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“Progressive” Capitalists are Still Capitalists and They Still Hate Labor

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Yesterday, Rob pointed out how faculty really struggle to understand that administrators are not our friends. Boy howdy is this true. Even good faculty unionists will blab to their “friends” in the administration all the damn time. It’s extremely frustrating.

Well, you see this reflected in society. Elon Musk has torpedoed his reputation in an impressive manner, but it wasn’t that long ago that people were talking about how this guy was going to save the world or something. Lots of companies have cosplayed as liberal for marketing reasons. As I’ve pointed out on several occasions, one thing about the Starbucks campaign and other recent union campaigns in retail is that they are taking place in stores that self-identify as having progressive values, whatever that means. REI, not Cabela’s, for example.

But these companies are almost always liars. They don’t have real progressive values. They want to crush unions just as bad as everyone from J.P. Morgan to Sam Walton to Howard Schultz. Here’s a story about this from organizing campaigns in the Twin Cities.

In the Twin Cities, we’ve witnessed this phenomenon with increasing frequency over the past five years. Outwardly progressive shops like Surly Brewing, Half Price Books, Tattersall Distilling, Minnesota Historical Society, Peace Coffee, Planned Parenthood North Central States, Spyhouse Coffee, and Science Museum of Minnesota have all refused to voluntarily recognize their unionizing workers and, in some cases, drew allegations of outright union-busting. Ditto for local outposts of massive chains like Starbucks and Trader Joe’s. And then there’s Common Roots, the ultra-progressive Minneapolis café that closed last week days after its owner, Danny Schwartzman, agreed to recognize its union.

Schwartzman professes to be pro-labor and says his business represents a case study in the potential, as well as the shortcomings, of unionizing mom ‘n’ pop restaurants. Market dynamics and worker empowerment collided last month at Common Roots, resulting in mixed emotions over the ethically minded restaurant’s demise. “If you’re buying a latte or choosing the next book you want to read, you are interacting with the people who are providing that service to you,” says Peter Rachleff, a former Macalester College labor professor and co-founder of the East Side Freedom Library. “We’re mostly seeing younger workers, and in many cases workers with higher education backgrounds. And they may even have been drawn to their employer because of the employer’s professing of progressive values. That has the possibility of inspiring, insighting, and provoking.” 

Surly Brewing Co. positions itself as a benevolent, boozy force woven into the fabric of Minnesota culture. “Because living in Minnesota rules, we give back to our community,” reads copy from its charitable arm, Surly Gives a Damn. In the summer of 2020, two days after 100+ Surly workers went public with their union, the country’s 34th largest craft brewer announced mass layoffs and the impending closure of its beer hall. It blamed the pandemic. (PPP loans are an important factor to consider with any corporate pandemic-blaming; companies from big—Surly, $2.8 million—to small—Common Roots, $537,000—collected forgivable loans from the federal government intended to keep workers on payroll.) 

“We anticipated some behavior on Surly’s part to discourage the union, so when [the layoffs] happened, that’s the first thing we thought of,” Surly worker Megan Caswell told us that fall. “This is clearly their attempt to fire us all and reopen with a new staff that’s not unionized. Personally, I still kind of feel that way.”

By that October, workers secured a union election overseen by the NLRB: 56 voted yes and 20 voted no. But the union push failed to gain a majority by a single vote because 36 workers abstained.

“You’ll find Surly on menus, shelves, and tap lines,” the company promised customers in a press release announcing the failed union vote. “We’ll be out there giving a damn.”

Caswell was apparently right. After closing its Minneapolis beerplex in November 2020, Surly reopened the following June with a mostly new staff.

On its website, Tattersall Distilling details the ethical, carbon-friendly sourcing of its ingredients and barrels at great length. In the fall of 2021, ex-worker Mike Appletoft didn’t sound impressed with his old company, which still holds the distinction of being the nation’s first unionized craft distillery. “It’s become a very toxic workplace,” he told us. “Management took out their frustration and anger over [unionization] on us.” Appletoft alleges that Tattersall’s move to a 75,000-square-foot “destination distillery” in River Falls, Wisconsin, was a deliberate move to undermine the union. Speaking via email with two PR professionals CC’ed, Tattersall co-founder Jon Kreidler denied any anti-busting allegations.

The stated Mission & Values of Starbucks read like a flowery, new-age manifesto. Early last year, unionizing Minneapolis barista Kasey Copeland used it as ammo against the 35,000-location multinational coffee giant.“We are a little nervous about the union-busting tactics Starbucks has been employing, but that doesn’t add up to their mission and values,” she told us at the time. “They don’t scare us.”

Recently, New York Times readers got a deep-dive look into the anti-union mind of Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz. “He prefers to see himself as a generous boss, not a boss who is forced to treat employees generously,” write Noam Scheiber and Julie Creswell in “Why Is Howard Schultz Taking This So Personally?”

“With the exceptions of Elon Musk and Donald Trump, most bosses want to look in the mirror and think they see a decent human being staring back out at them,” Rachleff says. “So they want to tell a story that depicts them as decent and socially minded.”

Over 300 U.S. Starbucks locations have attempted to unionize, resulting in 262 victories. In Minnesota, nine have tried—six wins, one loss, one withdrawal, and one still open. Workers continue to push back against Schultz’s paternalism. “We make all of their profits for them. We have all of the power in this situation,” Copeland told us in August during a one-day strike timed to the release of pumpkin spice coffees.Over at the museums, boss vs. worker relations don’t appear much better. 

The Science Museum of Minnesota Workers’ Union issued a petition in November to fight back against management.“Museum management has hired a union-busting law firm and launched an aggressive anti-union campaign,” they wrote. “The museum claims to value equity and collective liberationnow it’s time to live those values.” 

All capitalists are evil. They must be defeated. None are your friends. Ever.

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