With union push, Starbucks workers are asking the chain to live up to ‘better together’ branding

Bear with me a moment – Starbucks employees’ drive to unionize one of the Seattle coffee chain’s North Side stores has stirred up memories of growing up in a Midwest union town.

My grandmother, Mabel, was a bookkeeper for the United Auto Workers local in Muncie, Ind., About an hour east of Indianapolis. She took me along whenever she dropped off paperwork at the union hall.

My grandfather, Dale, had been a UAW member and worker at Warner Gear, which made auto transmissions. In World War II, he’d also worked as a Delaware County sheriff’s deputy. He died of lung cancer when I was 3 or 4 – many, many Camels, all unfiltered.

BorgWarner owned several plants in town. Warner Gear was its biggest. When the UAW organized the plants in 1937, the Michigan-based parts maker employed nearly 4,000 workers in Muncie, according to the Star Press, the local newspaper.

Warner Gear, which made transmissions for the Corvettes, was a big enough deal that John Kennedy visited the plant in 1960 during his race for the presidency against the hated, anti-union Richard Nixon. My grandfather was one of the cops assigned to his security detail. He got Kennedy’s autograph, scrawled in green ink. My grandmother kept it in her jewelry box.

You know how this ends.

Auto parts manufacturers began ditching the US for cheap overseas labor in the 1980s. The UAW – which had succeeded in securing good wages, benefits and pension plans for its members, as well as some insanely counter-productive workplace rules – somehow got more blame than the owners. The politicians who wrote the federal tax and trade policies that made the companies’ flight possible took even less.

Union membership fell along with the departures. By 2020, just 10.8 percent of U.S. workers belong to unions. (In Texas, the biggest right-to-work state in the country, it was 4.9 percent, well off its 1993 peak of 7.5 percent.)

By the time Warner Gear closed in 2009, it was down to a little more than 200 workers. Muncie had been collapsing in slow motion for decades by then. It is still. The city’s population slid from 70,085 in 2010 to 65,194 a decade later. My hometown’s poverty rate is a ghastly 31 percent.

From that perspective, watching employees’ efforts this week to unionize the Starbucks store at Loop 410 and Vance Jackson Road – and the bubbles of support they’ve generated on Twitter and Facebook – has been fascinating.

It’s a marker of how pervasive the service industry has become (now of us work in it) as manufacturing has receded. More than 7.5 million factory jobs have disappeared since 1980, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Organized lab is still catching up to this reality.

And it’s Starbucks. A lot of us regularly buy coffee at its stores and know some of the baristas by name, so we can relate.

The Starbucks workers are the first in Texas to try to organize a company-owned store. On Tuesday, they filed with the National Labor Relations Board to conduct a union election.

These workers are catching a wave. In December, Starbucks employees in Buffalo, NY, voted to make theirs the first union store in the company’s chain of nearly 9,000 locations. Starbucks Workers United was the lead organizer. In a statement this week, the organization said employees have also filed union petitions in Boston, Knoxville, Tallahassee, Chicago, Cleveland, Seattle, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Ann Arbor and several other cities.

That it’s happening in San Antonio isn’t surprising. By number of employees, the leisure and hospitality industry is the big business here, the fourth-largest of the 11 sectors the BLS tracks in the region.

Bexar and its seven neighboring counties have 129,000 people working in coffee shops, restaurants, bars, hotels and tourist attractions. By comparison, manufacturers – such as Toyota, its suppliers, and Caterpillar in Seguin – employ 52,000, making it the area’s eighth-largest industry by workforce.

I requested an interview with the Starbucks organizers but got a written statement instead. It included a quote from K Garcia, a barista at the store.

“Starbucks has promised its partners they are listening,” Garcia said, “and we are asking them to uphold the admirable values ​​of our mission statement to inspire and nurture the human spirit – one barista, one family, one store at a time.”

I tried to imagine what Grandpa Dale and his factory buddies, all of whom had gone on strike against the boss at various times, would have made of the nurturing talk. But it was a pointless exercise. Their day ended a long time ago.

Besides, they were comfortable. They led middle-class lives, thanks in part to the UAW bargaining on their behalf. My grandparents owned a small white house with pink trim on a respectable street.

Here’s what workers in the lower-paying reaches of the service industry are facing: Last year, servers and food-prep workers in the US earned a median weekly wages of $ 573, according to the BLS. But workers who belonged to a union made a lot more – a median of $ 652 a week. Nonunion employees brought in $ 570.

The thing is, only 3.1 percent of those 6.4 million workers belong to a union.

Will warm messaging hold up?

I stopped by the Starbucks at Loop 410 and Vance Jackson for a grand latte late Thursday afternoon. Six baristas scurried around the tight L-shaped work area behind the counter filling drink orders, restocking, wiping down surfaces. One was tinkering with one of the coffee machines.

The interior is all dark wood, brown-stained brickwork and shelves of Starbucks-branded travel containers and bags of coffee beans for sale.

In other words, a Starbucks like many others.

Emblazoned on the entrance is the corporate ethos: “We’re better together.”

Starbucks gets points for the consistency of both its coffee and its messaging.

Responding to an Express-News reporter’s question about the store, a company spokesperson said Tuesday, “Our position hasn’t changed: Starbucks success – past, present and future – is built on how we partner together, always with our mission and values ​​at our core. ”

Yet that same day came news that the coffee giant had fired seven employees in Memphis, Tenn., Who were trying to unionize. Starbucks told The New York Times that workers had violated company policies. The organizers said the company was retaliating.

In its latest quarterly report, filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission on Feb. 1, Starbucks noted the recent unionizing at its stores. And the company said: “Our responses to any union organizing efforts could negatively impact how our brand is perceived and have adverse effects on our business, including on our financial results.”

In other words, being seen as a union-thwarting boss could prompt some customers to steer clear of America’s coffee shop.

I wonder if Starbucks executive feel like they’re captives of their own warm, community-spirited branding.

BorgWarner never had to worry about that kind of thing.


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