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Reverend Billy’s Revelations: Looking Back on the Long Struggle to Unionize Starbucks

Issue 269

"We sip our cappuccinos on the shoulders of giants," Reverend Billy says in this month's advice column.

Reverend Billy Talen Feb 14

Hi Billy,
I remember when you used to focus your ministry more on crusading against chain stores like Starbucks that suck the life out of the communities they plant themselves in. I feel you. So imagine my surprise at the news of Starbucks stores across the country starting to unionize. Who would have imagined these centers of empty capitalist consumption would become hubs of radical activism? These mostly younger workers insist collective action is the solution to their collective problems. The kids are alright as far as I’m concerned.

ROBERT
Jackson Heights

Well, Robert, your enthusiasm is important, and yet, here: The struggle to organize the retail behemoth with their bland monoculture and mean-ass treatment of baristas goes back almost 20 years. And these aren’t just kids, Robert — there are mothers and fathers steaming the milk at Starbucks. The National Labor Relations Board must have big files on the company for firing organizers, which is illegal. The union push back then was the century-old anti-authoritarian International Workers of the World (the IWW, or, affectionately, the Wobblies). Among the baristas harassed at work with changing hours and lurking yuppie goons were Daniel Gross, Suley Ayala (an Ecuadorian mother of four) and Sarah Bender — there were scores of sheroes and heroes from here to New Zealand facing down the proto-Bezos billionaire Howard Schultz.

Daniel Gross

This gentrification mogul — you have to admire in-broad-daylight theft — ripped off the history-making excitement of coffee culture. So many uprisings, including the founding of our “USA,” the cultural revolution of Cabaret Voltaire and the surrealists in politicized virtual reality coffee house — the neoliberal empire of Starbucks. In fact, the real-estate takeover by Starbucks is right-wing politics at its purest, with neighborhood diners upended by Wall Street-financed monoculture.

The Church of Stop Shopping supported the IWW efforts in 2005 and 2006 with in-store concerts and staged theatrical pieces by actors in the choir. We’re pulling for you folks in Buffalo and everywhere! Call us if you need a good radical choir to celebrate your bold move! You can sleep on our couches!

(We are banned from Starbucks so we might have to sing from the sidewalk…)

So, Robert, these are not kids, and this didn’t just happen. Even in 2005, Daniel Gross wasn’t claiming that he was the liberator of the Starbucks baristas. As he tried to get his job back, he listened patiently to the confessions of workers then working for $8 an hour, unable to pay for the subway fare, punished with reduced hours for tending to a death in the family. I remember Daniel talking about struggles by farmers against bank foreclosures in the 30’s, the Red Scare in the 50’s, IWW co-founder Emma Goldman’s children’s march in 1903 and Paul Robeson lifting his great voice with the songs of Joe Hill … We sip our cappuccinos on the shoulders of giants!

—R

REVEREND BILLY TALEN IS THE PASTOR OF THE CHURCH OF STOP SHOPPING. HAVE A QUESTION FOR THE REVEREND? EMAIL REVBILLY@ REVBILLY.COM AND UNBURDEN YOUR SOUL.

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