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Wobbly City: An interview with Alex von Schaick
A lex von Schaick is a worker at Starbucks Coffee Corporation and an organizer with the IWW Starbucks Workers Union.
GRUBACIC : Tell me a bit about yourself and the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW).
VON SCHAICK: I’ve been working for Starbucks in Manhattan at 29th Street for almost five months. I went public with my membership in the Industrial Workers of the World recently. Since I began my involvement with the IWW, I have become an active participant and organizer in both major IWW campaigns in New York.
In 1905 the organizers of the Industrial Workers of the World (or “Wobblies”) founded “one big union” to abolish wage slavery for the entire working class. This IWW strategy contrasted starkly with that of the conservative craft unions in the American Federation of Labor (AFL). The craft unions took care of only their own members. Thus, they divided the working class, allowing it to be conquered by the owning class. By embracing the entire working class, the Wobblies’ industrial unionism included all workers, regardless of race, gender, ethnic origin, or religion. The Wobblies organized lumberjacks in the Deep South to form the first fully integrated lumberjacks union. They organized multiracial locals of southern mill workers, iron miners, agricultural workers, and black longshore workers in New York City and Baltimore. One of the high points was their successful strike in 1912 in Lawrence, Massachusetts where 20,000 textile workers, a majority of whom were young women, won a long, bitter strike, in spite of police truncheons and militia bayonets.
What are the most important campaigns and organizing efforts of the New York City IWW today?
The IWW has two major union drives in New York City at the moment: the Starbucks Workers Union (SWU) and the Food and Allied Workers Union. The SWU is part of the IWW’s local of retail workers while the FAWU falls under the union’s food service and distribution. The SWU emerged almost three years ago and has become one of the most vibrant IWW campaigns in a long time. Since then, Starbucks workers have publicly declared their IWW membership in four states and many more continue to organize all over the country and the world.
What are the issues that you see with Starbucks? I thought they were a responsible corporation that treated their workers with respect and dignity.
Starbucks talks a “socially responsible” talk, but the reality is less pleasant. Starbucks fails to pay a living wage to its workers and shift supervisors. Through agitation, the union has pressured Starbucks to raise the initial wage in New York City from $7.75 an hour in 2004 to $8.75 an hour. However, Starbucks still has a nationwide policy that discriminates against long-term employees: after one substantial raise at six months with the company, you are only eligible for raises of 10-20 cents and your wage is capped at $11.00 an hour.
Starbucks’ scheduling policy compounds the low wages. All Starbucks workers and shift supervisors are mandatory part-time employees. Schedules change every week based on the managers’ discretion and business demands. On top of this, Starbucks does not guarantee a minimum number of weekly hours. A worker could receive 30 hours one week then 15 hours the next. This schedule makes it extremely difficult to live. Also, ironically, while many workers want more hours, Starbucks stores across the country are chronically understaffed.
IWW demonstration at a Starbucks in Edinburgh, Scotland—photo from www.starbucksunion.org
Scheduling is one of the areas where the union has been able to make a difference on the shop floor. When workers in New York organized with the IWW and went public with their union membership, they received an “unofficial” minimum guaranteed schedule of hours and gained more control over their scheduling.
I was reading recently the book Dynamite , a book about class violence in the U.S. by Louis Adamic. He discusses the diversity of tactics used by the Wobblies throughout history, always celebrating “abundant guts and revolutionary fervor.” Can you talk about the tactics chosen by the New York IWW?
Organizing at Starbucks, a powerful anti-union company, is an uphill battle and we constantly seek to refine our strategy to ensure sus- tainability. The union has won significant victories, such as higher wages, better scheduling in union shops, and a number of individual grievances. Initially, we tested the waters with a union certification petition through the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) as one part of a broader strategy. However the election petition resulted in an appeal. We felt we would either lose the appeal or the process would be drawn out for years, so we withdrew the petition.
Since then, we have emphasized “solidarity unionism.” Rather than focusing on winning majorities in every shop, we have used pressure tactics to resolve individual or store-wide grievances. When, for example, management began discriminating against a union member for wearing a pentagram, a symbol of her Wiccan beliefs, the union issued a press release and passed out leaflets to customers at her store detailing the situation. Within a week, we resolved the situation.
At a store with a union presence in Rockville, Maryland, workers confronted their district manager about a recent firing and won the fired worker reinstatement. So, even without formal union recog- nition from Starbucks, we were able to affect changes.
Still, Starbucks’ anti-union campaign has made organizing extremely difficult. Starbucks illegally fired two IWW organizers in 2005. A year later the NLRB bro- kered a settlement that forced the company to reinstate both organizers and agree to cease and desist all illegal surveillance, discrimination, and bribery in its efforts to bust the union. Since the agreement, Star- bucks has fired another six organizers and has continued other illegal means of discouraging union membership.
One of the most potent weapons the Starbucks Workers Union does have is publicity. The union has developed a sophisticated campaign, which aims to hold Starbucks accountable and create a more favorable climate for organizing.
I have met some NYU students who seem really excited about the Justice from Bean to Cup campaign. Is this a related effort?
Part of Starbucks’ formula for success has been its socially responsible brand. Starbucks makes customers feel like they are doing “good” while getting their coffee fix. Each one-pound bag of beans reads: “Good coffee, doing good. We believe there’s a connection between the farmers who grow our coffees, us and you…. By drinking this coffee, you’re helping us make a difference.” By the same token, the company also touts its “stellar” treatment of its employees.
The SWU launched a Justice from Bean to Cup campaign to force Starbucks to live up to its socially responsible image. Justice from Bean to Cup combines a number of different approaches. Students at NYU joined the campaign and asked NYU to stop serving Starbucks bottled Frappuccino beverages on campus; a worker-led delegation went to meet coffee farmers in Ethiopia; and we have just released a short documentary entitled Partners? and a Starbucks “Corporate Irresponsibility Report” that highlights our experiences in Ethiopia as well as organizing on the shop floor.
Amersino grocery warehouse workers in NYC sign up to join the IWW in 2006 —photo from www.wobblycity.org
The IWW in New York is more than just Starbucks, right? Haven’t you won some victories in Brooklyn?
The Food and Allied Workers Union (FAWU) aims to organize low-wage, mainly immigrant workers in the hundreds of restaurant distribution warehouses that pepper the industrial districts in Northern Brooklyn and Queens. The campaign started in the summer of 2005 when IWW organizers met two warehouse workers at the Bushwick community center. The workers complained of terrible conditions at Handyfat Trading. They received $280 for a 60-plus hour week (roughly $4.50 per hour with no overtime—in 2005 the New York State minimum wage was $6.00 per hour), they had no sick or personal days, and their manager would frequently launch into tirades, calling them “dirty Mexicans.”
As the campaign developed, the IWW learned that these working conditions characterized the entire food distribution industry, as well as the kitchens in most restaurants. Warehouse and restaurant owners— often immigrants themselves—systematically abused and paid below minimum wage to their mostly immigrant workforce and relied on inter-ethnic ties or the threat of deportation to keep their workers quiet.
By December 2005, nine of Handyfat’s employees had joined the IWW and marched on their shop to declare their union membership and demand proper wages. Within several months, the union won a minority contract, complete with wage increases, sick days, vacation time, and other perks. More importantly, the threat of worker action silenced the most abusive manager.
In 2006 the union organized four other warehouses. In late April the owner of Amersino Marketing Group rigged the union election by bringing in a fictitious “night shift” to vote against the union. The following day he illegally fired several union leaders. After ten months in court, an NLRB judge ordered Amersino to reinstate two of the fired workers. The union plans to appeal to win reinstatement for a third worker who was erroneously left out of the decision.
At EZ-Supply/Sunrise Plus Marketing Corp., workers won their NLRB election and forced their employer to pay the legal wage. In November 2006 the union finally dragged management to the bargaining table and hammered out a tentative contract.
Instead, in December 2006, the owners of several warehouses, including Handyfat and EZ-Supply, decided to play their trump card. Also in December the union filed back wages class action suit on behalf of workers at these same shops. Over Christmas, workers at Handyfat, EZ-Supply, and a third warehouse, Top City Produce, received identical letters from management requesting them to furnish immigration papers or be dismissed. Many of the workers had been employed at these warehouses for over a decade and had never been asked to show any documentation of their immigration status. Legally, an employer must request proper documentation within the first 72 hours of work. The week after Christmas, the management at EZ-Supply fired all 14 union workers. The next day IWW representatives served them with a summons regarding the union’s back wage case. The next week, Handyfat followed suit.
What was the role of the community in this struggle?
The response from the community has been terrific. While there have been a lot of lonely picket lines over the last year, several hundred supporters marched for justice on Martin Luther King Day and Presidents’ Day. El Diario , New York’s largest Spanish-language daily, has run several substantial articles on the situation, as has the Daily News and various community papers. We have also been increasing economic pressure on EZ-Supply by convincing its customers to switch to other suppliers. While we aren’t waiting for the NLRB or any other government agency, the NLRB is conducting an investigation into the firings.
The Department of Justice is investigating the improper request for immigration papers, which could result in jail time for the owners of EZ-Supply and Handyfat.
T he major impediment both campaigns face stems from a lack of resources. As a small labor union with a broad vision of social change, we don’t have the funds and people power we need. This means we desperately need an office where we can hold meetings and keep our materials, yet New York City’s high rents keep this out of reach. The Food and Allied Workers Union’s organizing efforts are hampered by the lack of a volunteer organizer who speaks Mandarin or Cantonese. Fundraising efforts on behalf of the SWU and FAWU are underway and will hopefully bear fruit. Additionally, the Starbucks Workers Union and Justice from Bean to Cup hope to recruit students.
How do you explain the recent resuscitation of the IWW?
Although the IWW has been in existence for the last 102 years, membership rapidly declined after WWII. For the next five decades or so a small group of people kept the organization alive, without doing a whole lot of large-scale organizing. Over the last six or seven years, union membership and the number of serious IWW organizing drives have grown dramatically.
I see a lot of factors accounting for the gaining notoriety of the IWW. I think that the neoliberal revolution initiated by Reagan in the U.S. and Thatcher in the UK should put to rest the notion that employers and workers share common cause. Organized labor’s response to the neoliberal assault initiated by Reagan has been remarkably timid. In the face of privatization, deregulation, and the erosion of U.S. manufacturing jobs, labor presented a defensive strategy that attempted to mitigate the damage. Even with the increase in funds spent on organizing that has followed the AFL-CIO split, the percent of unionized workers in the U.S. has continued to go down. As the ship is sinking, you have career bureaucrats like Andy Stern, president of Change to Win, proposing a “new” unionism that represents a repackaged version of conservative strategies that have dominated the AFL-CIO’s thinking for the last 55 years.
The IWW, on the other hand, has always maintained a broader vision of rank-and-file unionism and democracy in the workplace that many people find an attractive alternative to the myopia of labor officials. My intent isn’t to be sectarian or lambast all union officials, many of whom have spent their lives fighting for workers’ rights. You will see Wobblies on the picket line of any union that has asked for our solidarity and we have very strong ties with many AFL-CIO and Change to Win locals and rank-and-file unionists in these organizations. Rather, I’m trying to argue against an age-old labor strategy that refuses to acknowledge class conflict, lacks a vision of transforming the world of work, and encourages an alienated patron-client mentality among rank- and-file members, rather than an empowered, participatory one.
Another phenomenon is that many veteran activists from the global justice movement see organizing in the IWW as a logical step forward from the street protests against corporate globalization. For this group of people, the IWW represents an action-oriented vehicle for creating positive change in the economic sphere.
Another factor is the Starbucks Workers Union campaign, which has attracted a lot of attention in the media around the country and has sparked the imagination of many young people. I hope that the experience of the Food and Allied Workers Union, as it becomes better publicized, will inspire more people to get involved with the IWW.
Andrej Grubacic is an anarchist historian and contributor to Z.
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