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Legendary IWW returns to Grand Rapids

By Micheal Johnston - Grand Valley Labor News, June 2007 

They’re twenty-somethings, idealistic, motivated and creative. In Grand Rapids they’ve been raised in anti-union, narrowly conservative and hyper-religious West Michigan. Until recently they viewed unions with hostility or as dinosaurs awaiting extinction. Most were indifferent to unions until now.

Across the globe, across the U.S., and in West Michigan they are shaking up the moribund labor movement and the Starbucks world of overpriced coffee, underpaid workers and hypocritical marketing.

Baristas at the Wealthy Street Starbucks, in East Grand Rapids, announced May 17 their membership in the IWW Starbucks Workers Union (www.starbucksunion.org), becoming the first store in Michigan to declare union membership at the world’s largest coffee chain.

On the third anniversary of the founding of the IWW Starbucks Union in the U.S., Grand Rapids wobblies (as IWW members have been known for over one hundred years), coordinated their coming out at the same time Chicago IWW barristas marched into their shop and told their manager they were signing up into the union.

Wobs in G.R. served Starbucks management at the cafe, located on 2172 Wealthy St. SE, with a declaration of union membership and a set of demands including a living wage, guaranteed work hours, reinstatement of IWW baristas fired for organizing activity, and respect for an independent voice on the job.

Grand Rapids, Chicago and New York wobblies were also joined by Starbucks workers in Austria, England, Spain and Australia who demonstrated in front of stores to protest the company’s union-busting tactics.

The wobblies have practiced this type of coordinated global activities, international solidarity unionism, since the union’s founding in Chicago in 1905. Having created the universal labor motto, “an injury to one is an injury to all,” they see all those who work for a living as equal and refuse to be divided by international boundaries, politics, age, race, gender, craft, education, religion or workplace.

“For a company as profitable as Starbucks my fellow baristas and I should be better compensated for our work,” said Cole Dorsey, an IWW barista at the Wealthy St. store. “We hope to build on the achievements already won by the IWW Starbucks Workers Union in New York and Chicago, and improve our working conditions here in Grand Rapids.” After management got wind of the “union talk” at Starbucks cafes in Grand Rapids, all baristas citywide were forced to sign Starbucks corporate statement on unions. One victory already won at the Wealthy St. store is more consistent scheduling, which came about directly after workers began discussing the union.

In stark contrast to its employee-friendly image, Starbucks workers in Grand Rapids and around the world face low wages and barriers to health care and other benefits.

After years of promoting itself as a leader in employee health care, Starbucks was forced to admit that only 42% of its employees (including management) are covered by company health care- that figure is lower than Wal-Mart’s 47%, a company often condemned for its poor health care package.

In Grand Rapids, baristas start at only $7.25 per hour and, like all café workers at the company, are not guaranteed any number of work hours per week. Employees who expect to work full-time are often not given the necessary number of hours to qualify for health care benefits.

Founded in 2004, the IWW Starbucks Workers Union has won three wage increases, more consistent scheduling, and safety improvements at Starbucks stores across the country without the benefit of a traditional union contract.

Unlike mainstream unions, IWW organized workplaces do not wait for months and years for a contract to be ratified to begin changing the work environment.

Without a strike fund or huge treasury, wobs use their knowledge of the workplace and the legendary tactics that made them famous to pressure the company on the job, in the community, and around the globe, to win demands and remedy member grievances with management immediately.

The union’s organizing approach is known as solidarity unionism whereby workers themselves control their own organization. There is no central office looking over their shoulders telling them what and what not to do. A highly motivated and idealistic membership runs the uion with, few paid officials and an intense internal democracy that prevents bureaucracy, inertia and dues collecting from taking over the union.

Wobblies practice a bottom up, do it yourself-type unionism, not unlike that practiced by the CIO in the years before WWII. Many ex-wobblies taught the autoworkers, rubber workers, woodworkers and electrical workers how to organize.

Whenever possible the IWW Starbucks Workers Union, like the much larger mainstream unions UFCW and SEIU, routinely avoids using National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) government certified workplace elections or relying on U.S. labor law for enforcement.

Today U.S. labor organizations believe current labor laws to be almost useless in protecting worker rights. They are leading an effort in Congress to amend them against a firestorm of opposition from Walmart, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and the National Association of Manufacturers. In March, President Bush threatened to use the first veto of his presidency to kill the first attempt at labor law reform since the 1930s.

Starbucks does not recognize the union and is waging a relentless campaign to crush the organization, which resulted in a large complaint leveled against the company by the NLRB. The government settlement agreement of those charges is available on the web at http://www.starbucksunion.org/node/712.

According to a recent issue of the Nation, a New York based progressive national magazine, “baristas in Grand Rapids… announced that they were filing a legal complaint against the company for violating their organizing rights through unlawful surveillance and other questionable tactics.

When you pay $4 for a cup of coffee-flavored foamy milk at Starbucks, part of what you’re buying is an illusion of corporate social responsibility. The store exudes a warm glow of righteousness, from the recycled paper napkins to the empathetic messages about sustainable trade and ecological practices – Our farmers are happy! Buy a better lightbulb! Have some foamy milk! The workers behind the counter are hoping the public will look beyond the greenwashing and support the campaign… In New York, the NLRB has accused Starbucks of violating workers’ freedom of association in about thirty different ways, including illegally firing, threatening and disciplining workers for supporting the union. Managers forbade workers from talking about the union – even when off duty – or wearing union buttons. The trial is in June.

The widespread use of the internet by young people, coupled with the growing disenchantment with the naked and abusive power of global corporations, and the severe decline of the mainstream labor movement has revived the IWW in recent years. At the height of its power in the early 1920s, the IWW numbered over 100,000, declining to less than a few hundred in the early 1960s.

The IWW represented printers at the Eastown Community Association for several years in the late ’70s, until it closed.

Today the IWW is the only union that actively organizes globally while being the fastest growing union of young workers in the United States. Currently the IWW has branches and organized workplaces in Canada, England, Scotland, Australia, Germany and 28 U.S. states. Wobblies are recyclers, cinema staff, truckers, bicycle mechanics, university support staff, adjuncts, warehousemen, co-op printers, bike couriers, dock workers, teachers, professors and food service workers.

Those who are seeking more information about the Starbucks Union campaign can contact: Grand Rapids – Cole Dorsey, Barista and Union Member (616) 881-5263; Chicago – Joe Tessone, Barista and Union Member (815) 545-5273; New York – Daniel Gross, Organizer IWW Starbucks Workers Union (917) 577-1110; or the Industrial Workers of the World at IWW.org.