LOCAL SPIN: Bullying the Baristas
Starbucks CEO forces workers to schmooze for the right.
Thursday, February 7, 2013
The billionaires peddling austerity have always insisted they’re in it for the common man. A recent TV ad for Fix the Debt – the well-heeled group demanding we cut tax rates and Social Security benefits – stars a teacher and a farmer. But Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz did his peers one better: conscripting low-wage workers into the austerity army.
After Christmas, Schultz announced an effort to “use our company’s scale for good by sending a respectful and optimistic message to our elected officials.” The occasion: “the tremendously important, time-sensitive issue to fix the national debt.” The medium: D.C.-area Starbucks “partners” (meaning workers) would write “Come Together” on customers’ cups.
“Imagine the power of our partners and hundreds of thousands of customers each sharing a simple message, one cup at a time,” Schultz wrote on the Starbucks blog.
Days before the so-called New Year’s “fiscal cliff” deadline, the Starbucks stunt seized a chunk of media attention. Some celebrated its spunk; others slammed its seeming naïveté. A smaller number noted the moral bankruptcy of its premise: that the national debt is a crisis, and one the working class should sacrifice to fix. But in mainstream circles, there was little outrage over what was most outrageous about the campaign: Starbucks’ decision to draft its employees as a delivery system.
Schultz’s use of hourly employees was both shrewd and deceptive. Logistics aside, a Come Together message inscribed by a billionaire CEO and printed on coffee cups could never pack the same punch as one that was handwritten by workers making $8-something an hour. Schultz’s blog post was followed by a mass email from Fix the Debt, bragging, “Baristas at Starbucks are showing their support for bipartisan solutions this week.” CEOs hawking “shared sacrifice” are a dime a dozen. A working-class seal of approval is much more valuable, even if it’s coerced. (Starbucks officials assured CNN that workers could decline to participate.)
As sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild observed, the service sector is replete with “emotional labor”: not just physical production, but interpersonal performance. Workers are paid not only to perform a task but to act out a part – from speaking from a company script, to smiling despite verbal abuse or physical pain, to urging that Congress embrace a deal that could imperil their retirement.
The episode illustrates the rise of political coercion in the workplace. That trend drew rare attention last year with a series of stories about companies that told their employees whom to vote for (Koch Industries), tracked workers’ political donations (Murray Energy) or warned of layoffs if President Obama was re-elected (Westgate Resorts). In the Citizens United era, companies have even greater freedom to impose their politics on employees, from convening a mandatory meeting devoted to political “persuasion” to firing an employee for affixing the wrong candidate’s bumper sticker.
American law generally protects the freedom of bosses to force their politics on workers, but not the freedom of workers to take independent political action (even outside work) without being fired. Political scientist Corey Robin points out that this is a continuation of an old British common-law principle: The worker, wherever she goes, is an extension of her boss’s will.
Companies that flaunt this power too openly may risk public backlash. So perhaps it’s no coincidence that Starbucks deployed it in the service of an austerity push that, in much of mainstream media discourse, no longer registers as “political,” let alone controversial. Four days after Schultz announced his Come Together plan, Meet the Press hosted five prominent commentators and President Obama, not one of whom disputed the need for Medicare and Social Security to go under the knife.
What would break Schultz’s power to extract mash notes from his employees? Unionization. A handful of Starbucks franchises in supermarkets or convention centers have negotiated union contracts, and (without formal collective bargaining) members of the Industrial Workers of the World have won wage increases and scheduling improvements by organizing at Starbucks in New York City and Chicago.
But Starbucks, while cultivating a progressive image, is overwhelmingly non-union. In 2009, the National Labor Relations Board found that Starbucks had illegally fired leaders of an IWW campaign in Minneapolis. That same year, as organized labor pushed to pass the Employee Free Choice Act, a law that would make it easier for workers to win union recognition, Schultz joined the CEOs of Whole Foods and Costco in vocal opposition.
Mercifully, they kept that proposal off the coffee cups.
JOSH EIDELSON is a contributor to The Nation.