Will baristas bring a revolution in worker organizing?

In June of 2016, Starbucks baristas began to notice a change in the way their stores were being scheduled all across the US. More and more of them were working short-staffed, and it soon became apparent that the company had changed its scheduling algorithm to allow stores fewer hours, especially during peak times.

Worker leader Jaime Prater launched a Coworker.org petition calling on Starbucks to improve morale by re-staffing the stores, and in less than a month, that petition had reached 10,000 signatures, most of them from Starbucks workers. These workers (who were both front-line baristas and store managers) didn’t just leave signatures—many of them left substantial comments about their complaints: “As a store manager, it really hurts to write a schedule knowing that it’s going to feel understaffed,” or “Ive (sic) been a partner for over nine years, and this is the worst I have ever seen it. Lines to the door, drinks wrapping around the bar, and they just keep coming.”

Coworker.org organizers have been building relationships with thousands of baristas since they saw the launch of their first Starbucks-related petition back in August of 2014. That petition, which asked Starbucks to change their dress code to allow baristas to have visible tattoos, took off when a handful of baristas posted it to private Facebook groups. As Coworker staff saw the petitions signatures rising, they stepped in to help workers develop a press strategy that would move the campaign forward. “There is a sense that things move forward quickly online,” said Coworker co-founder Michelle Miller, “but that’s not true with this. We’re moving at a human scale—this is run by workers. We could have pushed things from the top, but we want workers to learn things on their own, and to lead the campaign.”

Tim Newman, a Coworker organizer told me, “We knew we would need press to win, so we had to find workers that would talk to the press. There was a committee, and people stepped up in their own ways and connected with each other.” The tattoo petition campaign was covered by national news outlets, and in October 2014, workers got their first taste of victory when Starbucks announced that they were changing the policy, and that workers who had tattoos on their arms would be able to wear short sleeves.

Coworker’s Starbucks network continued to grow over the next two years, as workers started petitions on wages, paid sick leave, and other dress code issues, and at this point, fully 10% of Starbucks employees have joined one or more of these campaigns. Coworker also started a curated email newsletter that directly reflects the experience of baristas inside the workplace—and connected the petitions on issues that had been started by baristas. When petitions are started on similar issues, staff will connect the petition generators to see if they want to work together, but “one worker might be in a better position to promote it, there are so many variables, it’s much more an art than a science,” says Miller.

As the traditional labor movement struggles to develop new models of organizing that reflect the way work has changed from the Twentieth Century, there are a few bright spots in figuring out new ways of building worker power that meet the needs of workers today, many of them being innovated by women- and people-of-color-led organizations. Coworker, along with organizations like the National Domestic Worker Alliance, the Restaurant Opportunities Center, the Taxi Workers’ Alliance, and my own employer, the National Guestworker Alliance, are pioneering new methods of building power for workers.

Baristas who work at the whim of a global corporation are emblematic of a much larger class of US workers that the labor movement has struggled to meaningfully engage with—those who have precarious employment, and often lack power in society—and as their numbers grow, their problems increasingly affect us all. For organizers who are used to building power through intensive one-on-one conversations conducted in workers’ kitchens, and who’ve fought to get back workers’ jobs after they were fired for organizing, the idea that real power can be built without a fight can seem like a stretch.

In discussing the challenges of their work, Coworker’s Miller says, “sometimes the momentum of workers inside the network is faster than we have the capacity to keep up with. If they are taking risks, we want to be able to support them to succeed—we don’t want people to try a bunch of things and fail at all of them.” Currently, Coworker has three staff—not nearly enough to support the 30,000 baristas who have signed petitions on their site, much less all the other workers who have started petitions there.

One important thing to keep in mind, as people develop pilots and experiments in the worker organizing space, is that platform unions will invariably not look exactly like traditional unions. Platform unions might, for example, be able to create some kind of grievance-like intervention—but it is more likely that platform unions will be successful at winning class-action grievances, than that they will have the resources to spend on winning hundreds of individual grievances in a year, as a typical union local might.

Coworker.org and many of the other worker centers and national organizations that are commonly categorized as “alt-labor” are primarily funded through grants from foundations—unlike the traditional labor movement, which has been almost exclusively funded by members’ dues. As online organizing takes more prominence in the work of economic justice organizers, platform unions will need to create new ways of generating the income needed to support their work.

Some potential business models for platform unions could involve creating certification mechanisms that are either worker- or employer-focused. For example—an employer might decide that it needs to find workers who are CPR-certified, or bilingual, or can change a tire quickly—and a platform union could create a pool of certified workers who have been tested and found to hold those skills. Similarly, a platform union could develop a checklist of approved policies, and certify a business as a good employer, to workers who are considering working there. In both of these cases, the cost of certification would be paid by the employer or business.

Another, as-yet-untested tool that platform unions might develop are data collection products, for collecting information about working conditions across stores inside a retail chain’s network, or across an entire industry. Coworker is interested in moving into this space, as is HourVoice, an employer-rating app recently launched in the Chicago area. It’s possible that, as workers become more comfortable with rating their employers online (and are confident about their privacy when doing so) that we’ll start to see class-action wage theft cases that are jointly brought by platform unions and a group of workers from a local, regional or national chain.

A dues model is possible, although in the absence of a collective bargaining agreement that provides greater value than the amount of the dues, it will be hard to make that mandatory. No one wants to pay more in dues to their union than they are getting in raises, every year. However, a platform union could also create a fee-for-service model that helps workers get training that helps them move up the career ladder, or into a new job classification—in the way that union Training & Upgrading Funds, or apprenticeship programs have historically done. One could imagine that a platform union might be able to access workforce development funds that help workers grow new skills.

It can be hard to imagine that an online network of low-wage workers, no matter how tightly linked by technology, is going to be able to replicate the financial stability of the kind that was built by payroll dues checkoff—or that foundations will be reliable sole funders for training and certification that ultimately may benefit commercial employment platforms like Uber or Task Rabbit, if those platforms don’t themselves have skin in the game.

This wouldn’t be an article about digital organizing and unions if it didn’t ask about the role of offline organizing—and while I am a firm advocate of the need for unions in general to beef up their online game, there’s no argument that a face to face conversation is better than a text-based one. One next step, for Coworker and other platform unions, will be to figure out what kinds of value can come from bringing together workers that might not work in the same industry, but exist in the same region, to brainstorm about tactics and just build relationships. One Coworker member—who launched a successful petition to raise wages at her local restaurant chain, after they announced they were reducing all the wait staff to $2.13/hour—pulled together a Labor Day picnic, to meet people in person. As platform unions become more mature, they will invariably have (at least in some cities) the ability to make offline connections. But we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that an asynchronous online connection is sometimes the best way of reaching someone—especially workers with disabilities, or those with significant parenting or elder care responsibilities, or who is holding down multiple jobs with insecure schedules.

What digitally-savvy worker organizations do have going for them, in the 21st century, is an increased ability to shame corporations, which are more sensitive to brand damage than ever before. Whereas 20th century union organizers had to rely on the nightly news and the daily paper to get their message out and worker struggles rarely became a national story, today’s worker organizations can make an impact by connecting people across the country in a matter of minutes or hours.

At this writing, Jaime Prater’s petition about Starbucks’ scheduling problems has over 17,000 signatures. On the strength of other baristas’ interest, Prater crowdsourced recommendations to the company about hours, pay and perhaps most importantly, making their workers feel valued. After making public and then emailing those recommendations to the company’s CEO, Prater got a return phone call from Howard Schultz himself. The scheduling problems haven’t been fixed yet—but they’ve certainly gotten the company’s attention.

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