Interview with IWW organizer Daniel Gross where he discusses 'solidarity unionism,' the innovative organizing model that has made gains for Starbucks workers where bureaucratic unions have failed.
In this wide-ranging interview with IWW organizer Daniel Gross conducted by the UK-based Now or Never!, Gross discusses the innovative worker-controlled organizing model, known as solidarity unionism, that has made gains for Starbucks workers where the bureaucratic union model has failed.
Gross explains the role of anarchists and anti-authoritarians in the global Starbucks Workers Union effort as well as his own anarchist worldview. He highlights the resurgence of the IWW, the challenge of precarious work, and calls for a direct action movement across borders to challenge the hegemony of corporate power. Gross also pays tribute to fallen comrade Brad Will who was a supporter of the Starbucks Workers Union and radical labor.
IWW Starbucks Workers Union
Interview conducted by Youth Section
Since 2004, the managers at Starbucks stores across America have been trembling in the workplace, for the infamous revolutionary union, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW or Wobblies) has been organising with workers and fighting for a better wage and a better world. When I set out to conduct an interview with some of the rank and file union members, I soon discovered that getting a hold of these people can be very difficult (apparently they’re all very busy fighting the class war). Eventually, Daniel Gross, who has been with the Starbucks Workers Union from the beginning, was kind enough to grant me an interview.
NoN!: Briefly, can you explain who you are and your history within Starbucks?
Daniel Gross: I'm a worker and a Wobbly. I got started in corporate retail at Borders Books and Music. In 2003, I began working as a barista at Starbucks in New York City. The IWW Starbucks Workers Union [www.StarbucksUnion.org] was founded on May 17, 2004. In the summer of 2006, Starbucks fired me in retaliation for union activity and I’m currently fighting for my job back along with five other wrongfully discharged IWW baristas.
The company’s pretext for my termination was a sham investigation of a picket line held in solidarity with an embattled co-worker and a fellow Wobbly. Starbucks lied and said I threatened a district manager without even interviewing the other current Starbucks employees who were at the picket.
NoN!: Why did you feel you needed to unionise?
DG: First, there's bread and butter. 6, 7, or 8 dollars an hour is a poverty wage and disgraceful from a $23 billion company showing record profits quarter after quarter. Starbucks Chairman Howard Schultz, already a billionaire, took in over $102 million in compensation last year while baristas hover at or below the poverty line. Many Starbucks workers depend on government benefits for the poor to survive.
The most staggering part of the financial picture at Starbucks is the scheduling of work hours. Every barista, busser, and shift supervisor- representing the overwhelming majority of the almost 150,000 employees at the company- is part-time.
Not a single one is guaranteed any number of work hours each week. For example, you can come to work one week and get 35 work hours; get 23 hours the next; and end up with 12 hours the following week.
Starbucks calls this scheduling system flexibility. The appropriate term is precarity- the regime by which human beings are treated like other "inputs" in the production process like fuel or soy beans. The company buys as much labor as it wants, when it wants. Just-in-time inventory meets human flesh. Baristas aren't day laborers but we’re talking about the same ball park- with our schedules dependent on the company’s whim week-by-week, we certainly feel a kinship with our sisters and brothers working in day labor.
Second, there's dignity, which at the end of the day is more important than bread and butter. Going to sleep having been humiliated and infantilized at your retail job still stings even if the bills are paid, which they usually are not. Indignities large and small, physical and psychological are rained upon Starbucks workers every day.
Management refuses to schedule enough workers on the shop floor to meet the extraordinary consumer demand that Starbucks stores face. At the same time, the company fails to implement the most elemental of ergonomic standards. The result is damage to the physical integrity of the body via repetitive stress injuries and other musculo-skeletal strain.
Absolute power for management is the rule in retail and Starbucks is no exception. The smallest detail of your work life is mapped out by the company and arbitrary discipline is enforced through a variety of sanctions and surveillance. Starbucks tells you to shake the ice tea 10 times. Management is terrified of an independent workers’ voice saying 9 shakes is ok. The company expects workers to stay after their shifts are done when it’s busy no matter what after-work commitment you may have. But heaven forbid if you have to leave work a little early to get to a doctor’s appointment. If you talk back while you’re getting written up, it’s not uncommon for management to cut your hours the next week.
Working the closing shift (closer) and then the opening shift (opener) the following morning, dubbed the "clopener" by some Starbucks workers, is a common source of frustration. After the commute you hardly have time to sleep and let me tell you, dealing with Starbucks customers two shifts in a row with very little sleep can drive you crazy if you do it enough times.
A little tangent- speaking of the commute and precarity- humans actually have it worse than other “inputs”. When Starbucks or McDonald’s wants coffee or paper cups delivered, it pays freights costs to get them to the store. As working people, we pay our own way to deliver ourselves to the boss. In NYC for example, Starbucks baristas and other low-wage workers struggle with the $76 charge for a 30-day pass on the subway and many of us can’t make the $76 one time payment so we end up paying more each month at $2 per ride. A demand for the low-wage employers to pay commuting costs might be a good issue to organize around.
On the issue of dignity again, the abuse at Starbucks really runs the gamut. One Starbucks barista had her grandmother die a few hours before her shift. This worker was responsible for making the final arrangements for her grandmother’s funeral and burial and was in the process of doing so. She called the manager in charge to explain that she couldn’t make it to work that day. First, the manager replied with disbelief that her grandmother had actually died even though she was obviously extremely distraught. He then ordered her to call other baristas to get her shift covered on threat of termination. The barista was so disgusted, she quit.
A barista named Sherry Brown, a long-time activist in the African-American community, was fired from his Washington D.C. Starbucks for asserting himself to a customer who had threatened his life.
Religious discrimination against a couple of Wiccan employees, discrimination against a roasting plant employee over Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, I mean the list goes on and on.
The prevailing reality behind the socially responsible rhetoric at Starbucks is simply intolerable. We’re calling on the company to immediately respect our right to have a union, reinstate our fired members, pay a living wage, guarantee our work hours, and staff stores appropriately to avoid strain and injuries.
NoN!: How did the Starbucks Workers Union get started?
DG: The SWU was started by a group of Starbucks workers in New York City who were fed up with living in poverty and being mistreated. We started meeting outside of work and concluded that for us the only way forward was to fight back with our own organization. The union now has a public presence at nine Starbucks stores in four U.S. states and dues-paying members of the IWW are operating quietly at the company in several other states.
NoN!: Why was the IWW chosen opposed to a more mainstream union?
DG: First and foremost, workers wanted a union that we would control. If I had to pick one element that really sets apart the IWW from many other unions, I'd have to say it’s the reality of rank and file control. We were alienated enough by our employer and we didn't want to duplicate that with our union.
Second, the traditional trade union model has failed to make an impact for retail workers in the United States. Recent Bureau of Labor Statistics have confirmed this, finding that union membership in U.S. retail has fallen to just 5% of employees in the industry. A perfect storm of political and economic factors including neoliberalism, fierce employer resistance, and a fatally flawed labor law regime has made the goal of the traditional trade unions for exclusive bargaining status increasingly elusive.
We felt that the IWW's direct action method would allow us to improve our life at work without falling into the various pitfalls which have made unions irrelevant to the overwhelming majority of retail workers.
Finally, we wanted a union we could afford. At $6 dollars per month, the price was right.
NoN!: How did Baristas react to the radical politics of the IWW? Was anyone hostile to the strong anti-capitalist stance that the union takes?
DG: Any workplace or community organizer knows there are a lot of challenges in this work. Organizing is rewarding, it’s pretty simple more or less, but it’s not easy. I can tell you though that the IWW's long-term vision has not been a significant impediment to reaching out to our co-workers. Stripped of all the fear-mongering instigated by anti-worker forces, the IWW’s long-term vision is simply a world where deep democracy exists in the workplace and the community.
On a day-to-day level the radicalism of the IWW translates into workers controlling their own campaign and taking direct action without letting the government get in the way. This approach, far from an impediment, is actually a competitive advantage. It might actually be the only approach working right now for retail employees in the United States.
Starbucks likes to talk about the worldview of the IWW in its propaganda but astutely avoids our immediate demands for respect and dignity on the job today. In one 2006 “High importance” memo to “partners”, Starbucks wrote that the, “Industrial Workers of the World is a small, radical anarchist group, far outside of the mainstream of the U.S. labor movement. According to its website, the IWW calls for the abolition of the wage system and seeks to ‘do away with capitalism’.”
Besides the suggestion that we are an anarchist organization, Starbucks contention there was accurate, which is unusual for this company. However, in my experience low-wage workers do not have a particular affection for the economic system in which we find ourselves. I can only think of a single case where a worker who was supportive of the union turned against us and started talking about Communist front group nonsense and the like. But I think that worker had other issues and just latched onto the anti-radicalism he heard from management as a pretext.
Again, I have actually seen the radicalism of the IWW become a competitive advantage as workers experience their union as their own and not another bureaucracy in their lives.
Far worse than the red-baiting, the greatest hurdle we must overcome as we continue to grow is the anti-union terminations. More than a few workers have shied away from joining the campaign because of the multiple retaliatory firings by Starbucks. That's why it's so important for us to impose significant economic, political, and social costs when the company fires someone for union activity. The only way we can do that is with a movement of people who reject the hegemony of corporate power.
The global justice movement has energized and stood with us shoulder-to-shoulder and without that movement we would not be where we are today. We reached out for solidarity and received it, in too many ways to recount here. The CNT-F entered Starbucks stores in Paris en masse with solidarity leaflets protesting the firing of SWU activists. Wobblies in England and Scotland rose up with Zapatista supporters against the retaliatory firings and to lend support when I was facing politically-motivated criminal charges for a 2004 protest in front of the Starbucks store where I worked. The protest coalition served free Zapatista-grown Fair Trade coffee outside of Starbucks stores and handed out information against union-busting and exploitative land practices in Mexico.
Starbucks baristas in New Zealand who are members of the Unite Union strongly condemned my termination in the same spirit of mutual aid that our campaign exhibited when they struck Starbucks in Auckland. The postal workers’ union in Canada has stood with us, as has the Korean Teachers Union and the National Lawyers Guild, the largest progressive legal organization in the United States.
Last May 17th during our annual Day of Action to commemorate the founding of the SWU, Wobblies and supporters reached out to baristas or did other actions in 20 cities, spanning 4 countries. There are many more examples and I wish there was time to mention them all, but those folks know who they are and I hope they know how much their support means to us.
NoN!: How did the management react when the union first started? Has their opinion changed over time?
DG: Starbucks responded with scorched earth union-busting and hasn't let up since. Eight anti-union terminations spanning six Starbucks stores, countless threats, multiple bribes, extensive surveillance, misleading propaganda, intense pressure, anti-union maneuvers from law firm Akin Gump, and more.
Workers disciplined for discussing the union on the job or after work; kicked out of work for wearing union pins. The type of union picket Starbucks fired me for has been protected, at least on paper, for over seventy years in this country.
Union-busting from Starbucks and Wal-Mart is indistinguishable. Starbucks CEO Jim Donald is actually a former Wal-Mart executive. Chairman Howard Schultz is the driving force behind the union-busting. Almost 150,000 workers and countless coffee farming families are exploited by this man whom the corporate media hails as a hero.
Sometimes we do get a good laugh out of the union-busting. The company printed out the IWW Constitution on a couple occasions and handed it out to workers in an effort to deter them from the union. It’s not clear why the company thought this would scare off workers since the IWW constitution outlines an organization that workers control as opposed to Starbucks’ corporate by-laws which govern an organization which is tyrannically controlled from the top-down with no input from workers. We joked that we appreciated the company saving the union some printing costs.
In Chicago, a team of management officials were laying into the union to a group of workers. The managers said that the union, “didn’t exist” to workers who were carrying red IWW membership cards in their pocket. We still chuckle about that incident.
With the backing of grassroots actions from Starbucks Union activists, we were able to prevail against Starbucks in the legal arena. In the first labor case brought by Starbucks baristas, the company and the National Labor Relations Board entered a settlement agreement in which the company had to reinstate two discharged IWW baristas and rescind nationwide policies against sharing written union information and wearing union pins.
The company started breaking the law again almost immediately after the settlement. Far from desisting from illegal activities, they actually went for the jugular. Six IWW baristas are still out of job right now through anti-union terminations. We’re fighting the company on these terminations in the streets and at the Labor Board. Given this intense hostility, it's a testament to the courage of my co-workers on this campaign and the breadth of support from around the world that the Starbucks Workers Union is still enjoying consistent growth and delivering the heaviest blows yet against the company.
NoN!: Would you consider the union to have been successful and why?
DG: I think the proof is in the pudding. Starbucks company-owned cafes in the United States were totally untouched by unions before the advent of the IWW campaign. Now Starbucks workers have our own voice on the job, in the community, and in the broader public arena.
We've been a major factor in pressuring the company into broad-based wage increases, our members have more secure hours, and we've remedied many grievances with management in a wide variety of areas from discrimination to safety.
For instance, many NYC baristas at Starbucks have seen wages increase of almost 25% in a period when retail wages in the city have been essentially stagnant. While we still have not achieved a living wage and guaranteed hours, more money in our pocket because of pay increases and more regular hours makes life better on and off the job.
In addition to the systemic gains, the grievances remedied have been important as well and I’ll cite a few examples. SWU members in Chicago shamed management into purchasing a stepladder the workers had sought for years by bringing in an IWW ladder to work with a sticker reading, “for a safer healthier workplace.” Management couldn’t tolerate a useful tool from the IWW that workers wanted to avoid unsafe reaching and climbing on tables so management hurried out and bought a ladder they had consistently refused to provide.
Suley Ayala, an Ecuadorian mother of four, used a combination of public protest, a legal filing, media pressure, and a union direct action on the shop floor to fight religious discrimination. Starbucks had been kicking her off the job for wearing a Wiccan Pentagram. The support campaign triumphed when Suley’s co-worker and fellow union member put on Suley’s Pentagram after she got kicked out on one occasion and thereby got kicked out of work himself. The company’s will on the issue had been broken; Suley has not been sent home since and the company reimbursed her for her financial losses.
Disgusted at having to work around rat or insect infestation at many NYC Starbucks, baristas took action after several written requests to the company had been ignored. The union assembled video and photographic evidence of the infestation and called a press conference in front of a Starbucks store with a 30-foot inflatable rat in the background. The resulting widespread media coverage spurred the company to implement some structural and sanitation fixes that have improved the barista work environment.
Sarah Bender struck a blow for the right of all baristas to organize when she coordinated her own defense campaign following an anti-union termination by Starbucks. Grassroots coalition-building and countless actions played an instrumental role in Starbucks’ settlement with the Labor Board which reinstated Sarah. In one memorable action, union baristas partnered with the “Billionaires for Bush and Starbucks Chairman Howard Schultz” who entered Sarah’s store in full aristocratic regalia to present a framed union-buster of the year award to the district manager that fired her. The Billionaires argued for the abolition of the labor movement and praised the inequitable distribution of wealth under Capitalism. They said that Starbucks was their kind of company.
We love creative provocative tactics. One favorite we’ve used is to pack a Starbucks with union supporters and have them wait in line to get a drink. They order a drink and pay for it: penny-by-penny-by-penny. It doesn’t take long to jam up the company’s operation for an injustice against a worker or our union. Going forward, any effective and ethically-sound tactic is on the table.
Solidarity has poured in from around the world and for the first time workers at a multinational retailer are reaching across the supply chain to build power. In fact, our delegation of SWU activists has just returned from Ethiopia where they were building connections with coffee farmers who grow beans for Starbucks.
Most importantly, the initiative, creativity, and strength of workers themselves have achieved these victories. The model is called solidarity unionism, a term coined by labor activist, author, and working-class lawyer Staughton Lynd. Folks who aren't familiar with his work should take a look. Staughton, better than anyone I know, both facilitates the expression of rank and file voices and understands the primacy of the rank and file in social change. Without solidarity unionism, Starbucks workers would still have no voice, caught in the intersection of a flawed labor law regime, fierce employer resistance, and a disinterested trade union bureaucracy. Staughton's incredibly modest so I probably shouldn't say this but the truth is you could say that the IWW Starbucks campaign is Staughton Lynd applied.
Because solidarity unionism has been so critical to the gains we’ve made thus far, I think it’s worth saying a bit more about the model. Solidarity unionism is workplace organizing in its purest form. Simply put, a solidarity union is a group of workers sticking together to take on the boss and make work better. Avoiding entanglements with the legal apparatus and mediation by union bureaucrats, a solidarity union harnesses the power of direct action to address concerns on the job and does so in a time frame relevant to retail workers.
Unlike the business-union model, the end-all-be-all for a solidarity union is not necessarily a collective bargaining agreement. If the rank and file desires such an agreement, so be it. But workers can just as well fight for systemic gains and address grievances as they arise outside of a contractual setting.
Given the high-turnover in the precarious sector, it’s important that workers can organize without lengthy certification or recognition processes which require majority support. In the United States, a business union will not take on 49% of a given work unit as members if they can’t cross the 50% threshold. By contrast, whether 49% of workers are on-board or 100%, a solidarity union can fight on. Fighting with or without a majority is a feature of solidarity unionism uniquely suited to the dynamic of precarious work.
Along the same lines, when a worker moves from one employer to another they keep their union membership whereas they would lose their membership in a traditional U.S. trade union. The center of the solidarity union world is the worker not a government-certified unionized workplace. When a solidarity union worker moves on to another job, instead of a sure loss to the union, there is the potential for a broadening of the organization to other workplaces.
The essence of a solidarity union is rank and file control. IWW baristas make our own strategic, tactical, and moral decisions. As far as bringing in new members, ‘every member an organizer’ is much more than a slogan in solidarity unionism. Our concrete objective is to train every single member as an organizer and to facilitate them reaching out to co-workers.
We ourselves engage in Direct Action (with the support, of course, of other workers) around pay, scheduling, disrespectful treatment from management, and so forth. Traditional trade unionists are often surprised when they find out how we remedy grievances. “You call your union rep when you have a problem with management right?” more than one traditional unionist has wondered. No. We make the demand to management ourselves. And then we fight the boss to win on it directly, not through a representative.
NoN!: Has the anarchist movement been supportive of your cause?
DG: Extremely supportive and words can never do justice to how grateful I am. The long commute early on a winter morning for the opening shift or the late-night commute home after the closing shift can be very dark and lonely. Alienation and humiliation- personal and financial-run high in the multinational retail workplace. That so many anarchists have understood this dynamic and supported our struggle with action is very moving and is a beautiful homage to the birth of Anarchism in the labor movement.
Also, like radicalism, the IWW Starbucks Workers Union has embraced cross-border solidarity as a competitive advantage and anarchists have been a critical part of that.
The global justice movement and the IWW Starbucks Workers Union lost a great friend and anarchist supporter in 2006 with the assassination of Indymedia journalist Brad Will by government forces in Oaxaca, Mexico. Brad was a fixture at Starbucks Union benefit events; no one felt the radical folk music more deeply than he, fully alive, dancing arm-in-arm with his long-time friend and anarchist comrade, Priya Warcry. Brad is well-remembered for his contribution to many movements- environmental, squatters’, anti-corporate globalization, and many more. I hope Brad’s legacy will also include the fact that he was often a wage earner- a stage technician- and a true supporter of laboring people. He loved radical labor culture; the last time I was with him he was playing IWW songs with a few of us singing along at one of the Wobbly campaign houses in NYC. He will be missed and his death will not have been in vain.
NoN!: What about other left wing groups? Have any authoritarian socialist groups helped (or hindered) your struggle?
DG: Groups of this type have also been supportive of the struggle - publicizing information about the campaign, turning out people to picket lines, and so forth.
NoN!: What reaction have you received from the general public?
What you’d expect. Support generally from working people; opposition from capitalist interests, their political operatives and their media (with a couple exceptions).
Starbucks has a public relations machine unparalleled in the corporate world. It has convinced many people that Starbucks is a different kind of corporation and a good place to work. Health care is its biggest myth. In reality, the company insures a lower percentage of its workforce than notorious Wal-Mart, just 42%. So there is an educational process we have to engage in sometimes to move folks past the myths.
NoN!: Politically, what would you describe yourself as? Has your experience with the Starbucks Union changed your views at all?
DG: It’s important to note first that the IWW is a non-partisan union and I speak only for myself here. We’ve never endorsed a political candidate or contributed funds to a political party. This is how it should be in my opinion. The IWW should continue to be an independent workers’ organization that is not beholden to any political party, ideology, or government. It should, in my view, be welcoming to all members of the working class, regardless of political affiliation, except prison guards, police, and prosecutors.
The IWW pursues a vision of a world where workers control their workplaces and community members control their community in harmony with the Earth. To get there, we organize as a rank and file union. That is, unions where workers themselves control their own campaigns, formulate strategy, and carry out tactics. There’s no professional bureaucracy or “representatives” in the IWW.
Workers become protagonists of change and develop their initiative in the day-to-day struggle for decent working conditions and dignity at work. At the same time, workers build a fighting force that can meaningfully, with the help of other movements, confront Capitalism and State. Whether it’s Barcelona in 1936 or Oaxaca in 2006, we’ve seen the transformative role that labor can play in society.
I am an anarchist. The Starbucks campaign hasn’t changed my views so much as deepened them. Forming a union at Starbucks has put certain issues in sharp relief, for example: the moral imperative of overcoming the tyranny of the multinational corporations on the job and in the community; the State’s role in protecting class privilege and capitalist hegemony; the marginalization of labor issues in the corporate media; and the fundamental decency and beauty of the working class. The class that builds and creates.
I half-joke with folks who have read about class struggle but aren’t sure if it exists; I tell them, try to organize your workplace and then get back to me.
NoN!: In your opinion, what does the future hold for the Starbucks Workers Union?
DG: Well it’s impossible to say for certain since the direction of the campaign is controlled horizontally by the entirety of the membership but as you suggest I’ll offer my view.
If we continue to develop and deploy strategies that win material gains on the job, cultivate the initiative and skills of members, and increase our power as a campaign and movement, I think we’ll continue to do well. If we neglect these pillars, we’ll falter.
We should keep innovating and challenging paradigms because being without a voice at work is just not an option and existing traditional models just aren’t doing it for retail workers. In this regard, we feel quite a kinship with groups like the Milan-based Chainworkers organization which refused to concede that precarious workers are powerless and sought out tactics and messages that resonate. We also work closely with the worker center movement in the U.S. which has delivered powerful results with workers who had been left out of many traditional labor unions especially immigrant workers.
A powerful property of solidarity unionism is its scalability. It’s pretty straight forward. Co-workers start meeting with each other, get organized, and start fighting for what they care about. It’s not a financially intensive model and you don’t need to be a “specialist” or “professional”. So I’m hopeful that the SWU will continue to grow along these lines.
To keep building on the gains we have won thus far though, we need to grapple with the anti-union terminations. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention how devastating they can be. Firing someone for union activism not only deprives them of their ability to pay the bills, it sends an unmistakable chill to other co-workers contemplating union membership. When Starbucks fires a worker for asserting their right to free association in the form a union, it commits a grave and intensely personal wrong. Such an affront against liberty requires a vigorous response with a proportional level of intensity from the SWU and autonomous activists.
There’s no way we can do this alone and that’s why the SWU situates itself as part of the global justice movement. From supporting baristas in New Zealand to farm workers in Florida or Ethiopia to indigenous Oaxacan rebels, we’re committed to global solidarity. IWW baristas participated in the historic events of May 1, 2006 in the United States calling for the respect of all workers regardless of immigration status- the biggest May Day in memory or maybe ever- and will do so again this year.
We’re very excited about our Justice from Bean to Cup! initiative which links baristas and coffee farmers across the Starbucks supply chain. It’s the first time we know of that rank and file retail workers have reached across the supply chain and across borders to build power. As I mentioned, our barista delegation just returned from Ethiopia where we built relationships with impoverished farmers growing coffee for Starbucks and we will be doing a lot of work in this area going forward.
Let there be no mistake that it will take a movement to reclaim our autonomy from the multinational corporations and arrive at the day when Wal-Mart “associates”, Starbucks “partners”, Borders “booksellers”, and Kinko’s “team members”, and the rest, march together under the red and black banner: “Abolition of the Wage System.”
For folks interested in staying connected with the campaign, our website is StarbucksUnion.org.
NoN!: And what about the future of the IWW in general?
DG: We’re in our 102nd year and things are looking better than they have in quite a while. A combination of repression and co-optation of course delivered a brutal but not fatal blow against our union in the early part of the 20th Century. Yet, the Wobbly ethos of Direct Action, rank and file control, and unequivocal solidarity that rejects racism and xenophobia, is as relevant today as it ever was.
An organizing renaissance has emerged in the IWW. Whether it’s the Starbucks campaign, movie theater workers in California, bike messengers in Chicago, retail and restaurant workers in Philadelphia, troqueros in Los Angeles, education workers in Michigan or Scotland, immigrant food warehouse workers in Brooklyn, or the Baristas United campaign in the British Isles, the IWW is back as a serious organizing force.
The heroism of our martyrs and class struggle prisoners, folks like Frank Little- organizing in the copper mines, Judi Bari uniting timber workers and radical environmentalists, or Ben Fletcher organizing on the docks, and most importantly the Wobblies first on the picket lines and last to go home whose names we may never know, inspire us and offer us a practical guide to a life in solidarity.
Building an agile and effective grassroots union is a tremendously difficult task no doubt and we need all the help we can get. I’ll mention the website for folks who want to get involved; it’s iww.org.
NoN!: What advice would you give to someone who wanted to organise their own workplace?
DG: First of all, do it. Don’t talk yourself out of it. You can convince yourself with a million bad reasons why you shouldn’t fight and you’ll keep getting screwed. By organizing you’ll improve your life on and off the job while becoming part of a global justice movement for a more humane society. Shortly after the Starbucks campaign went public, a progressive woman got in touch to express support. She told us, “workers are heroes, workers who organize are superheroes.”
Organizers help co-workers overcome fear all the time. But organizers too have to overcome our own fear. The media, schools, politicians, many religious institutions inculcate deference to authority- and the bosses love it. Confront your fear of sitting down with a co-worker to talk union or looking the boss in the eyes and overcome it.
Environmental degradation, greedy slumlords, war with no apparent end, racism and police brutality, three billion people living on less the two dollars a day, our elders left to die without dignity, this is the reality of capitalism. My working hypothesis is that where Capital most needs our obedience, we will most feel its weight. For many people though certainly not all, this location is the workplace. I think where Capital most needs your obedience is a good place to struggle.
IWW martyr Joe Hill, murdered by the state of Utah, said it well when he wrote, “If the workers take a notion…They can tie with mighty chains;…Every mine and every mill, Fleets and armies of the nation, Will at their command stand still.”
Your best bet is to contact a union as early as possible to gain the support you’re going to need to win. My preference of course if for unions which are member-controlled in theory and in fact whether it’s the IWW, CNT, or Frente Autentico del Trabajo in Mexico.
If you’re going to go independent (or with an existing union for that matter) build deep coalitions with other groups to carry out your work.
There’s a lot more I’d share, too much to go into here, but in brief I’d say: research your target intensively and identify its strengths and weaknesses; spend ample time learning organizing skills like how to have a union conversation with a co-worker and how to map a workplace; think critically about sustainability issues and organizing strategies in the face of asymmetric resources; tackle racism and sexism from day one; create mechanisms to share skills with members; develop and articulate compelling campaign narratives; harness the power of the internet and digital video; facilitate workers to tell their own stories; finally, know your labor history, familiarize yourself with contemporary union campaigns and worker struggles, but don’t be afraid to experiment with new approaches.
Develop the determination to prevail because it’s not going to be easy. But it is rewarding, the prospect of a just world is so sweet, and together we win.
NoN!: What would you say to someone who was considering working at Starbucks?
DG: Get hired and contact the IWW Starbucks Workers Union through StarbucksUnion.org. If you’re in the UK contact Baristas United at www.baritasunited.org.uk.
A version of this interview appears in Now or Never! issue 11
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