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Organizing the Starbucks South

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Starbucks employee Tim Swicord and Gailyn Berg pose for a portrait outside of a Starbucks in Springfield, Va on April 13, 2022. (Michael A. McCoy for NPR)

The South has been the bane of American labor organizing forever. The prime reason that American unions are so weak is that white workers routinely choose their racial identity over their class identity and while that is by no means unique to the South, it’s long been a lot worse there than other parts of the country. I mean, when the garment trades attempted to escape unions and socialist workers in the early 20th century, they chose the upland South specifically because of its cultural characteristics of majority but not all white workers with long traditions of evangelicalism and a suspicion of any organization that might call for civil rights or equality for Jews. So it’s not as if anyone has hidden this.

Now, for years–decades really–commenters have noted that the South is becoming more and more like the rest of the nation. Some of that is southerners moving to other parts of the nation and transplanting southern culture there. Some of that is people moving to the South and transplanting their own cultures down that way. There’s some truth to this, though if you look at what motivates southern white voters, for instance, let’s just say it doesn’t look too different in 2022 than it did in 1948 or 1908. So these claims are overplayed, though not false. Another area where things haven’t changed is the region’s strong anti-unionism. Most of the states with the lowest union rates in the country remain in the South, starting with North Carolina and South Carolina, which switch off over which has the lowest percentage of workers in unions.

Meanwhile, the Starbucks union campaign is also trying to make in-roads in the South. In this case though, I don’t think the South provides too many obstacles for organizing over other areas of the nation, which may mean something for other employers of a similar ilk. The workers at Starbucks across the nation are basically the same–youngish but not exclusively so, hip and alternative, racially mixed depending on the region, leaning liberal(ish), with customers that also lean hip and liberal(ish). So why not the South? Saurav Sarkar explores the southern Starbucks campaigns in Dissent:

“It feels much more difficult here than in some other areas of the country,” said Maggie Carter, a Knoxville barista who led the first union drive in the region. “But it’s also so important to do it where density is so low.” She made $8.35 an hour when she started working at Starbucks three years ago, and she now makes a little over $12.

Carter and her coworkers filed for a union election on December 23 of last year. To give a sense of the conservative atmosphere in Knoxville, Carter mentioned that eight days later an arsonist burned down a Planned Parenthood clinic in the city. It was the second violent attack on the facility in less than a year.

“It’s rough. Sometimes you can feel like you’re alone,” Carter said. “But then you meet those people . . . that stand with you. And then you start to build a community.”

The South is a more culturally diverse region than stereotypes about it would suggest. Networked islands of progressive community create more opportunities for organizers than outside observers might assume. The surrounding right-wing culture, which can bubble into political violence, means, however, that organizers also face more resistance than in most parts of the country.

The progressive island in Anderson, South Carolina, can sometimes feel as small as a single Starbucks. Trump won Anderson County in the 2016 and 2020 elections by more than 40 points. In a conservative town of fewer than 30,000 people, the store voted 18 to 0 to unionize. “Even though [the company is] kind of a menace at the moment, Starbucks is kind of a safe haven for all the liberals,” Aneil Tripathi, a college student who worked as a shift supervisor at the store until being recently fired, said. “[It’s] this kind of cluster of us all having, you know, the same views on political and economic stuff.”

It’s probably not a coincidence that, according to Tripathi, of the nineteen employees at the store before Labor Day, fifteen are LGBTQ+, including three who were trans. Olivia Lewis, a shift supervisor at a Starbucks in Boone, North Carolina, that voted to unionize, called her store “queer as hell.” It’s also notable that workers in the Anderson store, like those in most Starbucks stores in the region, skew young. Tripathi said that workers in Anderson range from teenagers to adults in their late twenties.

Do not underestimate the queerness of Starbucks workers in this whole deal. This has been a pretty big part of the entire campaign. Again, as I’ve said many times now, Starbucks created a liberal facade for the company. This was and is a place where workers are actively encouraged to show their tattoos, dye their hair, have their pronouns on their name tags for all to see, say that Black Lives Matter, all this stuff. It’s all bullshit in the sense that for the employer, this is a business strategy and they hate unions as much as Andrew Carnegie or Henry Clay Frick. But it’s not bullshit for the workers. Starbucks may be a crappy service job, but it’s a crappy service job in a place where queer people can feel socially comfortable. And as they question misogyny and homophobia and police violence, why wouldn’t they question capitalism and their own position within that as well?

And then, as the story goes on, it becomes clear that this is also true on the consumer end, with customers, even in Knoxville of all damn places (and having lived in Knoxville during the organizing phase of my life, I know just how hard right that town is) providing active support to them.

But even in Anderson, the workers are supported by a pro-union network that goes beyond the store. When baristas have gone on strike, “there’s been a good bit of community support,” Tripathi said. He added that a frequent sentiment among allies is “Go, y’all, stick it to them! They make billions and billions and can’t pay y’all adequately.”

So there’s a lot here to chew on. And I think one of those things is that there’s a reason I was most active in organizing when I lived in Knoxville–because these places are sooooooo conservative that like minded people find each other and then act to support each other in a way that doesn’t necessarily happen in Portland or Santa Fe or Providence.

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