Committee Advances Bills to Increase Protections for Farmworkers / by Andy O’Brien


Originally published in the Maine AFL-CIO News on June 2, 2023

The Maine AFL-CIO applauds the Legislature’s Labor & Housing Committee for advancing a bill that will improve wages and working conditions for thousands of farmworkers in Maine.

“For too long, farmworkers have struggled with low wages and lack of rights and protections that other workers enjoy. This legislation will ensure that workers in the agricultural industry are finally eligible for our state minimum wage and that they are protected from retaliation when discussing wages and working conditions amongst each other,” said Matt Schlobohm, Executive Director of the Maine AFL-CIO. “This is a compromise that will meaningfully improve the lives of thousands of hardworking people in Maine who put food on our tables. We look forward to it becoming law.”

Workers in agriculture were intentionally excluded from benefits and protections in the National Labor Relations Act, which protects the rights of workers to unionize and collectively bargain. Farmworkers were also originally exempted from wage and overtime protections in the federal Fair Labor Standards Act.

Although current law requires that farmworkers be paid at least the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour, they are still not eligible to be paid overtime when working over 40 hours a week. They are also not considered employees under Maine law, so they are not eligible for the state minimum wage of $13.80 and are not entitled to overtime when working over 40 hours a week.

House Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross introduced LD 398 and LD 525 to fix these historic inequities and grant farmworkers the right to unionize and be overtime eligible. A stakeholder group met repeatedly on these bills.

The amended version of LD 398 is a compromise that will officially – and finally – make farmworkers employees under Maine labor law. This means that the measure will make them eligible for the state minimum wage of $13.80 and be protected from working more than 80 hours of overtime in any consecutive two-week period. In addition, the amendment will grant farm workers the right to engage in “concerted activity” to improve their wages and working conditions without fear of intimidation or retaliation. This includes:

  • Workers discussing wages, working conditions, terms of employment and/or other matters related to their employment amongst themselves;
  • Conferring with their employer with regard to wages, working conditions, terms of employment and other matters related to their employment;
  • Conferring with organizations that provide services to agricultural employees; government agencies and the press;
  • Publicizing complaints about wages, working conditions, terms of employment and other matters related to their employment, and
  • Taking any action to file, prosecute, testify about, participate in the investigation of or support in any way a complaint about a violation by an agricultural employer

Farmworkers are some of the lowest paid workers in Maine and the most exploited. A 2020 report found that nationally farm employers stole $76 million in wages from 154,000 workers over 20 years. Agriculture also ranks among the most dangerous sectors with one of the highest fatal injury rates. Workers are vulnerable to sexual abuse, extreme heat waves, toxic pesticides and accidents with heavy machinery.

The committee also voted to carry over LD 525which would give farmworkers the right to unionize, until the next legislative session.

Andy O’Brien is the communications director for the Maine AFL-CIO, a statewide federation of 160 local unions representing 40,000 workers. However, his opinions are his own and don’t represent the views of his employer. He is also a member of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1445.

Workers confront bosses at Starbucks headquarters, NLRB backs them / by Mark Gruenberg

Starbucks workers like these in Iowa City are part of a nationwide wave of workers unionizing. | Starbucks Workers United/Twitter

Originally published in the People’s World on May 12, 2023

NEW YORK—Starbucks workers seeking to unionize the giant coffee chain have had a busy and hectic time, centered around a May Day march on its Manhattan headquarters to demand the firm sit down and bargain contracts with workers at unionized stores, as a group.

So did a National Labor Relations Board administrative law judge in Boston, Bloomberg News reported. The judge filed his overriding labor law-breaking decision on April 26, even before dozens of New York-New Jersey metro area Starbucks workers jammed the corporation’s lobby on May 1. They met silence from a stony-faced security guard.

“Instead of engaging in a conversation, corporate managers just stood there silently and did not accept the petition, which was signed by workers and local elected officials in solidarity,” Starbucks Workers United tweeted after posting video of the May Day standoff on its twitter feed. “Why is  @Starbucks corporate so afraid of even speaking w/ workers, who it calls partners?”

“Starbucks CEO Laxman Narasimhan,” successor to founder and lead stockholder Howard Schultz, “is continuing Starbucks’ ruthless union-busting campaign that includes firing over 230 union leaders across the country and shuttering union stores. Starbucks continues to attempt to undercut the union by refusing to bargain.”

It uses ‘flimsy complaints such as the size of the bargaining committee,” the unionists said in a statement before a Chicago press conference, also on May Day.

The NLRB’s administrative law judge agreed. He declared Starbucks broke labor law by refusing to bargain with the workers at a minimum of 144 stores as a group, as the pro-union workers and SWU demand.

The judge’s ruling doesn’t count more NLRB charges filed against Starbucks at four Chicago stores, also on May Day. Most involved rampant labor law-breaking at the Hyde Park Starbucks, at East 55th St. and South Woodlawn Ave., across 55th from the University of Chicago.

Those counts include illegal discipline, illegal one-on-one meetings, and eventual illegal firing last year of Hyde Park pro-union worker Jasper Booth-Hodges, NLRB Administrative Law Judge Geoffrey Carter said. He added Starbucks illegally disciplined worker Maria Fantozzi of the Logan Square store for wearing an anti-coronavirus mask sporting the words, “United we bargain, divided we beg.”

Other Chicago charges were filed against Starbucks stores on the North Side, including the store at North Clark St. and North Ridge Ave. There City Councilman Andre Vasquez, D-40th Ward, joined workers to demand bargaining, too, and to denounce company labor law-breaking.

That labor law-breaking, according to the administrative law judge, includes refusal to bargain in good faith, just like in the larger case.

In the big NLRB complaint, Starbucks retorted it wants to bargain store by store, one by one, with attendance limited and excluding local bargaining committees for that particular store. Starbucks also demands banning any Starbucks worker who cares to zoom in.

The NLRB’s mass bargaining ruling, from in its Boston region, was followed by the May Day march and the workers’ decision to post all their negotiating points on the Internet.

The action didn’t stop when May Day ended. It just shifted elsewhere. The most-notable shift was a May 10 sit-in at Cornell University’s administration building. That group noted Starbucks retaliated for pro-union votes at its four Ithaca, N.Y., area stores by declaring it will close them.

Students and workers hit back with their sit-in and a petition demanding Cornell sever all ties with Starbucks and find another coffee vendor for its dining halls. The university president accepted the petition, but made no promises.

The big action, though, was on the Internet and in the Big Apple.

In New York, baristas and other workers jammed the company’s lobby, brandishing their petition that Starbucks finally come to the bargaining table, and reading summaries of their stands. Individual workers stepped forward to complain of bad conditions, up to and including sexual harassment by local managers and customers. The stony-faced security guard did not reply.

“Instead of engaging in a conversation, corporate managers just stood there silently and did not accept the petition, which was signed by workers and local elected officials in solidarity,” Starbucks Workers United tweeted after posting video of the May Day standoff on its twitter feed. “Why is  @Starbucks corporate so afraid of even speaking w/workers, who it calls partners?”

“Starbucks workers from California to Maine, from Florida to Washington, face a lot of the same issues such as short staffing and unpredictable schedules,” SWU explained. “Low wages and unaffordable healthcare. Sexual and racial harassment, broken equipment, unfair discipline, and workplace favoritism. For this reason, we are seeking a national framework of agreements with Starbucks that, when signed, will solve these issues we’re all facing.”

Then, just to ensure the world knows what the Starbucks workers want, they started reading summaries of their positions, and posted them in detail on SWU’s site. Summaries include:

  • Right to organize: “Immediately halt all interference and intimidation and to agree to a fair process for union votes. When we secure Fair Election Principles as part of our contract with Starbucks, the company will be held to an ethical code of conduct designed to safeguard the organizing process.”
  • Discipline only for just cause, establishment of a grievance procedure and seniority rights, all spelled out within the contract covering all the stores.
  • Base pay of $20 hourly for baristas, with higher bases in high-cost areas, and 5% annual raises plus cost-of-living adjustments. And Starbucks must enroll all its workers, and pay on their behalf, into its 401(k) plan, regardless of how many hours they work.
  • Guaranteed and consistent working schedules.
  • Safety on the job to feature “a strong commitment to racial justice, including protections against racial harassment and bigotry from customers, co-workers and managers and zero tolerance of sexual harassment.” Starbucks would have to make and keep “respect and dignity commitments” to workers, and establish joint safety committees at each store to tackle unsafe working conditions.
  • 100% company-paid health insurance with $10 maximum worker co-pays for full- and part-timers. The insurance should cover not just medical care and prescription drugs but dental and vision care and life insurance, and “improved access to mental health services.” Insurance would also cover domestic partners and would restore benefits to transgender people. Starbucks cut them off last Oct. 1.

Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People’s World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but a holy terror when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.El galardonado periodista Mark Gruenberg es el director de la oficina de People’s World en Washington, D.C. También es editor del servicio de noticias sindicales Press Associates Inc. (PAI).

“Maybe, just maybe, working people deserve to afford a damn hamburger!” / by Mark Gruenberg

When it was suggested that raising the minimum wage would be a problem for companies that need to make profits Sen. Sanders responded that a sharp raise in the wage would help everyone. He declared: “Maybe, just maybe, working people deserve to be able to afford a damn hamburger.” | Bernie Sanders, via Twitter

Originally published in the People’s World on May 5, 2023

WASHINGTON—With strong union support—and a phalanx of low-wage workers of color backing him—Senate Labor Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders, Ind-Vt., formally introduced his legislation raising the federal minimum wage to $17 an hour over five years.

Though Sanders promised the panel will advance the legislation on May 14, getting it beyond that may be tough—which is where the workers, the AFL-CIO and the Service Employees, represented by Presidents Liz Shuler and Mary Kay Henry, come into the picture.

That’s because both said, in interviews after Sanders’ Capitol Hill May 4 outdoor press conference, that organized labor will put pressure on lawmakers to approve the increase, overcoming expected corporate and Republican opposition.

If enacted, Sanders’s legislation, would be the first minimum wage hike law since 2007. That increase stretched through 2009, to the current federal minimum, $7.25.

“In the year 2023, in the richest country in the history of the world, nobody should have to be working for starvation wages,” Sanders, workers’ longest, strongest congressional supporter, stated. “Maybe, just maybe, working people deserve to afford a damn hamburger.”

Workers at the press conference welcomed his increase, as both the senator and other speakers pointed out that the current $7.25 hourly isn’t enough to live on. That level also hurts the economy by dragging low-wage workers down, said Economic Policy Institute President Heidi Shierholz.

The low-wage workers would spend the minimum wage increase on basics, like food, rent and health care, benefiting other workers, she explained. Meanwhile the rich expand the wage and wealth gap—and sock their money away or spend it on “billionaires’ rockets,” Shuler added.

Disproportionate shares of those low-wage and minimum-wage workers are people of color, working women and living in the South and other “red” states, speakers noted. Even voters in those states, given the choice at the ballot box, raise minimum wages, Sanders said.

Voters want a big increase

Nebraska did so, to $15, by a 60% vote last year, he noted. But white Republican legislatures in red states veto “blue” cities’ attempts to follow that lead. Sanders’s bill calls for a raise to a $17 minimum, spread over five years, because $17 an hour now equals $15 when he last tried to raise the wage, two years ago. Democratic Senate defections led to that loss.

“I’m here to bring the voices of 12 and a half million workers and 60 unions to this fight,” said Shuler. “I travel this country, talking to working people,” and the minimum wage workers she meets “are dishwashers, health care workers, Walmart greeters” and their colleagues.

“They tell me, ‘I can’t afford food.’ ‘I can’t go to the doctor.’ ‘I might be evicted because I can’t pay the rent’” while earning $7.25 an hour, even if they often work at two or three low-paying jobs. Raising the federal minimum wage to $15 hourly “is not radical.”

“We asked workers at a big summit last week” of low-wage workers how they would react to a minimum wage hike, Shuler added. “’I would quit my second job.’ ‘I would quit my third job.’ ‘I would spend more time with my family,’” were among the replies.

Mama Cookie Bradley of Eutawville, S.C. agreed. One of several workers at the press conference, she explained that after 30 years in South Carolina at minimum wage jobs at McDonald’s and Dollar General, she finally got a job paying $15 an hour. But it’s in Charleston, an hour-and-a-half one-way drive from Eutawville for Bradley, 64.

South Carolina is one of a phalanx of “red” states which refuse to raise their own minimum wages. In some, notably Alabama, right-wing Republican state lawmakers, beholden to the low-wage fast-food and restaurant industry, block their “blue” cities from hiking their own minimum wages, by nullifying city authority to enact pro-worker laws.

With a pattern like that, “That’s why we need a federal minimum wage” increase, said Sanders.

The workers laid out the case for how raising the minimum wage would help them and their families, and while Economic Policy Institute President Heidi Shierholz made the case economically for both the workers and the economy.

Henry, Shuler and SEIU Legislative Director John Gray discussed in follow-up interviews how to get the minimum wage hike past corporate and Republican opposition. And while he did not issue a statement for the increase after the May 4 press conference, Democratic President Joe Biden supports the $15 minimum wage, too.

In January 2022, in announcing his $15 minimum for 70,000 federal workers and 300,000 more who told for federal contractors, Biden said all workers should earn at least $15. “I continue to urge Congress to raise the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour, so that American workers can have a job that delivers dignity,” he said then.

Shuler said the labor movement would incorporate the minimum wage hike bill into its ongoing grass-roots political organizing “in all 50 states.” And unlike the past, she pointed out, labor is pushing grass-roots politics now, 365 days a year.

“You keep it connected to politics and mobilization,” she said of the minimum wage hike. “It’s an issue everybody understands.”

Henry and Gray said the threat of ballot box revenge may be the goad bringing over needed votes in the Republican-run House. She believes Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., will hear from his members about overwhelming constituent support for raising the minimum wage, and retribution in November 2024 if they vote “no.” So they’ll vote “yes.”

“The idea is he’ll give them”—other Republicans—“a pass,” said Gray.

Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People’s World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but a holy terror when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.El galardonado periodista Mark Gruenberg es el director de la oficina de People’s World en Washington, D.C. También es editor del servicio de noticias sindicales Press Associates Inc. (PAI).

Shuler on Deaths On The Job: ‘This report should not have to exist’ / by Press Associates

Construction sites are among many places where workers are injured and where workers die. Today is Workers Memorial Day, commemorating workers injured and killed on the job. | AFL-CIO

Posted in the People’s World on April 28, 2023

WASHINGTON—Flourishing a copy of this year’s AFL-CIO Deaths On The Job report, a very moved federation President Liz Shuler had a blunt message for the nation’s errant employers: “This report should not have to exist…These pages should be blank.”

She had good reason to say so.

Shuler joined a large crowd in the U.S. Labor Department’s main auditorium to honor the 5,190 workers killed on the job in calendar 2021, the latest federal data available, and the data the AFL-CIO uses for its annual report.

But unlike past years, this crowd was dominated by families of dead victims of employer neglect, malfeasance, and outright refusal to make working conditions safe.

Other victims, in videoed interviews, told of how they learned their loved ones died. Even though they knew they were being filmed, many of them broke down.

Shuler had to compose herself. Her short speech immediately followed the filmed interviews. It wasn’t easy. But she reminded the crowd and the nation that behind the dry numbers in the long report were real people who lived, died—and shouldn’t have.

“These pages should be blank,” she said with emphasis and a catch in her throat. “Every one” in the report “is someone who woke up one day, kissed their children or their partner goodbye, and expected to come back—and didn’t.

“We have to fight like hell to make sure not one more family goes through this.”

The pages of Death On The Job 2023: A Toll Of Neglect aren’t blank, though. They compiled details of the carnage in time for Workers Memorial Day, April 28. The first detail was positive: Since unions, led by the late Tony Mazzocchi, pushed the Occupational Safety and Health Act through Congress just over 50 years ago, calculations show it’s saved at least 688,000 workers’ lives.

“But over the years, the progress has become more challenging as employers’ opposition to workers’ rights and protections has grown, and attacks on unions have intensified,” the report says.

“Big corporations and many Republicans have launched an aggressive assault on worker protections. They are attempting to shift the responsibility to provide safe jobs from employers to individual workers, and undermine the core duties of workplace safety agencies.”

Despite the flak and outright opposition from the corporate class, the U.S. must stay committed to the goal of eliminating death, disease, and injury on the job, the report says. “Reducing burdens on families and communities must be a high priority,” it declares.

“Employers must meet their responsibilities to protect workers and be held accountable if they put workers in danger. Only then can the promise of safe jobs for all of America’s workers be fulfilled.” The report’s numbers show how far there is to go:

  • 5,190 workers were killed on the job in the United States in 2021, or one every hour and 40 minutes. The fatality rate rose to 3.6 per 100,000 workers. It was 4/100,000 for Blacks, the highest rate in 19 years.
  • “Employers reported nearly 3.2 million work-related injuries and illnesses,” and that figure doesn’t include all the coronavirus victims. But 1.5 million nursing home residents caught the modern-day plague. The report says the overall injury and illness toll is estimated at between 5.4 million and 8.1 million.

The illness figures also don’t count 120,000 workers who died from occupational diseases—everything from black lung to cancer caused by inhalation of toxic fumes, minute particles, or both.

Also not counted or inadequately counted: Musculoskeletal (ergonomic) injuries, heat-related illnesses and death, and the complete toll from workplace violence, a particular hazard to nurses.

  • The death rate for Latinos topped that for both Blacks and whites. Speakers noted workers of color are overrepresented in the most dangerous jobs.
  • On-the-job death rates were highest in Wyoming (10.4 deaths/100,000 workers, three times the national rate), North Dakota (9/100,000), Montana (8/100,000), Louisiana (7.7/100,000), and New Mexico and Alaska (6.2/100,000 workers each),

Energy production dominates all those states except maybe New Mexico, where it’s third. Energy industries had the third-highest death rate among all occupational groups (14.2 deaths/ 100,000 workers), trailing only farms, forests, and fishing (19.5/100,000) and transportation and warehousing (14.5/100,000). Construction was fourth (9.4/100,000).

  • OSHA’s still understaffed, even though it had 145 more job safety inspectors in 2021 than its 755 the year before. Those states which run their own OSHAs had 971 safety inspectors in 2021. Together, those two forces were so small and the number of workplaces, 10.8 million, was so large that it would take 190 years to inspect each U.S. workplace.
  • When OSHA flags firms for job safety and health violations, the fines—often negotiated downwards between the agency and employers—are small costs of doing business: An average of $4,534 per serious violation that U.S. inspectors found, and half of that for state OSHA inspections. Only 128 cases of wrongful death on the job have been prosecuted since OSHA began.

The report recommended hiring more inspectors, and vastly increasing the fines, among other moves. “in a country with the technology we have, there should not be a need to chronicle thousands of deaths,” Shuler said. “This is not a back-in-the-day problem, it’s a today problem.”

Press Associates Inc. (PAI), is a union news service in Washington D.C. Mark Gruenberg is the editor.

AFL-CIO’s Liz Shuler calls GOP demands an ‘affront to working people’ / by Mark Gruenberg

AFL-CIO President Liz Shuler | Michael Dwyer/AP

Originally published in the People’s World on April 28, 2023

WASHINGTON—AFL-CIO President Liz Shuler is describing the GOP demands to undo the progress made by the Biden administration in exchange for lifting the debt ceiling as an “affront to working people” and she has branded those demands as a complete cave-in by Speaker Kevin McCarthy to the radical right in his party.

Brushing aside protests from workers and their allies, the right-wing House Republican majority approved a $1.5 trillion increase in the U.S. debt limit coupled with 22%—at least—reductions in spending, and axing everything from green jobs to battling climate change to Project Labor Agreements for federally funded construction. The party-line vote was 217-215.

House passage, however, may be as far as this measure, HR2811, will get. Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., declared it “dead on arrival” there. Democratic President Joe Biden said he’ll accept only a “clean” debt limit hike to prevent a first-ever U.S. default—and veto anything else.

The debt limit hike is important because it will let the government keep paying money to cover past bills. If the limit is breached and the government defaults, millions—including Social Security and Medicare recipients and federal workers—will feel immediate financial pain.

Biden himself forecasts a default would immediately cost 870,000 jobs and throw the economy back into a depression. Other foes said the job losses could be even higher.

AFL-CIO President Liz Shuler was blunt about the bill’s impact, criticizing House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., who pushed the legislation through at the behest of his radical right Freedom Caucus, the 40-lawmaker tail that wags the Republican House dog.

“House @SpeakerMcCarthy’s default debt ceiling plan is an affront to working people,” Shuler tweeted at 3:16 pm, just before the vote. “The AFL-CIO is strongly urging Congress to reject this plan to careen our nation into default, which would tank the economy and put millions of workers at risk.

“The Limit, Save, Grow Act of 2023 poses an imminent threat to the retirement security of hundreds of thousands of Americans, life-supporting benefits, and programs for veterans, seniors, children, and low-income families,” her second tweet said.

“This misguided legislation will also harm our economy by slashing vital federal investments in clean energy & new technologies to expand domestic manufacturing & put millions of people to work.”

Adds more details

AFL-CIO Legislative Director Bill Samuel added more details.

McCarthy’s “reckless legislation would have devastating real-life effects on working families, students, veterans, the elderly and the disadvantaged,” Samuel wrote.

“The cuts would mean the end of Medicaid coverage for as many as 10 million low-income Americans. Countless children, families, and veterans would lose food assistance. The plan would reverse targeted debt relief for 40 million student borrowers and decrease aid to all 6.6 million Pell Grant recipients. It also would eliminate more than 200,000 Head Start slots for children.”

Veterans’ care, vaccines and personal protective equipment against the coronavirus, mass transit money, and “rebuilding our manufacturing base around clean energy jobs” would also be on the chopping block, Samuel said.

“Veterans care needs to grow, not shrink,” so the VA can care for the rising numbers of badly injured, but surviving veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars, Government Employees President Clarence Kelley, himself a veteran, wrote lawmakers. “For this reason alone, HR2811 should be defeated.” Biden wants a 5.4% increase in the VA’s budget.

And Treasury Employees President Tony Reardon said HR2811 would widen the federal deficit by $120 billion over a decade. That’s because McCarthy would eliminate money to hire and train 87,000 more IRS agents to go after rich and corporate deadbeats.

McCarthy’s cuts “also could jeopardize unspent funds in the multiemployer pension rescue plan, the ‘Butch Lewis Act,’” part of Biden’s anti-covid American Rescue Plan Act, Samuel said. “Destroying the retirement income security of more than one million hardworking Americans is an outrageous and unacceptable price for a debt deal.”

McCarthy “also would dim hopes of transitioning to a cleaner energy economy and rebuilding our manufacturing base around clean energy jobs,” Samuel said. But McCarthy’s bill tracks overall Republican support of fossil fuels, tax cuts for the rich, and denial of global warming.

Jason Walsh, executive director of the BlueGreen Alliance, the top union-environmentalist coalition, expanded on Samuel’s point. He called McCarthy’s bill “the Ship U.S. Jobs Overseas Act.”

“This bill would destroy Inflation Reduction Act investments that are already spurring job growth around our country building our clean energy future here at home,” he said. The measure “also kills policies” like Project Labor Agreements and prevailing wages “to ensure the jobs created are good-paying, safe jobs with workers who are properly trained. “

“And, they get rid of vital credits that would grow clean energy jobs in rural communities and communities that have suffered job losses for decades due to offshoring of manufacturing jobs.” Walsh estimated the tax credits would help create “green” factories employing 1.7 million people.

“Republicans in Congress want America’s energy future made overseas. President Biden and Democrats took action to manufacture it here. It’s as simple as that,” Walsh concluded.

Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People’s World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but a holy terror when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.El galardonado periodista Mark Gruenberg es el director de la oficina de People’s World en Washington, D.C. También es editor del servicio de noticias sindicales Press Associates Inc. (PAI).

Supreme Court considers ‘religious freedom’ ploy to undo labor rights / by David Sobelsohn

Gerald Goff, whose case is before the Supreme Court, sits in a pew in a church after an interview with the AP on March 8, 2023. The Supreme Court ruling in his case could give unprecedented power to right wing Christian nationalists, including the power to nullify union contracts under the false claim that they violate religious liberty. | Carolyn Kaster/AP

Originally published in the People’s World on April 24, 2023

WASHINGTON –On April 18, the Supreme Court faced a recurring issue: How much must employers bend the rules for employees who, based on their religious beliefs, demand special rights?

In 2012, Gerald Groff took a post-office job as a Rural Carrier Associate (“RCA”). The job required that he substitute for career carriers as needed, including on Sundays and holidays. But Groff, an Evangelical Christian, believes his religion forbids him to work on Sundays.

When Groff started work, the post office closed on Sundays. But in 2013, the Postal Service (“USPS”) agreed with to start delivering packages on Sundays. Then, in 2016, in a contract with the National Rural Letter Carriers Association, the Postal Service agreed RCAs would have to work, as needed, on Sundays, at least during “peak season.”

Groff still refused to work on Sundays.

For a time, the local postmaster found other carriers for Sundays. Some carriers, themselves churchgoers, had to work 15-hour shifts. Sometimes the postmaster himself delivered the mail. During one period, one carrier had to deliver mail every single Sunday.

In rural areas, USPS suffers from chronic understaffing. Among the small workforce at Groff’s post office, resentment grew. One carrier quit. Another transferred. A third filed a grievance.

Finally, realizing his insistence on never working on Sundays would eventually get him fired, Groff quit and sued Postmaster General Louis DeJoy.

The 1964 Civil Rights Act protects a worker’s religious “practice” unless the employer can show that to “accommodate” that practice would cause “undue hardship on the conduct of the employer’s business.”

In 1977, in Trans World Airlines v. Hardison, the Supreme Court considered a similar case of an employee’s refusal to work on his weekly sabbath. The court ruled employers need not “accommodate” an employee’s religious practice if doing so would cost more than “de minimis,” a legal term that means “trifling” or “trivial.”

In a footnote, the court observed that yielding to Hardison’s demands would either result in “substantial additional costs” or violate other TWA employees’ seniority rights under a collective-bargaining agreement.

The court, it said, would not interpret a law, designed to eliminate employment discrimination, to require employers to “discriminate against some employees” on “the basis of their religion,” just so other employees could practice theirs.

Lower federal courts ruled against Groff. The Supreme Court took the case. It wanted to know,

  • (1) whether it should reconsider its 1977 interpretation of “undue hardship” to mean “more than de minimis,” and
  • (2) whether employers can meet that test by showing that to “accommodate” an employee’s religious practice would burden coworkers, but not necessarily the business itself.

Aaron Streett, with the First Liberty Institute, a prominent rightwing Christian lawyers’ group, argued for Groff. He urged the justices to abandon the “more than de minimis” standard, claiming it’s confused lower courts.

Instead, employers who want to avoid accommodating employees’ religious practices should have to show accommodation would mean “significant difficulty or expense.” That standard is in other federal civil-rights laws, and both New York and California courts apply it under their civil-rights laws.

Even the Supreme Court, in the 1977 case, used “substantial additional costs,” a point Justice Brett Kavanaugh stressed.

Regarding the court’s second question, whether–whatever the test–employers can satisfy it by showing that to “accommodate” an employee’s religious practice would burden coworkers, Streett focused on the law’s text.

The 1964 Civil Rights Act requires that to escape liability, employers show “undue hardship on the conduct of the employer’s business.” Burdens on coworkers, Streett insisted, should matter only if they constitute an “undue hardship” on the business.

Responding to this argument, the AFL-CIO’s friend-of-the-court brief notes the 1964 Civil Rights Act requires employers to show “undue hardship” not on its business, but on the “conduct” of its business.

That includes having a religion-neutral Sunday rotation for mail carriers. The AFL-CIO also cited the “strong national labor policy” in favor of upholding collective-bargaining agreements, like USPS’s agreement with the Rural Letter Carriers.

Streett responded that completely protecting collective-bargaining agreements could allow employers and unions to negotiate away protection for employees’ religious practices.

Solicitor General Elizabeth Prelogar, representing the Postal Service, had an answer. Some collective-bargaining provisions just codify employer rules. But others fix employees’ rights as between themselves. Workers’ expectations, even labor peace, depend on those provisions. Overturning them would indeed impose an “undue hardship” on an employer.

In another brief, the American Postal Workers Union echoes a point the court itself made in 1977. Groff demands a special, religious preference, to the disadvantage of his coworkers who observe a different faith or no faith, it said.

Any interpretation of the Civil Rights Act to let Groff force his coworkers to give up their weekends so he can practice his faith would itself violate those coworkers’ rights to free exercise of religion. “A day off is not the special privilege of the religious.”

Both Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito questioned that reasoning. For them, the Constitution no longer requires neutrality between religious people and nonbelievers.

Thanks in large part to those two justices, the current court has approved, even promoted, discrimination in favor of religion. They see no problem with forcing employers to provide special advantages to people who profess a religious belief.

That assertion troubled Justice Kavanaugh. He wondered if it meant that only Christians with the “right” religious beliefs can get Sundays off, but not those whose faith permits working at least part of the day on Sunday.

On whether the court should reconsider the 1977 Hardison “more than de minimis” test, Prelogar urged the court to follow its 46-year-old precedent, applied nearly a half-century by lower courts. Any new standard, she argued, would destabilize this area of the law.

Groff’s case presents an even stronger argument for following precedent than did last year’s abortion case, Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. As Justice Elena Kagan pointed out, respect for prior decisions should peak with cases of interpreting statutes. Compared with a constitutional ruling, Congress can relatively easily change a statute.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor added Congress has done exactly that when it disagreed with the court’s interpretation of other statutes. Though Congress has repeatedly amended the 1964 Civil Rights Act, it has never modified the interpretation of “undue hardship” to mean “more than de minimis,” she said.

Besides, added Prelogar, lower courts, applying the “more than de minimis” test, have given religious workers “meaningful protection,” often denying employer claims of “undue hardship.” Nevertheless, in Groff’s case, the lower courts would find “undue hardship” under any proposed test.

Finally, Prelogar conceded the 1977 decision “interchangeably” used “substantial” and “more than de minimis.” But then, Justices Neil Gorsuch and Amy Coney Barrett proposed, the court should clarify that employers must show “substantial” costs, to prevent future courts from using the literal meaning of “de minimis” as “trivial” or “trifling.”

A decision in Groff v. DeJoy could have implications well beyond the claims of one evangelical Christian to take off Sundays. Already, a nurse has sued CVS, claiming, because of her religion, her employer can’t force her to prescribe certain contraceptives.

A ruling for Groff that forces employees to bear the costs of their coworkers’ religious exercise could also make individual workers compete for scarce employer solicitude, threaten labor agreements, dissolve workplace solidarity, and disempower workers.

A decision in Groff’s case is expected by early summer.

David Sobelsohn is the Supreme Court correspondent for Press Associates Inc. (PAI), the union news service in Washington D.C. Sobelsohn’s career has combined organizing and politics with teaching and scholarship.

Starbucks CEO Schultz raked over coals by Sanders in the Senate / by Mark Gruenberg

Former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz smugly drinks from a Starbucks mug as he is grilled by Sen. Bernie Sanders at a hearing of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions committee, Wednesday, March 29, 2023, in Washington. Sam Amato, left, of Buffalo, N.Y., listens in. Amato is a member of Starbucks Workers United and says he was illegally fired from Starbucks after 13 years. | All photos: Jacquelyn Martin / AP

Originally published in the People’s World on March 30, 2023

WASHINGTON—In an often-contentious 4-1/2-hour Senate hearing, Starbucks founder Howard Schultz denied, ducked and stonewalled workers’ reports and National Labor Relations Board findings of the monster coffee chain’s constant, centrally-controlled and nationwide labor law-breaking.

Senate Labor Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders, Ind-Vt., led off the March 29 session by declaring of Schultz that “Even if he’s a multimillionaire, he’s not entitled to break the law.”

Things went downhill from there when Schultz was in the witness chair.

Whenever Sanders and other committee Democrats, using worker statements and evidence unearthed by the NLRB in a 218-page order banning Starbucks’s constant labor law-breaking in Buffalo and nationwide, tried to get the ex-CEO to promise to obey the law—or at least come to the bargaining table with workers of the 300 Starbucks stores who have unionized so far—he refused.

Instead, Schultz claimed his team scheduled 85 face-to-face meetings with workers at individual stores. But when workers elsewhere zoomed in, his bargainers left. Wrapping himself in privacy concerns, Schultz claimed they did so because the sessions could divulge personal information.

One late witness, after Schultz finished, former NLRB member and veteran labor lawyer Sharon Block, put the Starbucks unionization campaign, and the company’s reaction, into a national context, and not just one of fed-up low-wage workers unionizing for protection, recognition and financial improvements.

Those are all true. But Block added that in her decades of writing labor law as a congressional staffer, enforcing it at the NLRB and now teaching it at Harvard, she has never seen such widespread defiance by any company. And if Starbucks gets away with it, she warned, other firms will be even more emboldened to resist, defy and break labor law against workers.

Before that, Schultz kept denying every single labor-law breaking charge thrown at him by the workers and the NLRB. So far, there are more than 500 charges, formally called unfair labor practices. And Schultz kept returning to Starbucks’s supposed reputation as a caring company. The Starbucks workers, testifying later, refuted him.

Operating from the grass roots

The workers, operating from the grass-roots but aided by Starbucks Workers United, have won union recognition votes at more than 300 Starbucks stores nationwide, and triumphed in 83% of all elections. They’ve also had to file more than 1,200 labor law-breaking complaints to the NLRB.

“You cannot be pro-people and anti-union,” Tennessee worker Maggie Carter said.

Carter and Jayson Saxton, an illegally fired worker from Augusta, Ga., testified after Schultz’s 3-1/2 hours in the witness chair. They told quite a different story of company pursuit of profits, low pay, lousy working conditions and severe discipline, all of which and more drove them to unionize.

Now ex-CEO Schultz, who’s worth $3.7 billion and who made $21 million in total compensation last year, dismissed their charges, along with those in the NLRB’s ruling, or denied knowing anything about them. When one Republican asked him how much top Starbucks execs made, he ducked.

Meanwhile, Carter and Saxton brought walking, talking evidence of how Starbucks mistreats its “partners,” as the company calls workers, when they try to unionize to protect and better themselves.

It was a tale of forced captive audience meetings, discrimination in hours and transfers between stores, benefits offered to non-union store workers but denied to those in unionized stores—using labor law as an excuse—minimum wages until last May and no health coverage through an already expensive company policy if you worked fewer than 20 hours a week.

And there were arbitrary cuts in hours, too, Saxton said. In one three-week period, a worker could go from 25 hours—qualifying for coverage—to five hours to 15.

Single mom Carter told senators Starbucks retaliated against her union organizing by holding up her transfer request from Jackson, Tenn., to Knoxville, Tenn., for three months. She had to quit while awaiting a decision, and that denied the health benefits she needed for her child. Carter wanted to transfer to Knoxville so she could go to college part-time.

Pro-union workers “were getting disciplined for minor violations” like dress code variations, she added. When the union won the Jackson vote—its first win in the South—on March 29, 2022, Starbucks retaliated “by walking out after 30 minutes” of their first bargaining session. “And on May 3, they said we wouldn’t get any” benefits that were promised to non-union store workers.

Schultz’s reason, repeated over and over to senators? Labor law, he claimed, bans additional benefits during an organizing drive—even when the union waives its right to contest those increases.

And Starbucks’s “captive audience” meeting in Jackson had an extra twist due to the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic. Such meetings, which feature anti-union harangues by bosses, union busters or both—and discipline if you don’t attend—are common.

Worked from Day 1 of pandemic

“I worked—we all worked—from Day 1 of the pandemic” in Jackson, Carter explained. “It was the only one that stayed open” despite the spreading modern-day plague. She was paid $8.35 an hour. This past May, Starbucks raised all baristas to $17.50, an outcome one speaker said was due to the union drive.

“They brought in a manager from outside we had never seen before” for a captive audience meeting, she said. “We weren’t told we didn’t have to attend.” Schultz says Starbucks prefers “direct communication” with workers—a common employer argument.

“This manager gave us Covid. We had to shut the store down for five days.”

Saxton, an illegally fired Starbucks worker from Augusta, Ga., and a partially disabled veteran, said even before the firm canned him for organizing its store there, it cut his hours so much he lost its already costly health insurance. That retaliation meant he had to go back to the local Veterans Administration clinic for his care, but also left his wife and child without coverage.

After the firm fired an Augusta manager for being too sympathetic to the workers, it brought in an anti-union manager “who moved everything around every day. Then she wrote down names” for discipline when disoriented workers couldn’t find the new locations of the machines.

“They were definitely engaging in anti-union activity,” Saxton said.

If Starbucks beats the unionization drive by dragging it through the board and the courts, using its wealth to produce interminable delays to wear down the grass-roots workers and their union backers, Starbucks Workers United, that sends a message to rest of the corporate class, said Block.

“What has happened” at Starbucks “is not just a collection of individual violations. It is a coordinated company campaign that shows the company has the will, the stamina and the resources” to defeat any union organizing drive.

“What will other workers around the country think of when they see Starbucks can do this?”

Her answer: “Workers rights” in the U.S. “are as weak as a Starbucks coffee cup.”

Video of the hearing is at

Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People’s World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but a holy terror when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.El galardonado periodista Mark Gruenberg es el director de la oficina de People’s World en Washington, D.C. También es editor del servicio de noticias sindicales Press Associates Inc. (PAI).

How 250 young workers on food stamps brought a billion-dollar institution to heel / by Raegen Davis


Originally published in the People’s World on March, 24, 2023

PHILADELPHIA—Last week, the Temple University Graduate Student Association (TUGSA) ended a historic 42-day strike by overwhelmingly ratifying a contract which included far more than the Temple administration ever insisted it would give.

The union faced unprecedented retaliation, persevering as members’ healthcare was manually shut off by their employer twice and tuition fees were charged to members totaling thousands of dollars.

As an institution which consistently markets itself as Philly’s “diversity university,” Temple is an alluring place for young people looking to find an education that caters to the poor and marginalized. That made its actions against striking student workers particularly appalling.

Keeping with the Temple University tradition of students fighting for social justice in spite of their administration, graduate student workers established the first and only graduate student union in the state of Pennsylvania here in 1997.

TUGSA has since been bargaining with the university in contract negotiations every four years, and its membership has grown steadily. It presently represents over 60% of graduate workers, which is no small feat when approximately 20% of your bargaining unit leaves at the end of each year.

A few of the notable wins TUGSA enshrined in the new contract include:

  • The elimination of tiered wages.
  • An immediate pay increase to $24,000 for employees with nine-month appointments (which, for full-year employees, becomes the $32,000 the union had as its goal wage). Additionally, graduate workers will receive a $500 return to work bonus and a $1,000/year raise for each of the four years this contract covers, an impressive precedent to set.
  • Parental leave was increased from five days to three weeks.
  • The creation of a workload review committee to guard against overwork and major changes to the grievance procedure which should increase speed and improve outcomes.
  • “Funeral leave” becoming “bereavement leave,” meaning workers no longer have to provide evidence that some part of leave was specifically a funeral. Leave has increased from three to four days, and it now covers the passing of grandparents and allows for an extra five-day extension for workers having to travel internationally.
  • Dependent healthcare, which was previously not covered, is now partially subsidized, creating a foot in the door for future expansion and taking the costs down from 30% of the average salary per dependent to 13%.
  • Guaranteed access to the list of bargaining unit members before the semester begins, as opposed to the previous amorphous deadline which frequently hindered union recruitment.

As the TUGSA strike winds down and the strike wave at other employers across the country ramps up, it is worth examining this fight to see what others can glean from this strike’s success. Having been on the ground for its entirety myself, I saw a number of practices and strategies TUGSA employed which others will hopefully replicate.

Fostering leadership

TUGSA’s Contract Negotiations Team included multiple former presidents of the organization. The current president is a second-year PhD student, meaning he will be in a position to have both seen this round of contract negotiations and participate in the next one, as will his vice president. My strike captain was not the only first-year student in that position and even more first-years served as strike coordinators. This leadership structure, which engages and fosters talent early, set up TUGSA’s success from the beginning.

Strategic timing

Over two months passed between TUGSA’s strike authorization vote and the beginning of its strike for numerous reasons. As mentioned in my previous People’s World article on the strike, one of Temple University’s first strikebreaking measures was to threaten international workers’ visas. By avoiding a strike during the winter break, not only was TUGSA able to ensure international students were granted re-entry into the U.S. but also maximize picket visibility.

Additionally, unlike in most other industries, graduate workers are paid once on the final day of the month, rather than weekly or biweekly. By waiting until Jan. 31st specifically, TUGSA set up its strikers to have a month’s worth of pay in the bank, with the added benefit that Jan. 30th was Temple University’s final day to drop classes, a significant date for teaching contracts.

What “strategic timing” means for a workplace varies by industry and circumstance. TUGSA was able to adapt to the specifics of its conditions and this facilitated a more successful strike.

Radical transparency

Unions are supposed to be democratic institutions by definition, but TUGSA’s leadership was uniquely transparent with its members from the beginning. This paid dividends.

Leadership fought for open negotiations prior to the strike to ensure rank-and-file members were present to witness everything that happened and, when the administration demanded closed negotiations, diligently recounted everything they possibly could to rank-and-file afterward.


Leadership’s continued honesty with goals and expectations, sharing their perspectives and concerns, and managing the union as horizontally as possible built so much trust that when those inevitable times came that leadership was barred from sharing information with rank-and-file, we knew they were competent and respected their judgement. In return, information and rationales for decisions were shared after the fact if they could not be shared beforehand.

Solidarity between unions

From Unite Here showing up to reinvigorate the pickets with food and chants to the AFL-CIO hosting a rally for all locals despite the wind and rain, the solidarity that characterized this strike was palpable.

From the beginning, the American Federation of Teachers sent out fundraising emails to all other branches to raise money for the strike fund, and the recent Philadelphia Museum of Art Union, which had just come off strike, sent members to share information from their experiences. In fact, knowledge-sharing was one of the core facets of the inter-union relationship that benefitted TUGSA benefitted.

If you enjoy reading People’s World and the stories we bring you, support our work by donating or becoming a monthly sustainer today.

The union was in near-constant communication with other academic unions around the country which had been in similar positions, sharing ideas and strategies. TUGSA even directed its members to other unions’ demonstrations during the strike and, in the days since, has made it clear that this will be the norm moving forward.

Temple University is home to nearly a dozen unions, as well as an organizing committee for undergraduate service workers, TUUWOC, that is presently fighting to unionize. TUUWOC put much of its own organizing on hold to stand with TUGSA. Meanwhile, TAUP, the union for professors at Temple, called for a vote of no confidence against the president, provost, and chairman of the board, which is presently scheduled for April 10th.

Utilizing political resources

50 TUGSA members hit up legislators for support at the state capitol on March 6. | via TUGSA

It is not abnormal for unions to send delegates to lobby state senators and representatives. It is abnormal, however, to rent a charter bus and bring 50 neon-clad strikers to the state capitol all at once to canvass virtually every office there.

TUGSA was uniquely tactful in its use of its political resources. From enlisting electeds to draw the press while strikers signed up for food stamps to networking with state officials to work as go-betweens with the administration, TUGSA effectively walked a delicate line. It managed to avoid rejecting aid from potential allies while also never leaving the workers’ fate solely in politicians’ hands.

Innovative social media usage

Going viral on Twitter is not always a guarantee of success, but TUGSA rode its luck to a fair contract. By parlaying views into donations, endorsements, and alliances, TUGSA managed to spend 42 days on strike without ever getting lost in the news cycle.

The tone of TUGSA’s social media presence was informative yet personable. Meanwhile, because rank-and-file members were not policed in their online communications, the result was a parallel set of social media accounts under the name of “TUGSA Strike Crush.” While the official accounts kept their distance and provided information, the Strike Crush accounts not only engaged the talents of social media-minded members but also provided a space for informal communications and jokes.

While other types of leaders may have been concerned about this renegade account, TUGSA embraced it, taking it as a sign of member engagement and folding it into the union as an informal, autonomous social committee.

Amplifying members’ talents

TUGSA’s response to the Strike Crush phenomenon is a microcosm of the larger strategy TUGSA utilized: giving its members space to explore and utilize their talents for the cause.

One member who’s passionate about graphic design joined together with workers from the printmaking MFA program to produce T-shirts at rallies to fundraise. Prior to the strike, one union leader with programming talents used Python to generate mass emails for the union. (Mass emails would be part of the strategy throughout the strike.)

Speaking personally, I am a political scientist who at one point conducted preliminary research for a book on protest music; they handed me a megaphone and I taught the strikers my favorite union songs. On the musical front, our picket saw everything from electric guitars to accordions to an eventual entire brass section.

The union allowed space for and encouraged members to bring their passions to the picket line. By the end, professional dancers performed in the middle of our picket lines wearing TUGSA beaded bracelets and knitted TUGSA hats. Everyone had space to bring something to the table and, when given the opportunity, they did.

Adjusting to advice

Regarding everything from how frequently to take breaks to masking guidelines, TUGSA remained unafraid to adjust to good faith criticism. Leadership and members resisted the urge to “feed the trolls,” coming with critiques from without, while simultaneously listening to and adjusting to critiques from within.

The results are palpable in the contract ratification vote—344 to 8. This does not happen without members who feel comfortable voicing their concerns and leadership which takes those concerns into account.

The parameters of a successful proposal were determined not by the negotiations team alone but by polling members and large group deliberation. Under those conditions, a successful vote was inevitable.

Collaborating with undergraduates

Neoliberal institutions like Temple view undergraduate students as “customers” of education. TUGSA was able to utilize this relationship the undergraduates had with the administration to apply pressure.

Temple treats undergrad students like customers, so those customers went on a retail revolt, refusing to cross picket lines. | via TUGSA

Learning loss caused by the hiring of unqualified scab teachers brought students to file an ongoing class action lawsuit. They risked their grades not to cross our picket line and instead held multiple walkout demonstrations, one of which included approximately 2,000 students.

On their own accord, the students formed a TUGSA solidarity committee which is continuing to operate even after the strike, rallying to ensure students who stood in solidarity with the union are not penalized for assignments they missed in scabbed classes.

Prioritizing joy and community

Burnout looms large over activist communities across the capitalist world, and unions are no different, but strike teams for TUGSA diligently guarded against fatigue by foregrounding camaraderie.

Unlike in other situations, where organizers must plan for the long-term while managing the short-term, strikes are ephemeral. They demand an “unsustainable” amount of effort because they are not meant to be sustained, and adjusting to temporary, high-level organizing can be a source of shock and overwhelm, even for seasoned organizers. TUGSA recognized this from the beginning and made sure that pickets, rather than adding stress, became the place strikers went for stress relief.

The strike fund was strategically used for communal lunches each day and healthcare costs to guarantee no one was left behind. Pickets were characterized by art, music, dancing, and banter between comrades. Strike teams became tight-knit families, and the union held more social events than before the strike, both formal and informal.

TUGSA never took itself too seriously, leaving space for jokes between chant leaders and witty slogans on friendship bracelets. The union understood that the best guarantee of longevity in an organizing space is the community it builds.

TUGSA balanced between the serious task of striking and the solidarity that can come from just having fun together. By the end, we weren’t on the picket line every day just for the wages, the healthcare, or the benefits—we were there every day because the picket line was where all our best friends were.

It was the place to cry when the administration retaliated against us, with people who understood. It was the place to catch up with one another while walking in circles for hours. It was the place where we could vent or laugh or celebrate or scream—whatever we needed, we became for each other.

Through solidarity, as the saying goes, the union made us strong. That is why we won.

Raegan Davis is a community organizer based in Philadelphia. She serves as archivist for the Philly YCL and organizes with the Temple University Graduate Student Association while working on her MA in Political Science. You can find more of Raegan’s work on Twitter, @RaeReadsTheory.

Starbucks workers take nationwide coffee break and walk off the job / by

Striking Starbucks workers took the lovable skeleton mascot out of the closet where their bosses had confined it, saying the skeleton was treated as badly as the workers. | Roberta Wood/PW

Originally published in the People’s World on March, 23, 2023

CHICAGO — How did Marvin, a lovable skeleton, become the mascot of striking Starbucks workers in this city’s historic Greektown neighborhood? This location is blocks north of the giant University of Illinois campus. It is one of more than a hundred stores in the country where the workers filed for union representation and voted to join today’s strike, even before the NLRB had a chance to schedule their union recognition vote.

According to the baristas here, management’s treatment of Marvin corresponds to their treatment of the workers and their community. Marvin “came to life” one year during the Halloween season when workers hung Marvin in the window, and he became a neighborhood fixture, decked out to celebrate whatever holiday was going on, bringing smiles to the faces of both staff and community.

“But then Starbucks District Manager Lesley Davis said we couldn’t have him,” explained Chris Allen, 22, a shift supervisor. Davis banished the beloved Marvin to the back of the house, out of sight.

“It sucks having someone else make all the decisions when you’re doing all the work daily,” Lily Haneghan, 23, told People’s World. Haneghan admitted when co-workers first discussed forming a union, she was scared. “I had no idea what a union was, and then my boss said, ‘If you unionize, you will get fired.’” That was a big threat to someone who had invested the last five years of her young life working for the company. But then she reflected, “They think of us as coffee robots. There’s no concern for our physical and emotional well-being.” Haneghan and Allen were co-strike captains.

Striking Chicago Starbucks workers let everyone know what their story is. | Roberta Wood/PW

Colin Feeley, a Communist Party member who lives nearby, didn’t come empty-handed to the demonstration. “Last night our comrades had a poster party making signs for the picket line, like ‘no contract, no coffee,’” he related. Feeley also brought a stack of fliers urging folks to “adopt a store” for ongoing solidarity. “To support workers I would have gone all the way to Buffalo Grove,” he told People’s World, but it was great to come out “right here in my community.”

The national Starbucks strike on March 22, at more than 115 stores from Anchorage and Arkansas to Seattle and Phoenix, preceded the showdown at the firm’s annual meeting over whether its union-busting is hurting the so-called progressive coffee chain’s brand.

The baristas and their allies walked out to protest the firm’s rampant labor law-breaking, orchestrated and directed by longtime CEO Howard Schultz.

The labor law-breaking prompted union pension funds and pro-stockholder investors to demand an independent audit of the impact of the law-breaking, which also defies the firm’s proclaimed standards. The proposal came up at its Zoomed annual meeting on March 23.

“The faux progressivism of Starbucks is being exposed for what it is: A marketing ploy,” said Starbucks Workers United (SWU), the union-sponsored group aiding the grass-roots organizing drive nationally.

The National Labor Relations Board filed federal charges against Schultz personally and over 500 charges it levied against the company. The number of complaints from exploited Starbucks workers to the NLRB is 1,200 and counting.

“The One Day Longer national unfair labor practices (ULP) strike demanded Starbucks fully staff all stores, give partners a real seat at the table, not an empty chair, and negotiate a contract in good faith,” SWU said.

That’s exactly what Schultz, his union-buster lawyers, and his managers haven’t done. The only two bargaining sessions the two sides ever had—after pressure on Schultz—lasted five minutes each, with the bosses, led by the union buster, walking out.

On their nationwide “coffee break,” Starbucks workers let the public know what it’s all about. | Starbucks Workers United/Twitter

That left the workers, both those on the bargaining team and hundreds more who Zoomed in, with no one to present their proposals to, said SWU, the union-funded organization aiding the grass-roots workers’ movement.

Workers walked out at ten or more stores in metro New York, four more upstate, and at least three in the Chicago area, including one in the Loop at 201 East Randolph St.

More than six years with Starbucks

Sean Plotts has worked six and a half years for Starbucks, including two and a half years as a shift manager at the Lincoln Village location in Chicago. A recent graduate, he holds an associate in arts degree from McHenry County College.

“They were once cutting edge in the fast food industry, but other companies have caught up. They are brutally cracking down on stores going union,” said Plotts.

Less than 300 stores are unionized out of 28,000, and 900 unfair labor practices are already filed with NLRB. “All we’re asking,” Plotts said, “is to be treated fairly, paid well for our services, and given the resources to serve the public. We love this job, but it’s stressful when they’re cutting hours and cutting floor coverage to save a couple of extra bucks at the end of the day.”

Plotts described this as a “union-busting” tactic, adding, “They want to flush out many tired employees. We’re all tired. People shouldn’t have to work as long as they do for little pay just so the stores can get a couple hundred more dollars at the end of the day.”

So far, Starbucks refuses to recognize the union at the Lincoln Village location. “We’ve had one bargaining session which lasted eight minutes, including introductions,” said Plotts, who expressed gratitude for public support for the strikers.

Shot the hours back

Another Lincoln Village worker, Autumn Graham, who sports shoulder-length hair, has been with Starbucks for five years. He started in St. Louis and moved to Chicago because of a toxic work environment at the store there.

“I worked at a store on Bryn Mawr Avenue (in Chicago),” he said. “We unionized in May, and they shut us down in October. We and the Clark and Ridge store were the first to organize in Chicago. They just stonewalled us. Cutting our work without telling us anything and then shutting it down and assigning us to other stores.

Graham depends on Starbucks’ health benefits, as meager as they are, and needs to work full-time to pay his bills. The company has slashed his hours, making life difficult.

“If you work 20 hours, you get benefits. Many workers struggle to get to 20, only get 17, and are denied benefits. When we unionized, they cut our hours from 20-25 to 15 hours and denied us benefits,” he said.

“Recently, they shot the hours back up because we’ve lost a lot of staff. They say business is slow, but I know from the receipts that we’re as busy as before. They ask us to do more with fewer people,” said Graham.

“If you’re a Starbucks customer, just fill out the review on your receipt and write ‘support the union, come to the negotiating table,’” he said. “They need to quit making excuses.”

Across the country, workers in 24 stores in California—including two in Sacramento and one each in Berkeley, Los Angeles, and San Francisco—joined them. Back East, so did workers in Boston, six stores in metro D.C., three in the Baltimore area, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Detroit and Flint, Mich., Buffalo, St. Louis, and St. Paul, Minn., among others.

“As Starbucks celebrates their provenance and record profits this week, my partners have to deal with the reality that we are being nickeled and dimed to extract as much labor as cheaply as possible,” said Maria Flores of Queens, N.Y. “Our shift supervisors, who make maybe $4 more an hour than baristas, are being met with resistance when picking up barista shifts or working with other shift supervisors, and they’re struggling. Where is the disconnect?

“I’m striking because the power of workers can save the world. Our union is small but now unstoppable, and we’re ready to start making moves. The walls are closing in on Starbucks and when we negotiate I think the flood gates might open!”

“Workers unite!” her Queens colleague James Carr predicted. “I’m excited to get out onto the streets with the people, enjoy the weather, and withhold my labor from Starbucks.”

“I’m excited to join the national effort in striking! It’s so reassuring and reaffirming to be a part of something that’s bigger than just Long Island. I hope Starbucks corporate starts accepting and joining us in solidarity,” said Lynbrook, L.I., worker Liv Ryan.

The workers and SWU have won union recognition elections at 294 Starbucks stores and file daily for votes at more stores. The latest unionized stores are in Oak Park, Ill., at Lake St. and Euclid, plus Pleasanton and Sunnyvale, Calif., Ashland and Portland, Ore.—at Portland State University, and Cameron, N.C. Its latest wins were in Portland, at the Pioneer Courthouse, at 10th and Market Streets in downtown Philadelphia, at Litchfield Park, Ariz., and in Hillsboro, Ore.

Many folks supported striking Starbucks workers in Chicago on this national day of action, including Communist Party Illinois Chair Shelby Richardson and member Scott Marshall. The workers got great support from cars and trucks blasting their horns as they drove past. No one crossed their picket line to scab. Many people walking by also stopped to talk and show support. | Roberta Wood/PW

Even as Starbucks workers walked out from coast to coast this week, the NLRB caught the monster coffee chain in another anti-union tactic, literally right on its own doorstep, at Seattle’s historic Pike Place Market, home to three Starbucks stores. Starbucks created a new “’Heritage District’ to try to union-proof Pike Place, including the first ever Starbucks store,” SWU reported.

“Starting in May, Starbucks forced baristas and supervisors at those three Seattle stores to reapply for their existing positions under the premise of organizing the three stores into their own mini-district, where partners would be expected to work shifts at all three locations.

“Workers had no chance to say goodbye to coworkers and lost the sense of stability they had been counting on. They were also subjected to multiple meetings where managers illegally solicited grievances and promised improvements to prevent unionizing.

“The NLRB has filed a consolidated complaint for these three stores, and included in the remedy is the requirement that the company stop holding these meetings to solicit grievances and to ‘make whole’ the employees who were not rehired, and were functionally pushed out of their own stores.”

Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People’s World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but a holy terror when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.El galardonado periodista Mark Gruenberg es el director de la oficina de People’s World en Washington, D.C. También es editor del servicio de noticias sindicales Press Associates Inc. (PAI).

John Bachtell is president of Long View Publishing Co., the publisher of People’s World. He served as national chair of the CPUSA from 2014 to 2019. He is active in electoral, labor, environmental, and social justice struggles. He grew up in Ohio, Pittsburgh, and Albuquerque and attended Antioch College. He currently lives in Chicago where he is an avid swimmer, cyclist, runner, and dabbler in guitar and occasional singer in a community chorus.

Roberta Wood is a retired member of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and the Coalition of Labor Union Women. Wood was a steelworker in South Chicago, an officer of Steelworkers Local 65, and founding co-chair of the USWA District 31 Women’s Caucus. She was previously Secretary-Treasurer of the Communist Party. Currently, she serves as a Senior Editor of People’s World.

Scott Marshall has been a life long trade unionist and was active in rank and file reform movements in the Teamsters, Machinists and Steelworkers unions in the 1970s and ’80s. He was co-chair of the Save Our Jobs committee of USWA local 1834 at Pullman Standard in Chicago and active in nationwide organizing against plant shutdowns and layoffs. He was a founder of the unemployed organization Jobs or Income Now (Join), in Chicago, and the National Congress of Unemployed Organizations in the 1980s. Scott remains active in SOAR (Steelworkers Active Organized Retirees). He lives in Chicago.

The fight against Starbucks law breaking goes to the shareholders tomorrow / by Mark Gruenberg

Montclair, N.J., Starbucks workers on strike today. | video screenshot via Twitter

Originally published in the People’s World on March, 22, 2023

SEATTLE—Union pension funds and pro-shareholder investment advisors are taking the fight over Starbucks’ rampant labor law-breaking to its stockholders.

At the Seattle-based monster coffee company’s virtual annual meeting on March 23, they’ll demand Starbucks name an outside auditor to determine if, or, more likely, how much the anti-union drive has hurt Starbucks’s reputation, share price and profits—and what to do next.

The firm’s answer, in a recent earnings call and in its proxy statement, where it opposes the demand, is “none at all.” Just before he retired early, effective March 20, virulent anti-union CEO Howard Schultz reported record profits in the U.S.

Schultz has orchestrated and overseen expensive opposition, complete with law-breaking, to the grass-roots drive his firm’s “partners,” as he calls the workers, have conducted with the aid of Starbucks Workers United (SWU), which in turn the Service Employees funds.

Schultz’s actions include cases where he’s been held personally responsible for labor law-breaking—formally, unfair labor practices. They feature captive audience meetings, one-on-one middle-management intimidation and verbal browbeatings of pro-union workers, denial of benefits to workers at stores that vote union, and dozens of illegal firings.

They’ve also produced at least 509 labor law violations, a nationwide National Labor Relations Board injunction—later reduced by a federal judge to cover just the Buffalo area—and five more injunctions.

One mandates Starbucks rehire the illegally fired “Memphis 7.” Another returned a barista to work in Kansas City. A separate New York City court order, saying Starbucks violated a city ordinance, sent a Queens staffer back to his job, to cheers from colleagues and bystanders.

Workers at 290 Starbucks stores have voted union, with hundreds more being organized. Its actions also hurt Starbucks’ carefully cultivated reputation for being a progressive place to work. And that’s hurt its bottom line, the shareholders resolution says. It’s also “a legal and financial risk” the pension and investment funds co-sponsoring the measure say. They demand the independent audit to document the damage, and recommend changes.

Schultz, under pressure, condescended to have his bargainers meet the workers and SWU. But his team saw workers had zoomed in from around the country to attend, and walked out of talks after five minutes, twice. The firm’s union-buster led them out.

Led by New York City Comptroller Brad Lander, whose office represents five worker pension funds which own $155 million in Starbucks stock, and two longtime shareholder advocates, Trillium and Institutional Shareholder Services, they contend Shultz’s union hate hurts Starbucks—and them.

“As shareholders, we expect and demand better from a company that claims to promote a positive work environment. The onus is on Starbucks’ board of directors to ensure that management is complying with applicable law as well as with company policy,” said Lander.

“When companies blatantly disregard and oppose their employees’ fundamental right to organize, they put their reputation on the line,” he added. “For a company as focused on the customer experience as Starbucks, continued interference with worker organizing undermines the brand, which is essential to its success.

“Workers have boldly stood up to company leadership and fought for real representation over the course of just two years, yet rather than treat them as partners —as the company calls its employees—Starbucks has taken actions inconsistent with its own stated values.

“A new standard is emerging across the U.S: any company that wants to be considered a responsible employer must genuinely remain neutral when workers organize.”

Added Jonas Krom of a second fund, Trillium: “Whether the vote is in the 30%, 40%, or 50% range, an unignorably large group of investors will be sending a message to incoming CEO Laxman Narasimhan and board chair Mellody Hobson” to change. Narasimhan unexpectedly succeeded Schultz, but Schultz will still testify to the Senate Labor Committee on March 29.

The pressure on Starbucks and Schultz won’t be just inside, where everyone will meet via zoom. Schultz and the other executives will be in Seattle—and pro-worker advocates and partners will be out in the streets, where a celebration of Schultz’s long reign is scheduled.

“Starbucks, which posted $3.3 billion in profits last year, responded with a brutal, bullying anti-union campaign of threats, intimidation, firings, store closings and refusing to meet workers at the bargaining table–becoming the most prolific union-buster in U.S. history,” organizers of that event, plus walks elsewhere, said.

“Workers and their allies will converge on downtown Seattle to make it an accountability day and call on Howard Schultz and his board of directors to STOP UNION BUSTING and come to the table to bargain with workers,” they concluded.

Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People’s World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but a holy terror when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.El galardonado periodista Mark Gruenberg es el director de la oficina de People’s World en Washington, D.C. También es editor del servicio de noticias sindicales Press Associates Inc. (PAI).