up about wages and working conditions.

But it does not have to be this way. In many other developed countries, trade unions make up a much higher portion of the workforce than in the U.S., where they are at 10 percent. And collective bargaining—the negotiations of wages and other conditions of employment that are often used by unions—is covered in countries outside the U.S. at very high rates (above 70 percent of private sector jobs). Meanwhile, research from the Oxford union suggests that unions have often reduced inequality.

As for now, we can’t be passive. We must keep companies in check and support this new spread of labor unionization to prevent our rights from being damaged. It is essential to keep informed on our rights regarding unions and the laws employers must follow, and to be updated on the labor movement. That way, we will keep both progress and the law on our side.

To view labor rights protected under federal law, check the NLRB FAQ on unionization.

For more info on the laws employers should follow, visit here. For updates on the current status of the labor movement, visit the non-profit news media organization More Perfect Union here.

The Glacier Editorial Board consists of Juan Carbajal, opinion editor, Nick Stulga, editor-in-chief, and the section editors of the publication. Editorials represent the official position of The Glacier.