Thursday, July 30, 2009

Since the recent certification of the Starbucks Union, a branch of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), as the official union for one Starbucks outlet in Québec City it appears that the coffee giant is not as invulnerable as was once thought. Previous attempts, on the part of the Canadian Auto Workers (CAW) in British Columbia failed back in the 1990s. As far as Molly can determine there is only one other unionized Starbucks in the world. This lone example is in Regina, Saskatchewan where the workers are represented by the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union- Saskatchewan(RWDSU). This particular RWDSU has no connection with the RWDSU International with whom it split back in the 1970s. Since that time the RWDSU has gained a reputation as one of the most progressive and militant unions in North America. In the past they have used workplace occupations as part of their strike tactics.
Both the RWDSU and the IWW ,which has spearheaded recent drives to unionize Starbucks, are small unions. The RWDSU has the advantage of geographical concentration over the dispersed IWW, and it is more effective for that. The major unions and union federations won't touch Starbucks, or any related workplace such as fast food joints, unionization with a ten foot pole. In the days when the CAW attempted their drive in BC they were a much different union then they are today. Having split from the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) they were willing to take on every possible organizational effort in what was a quest to become a multiindustry alternative to the CLC. They are a much quieter beast today, and it would be hard to imagine them attempting organization in such places as Starbucks at the present time.
Which leads us to the most recent question in Molly's Polls; "Is It Possible to Unionize Places Such as Starbucks?". See our sister site to register your opinion. There are immense difficulties that any union that attempts to organize in places such as Starbucks have to overcome. This is even more so in fast food joints such as McDonalds. If there are only two unionized Starbucks in the world that is still 200% better than the zero McDonalds that are organized. Molly is agnostic about the prospects insofar as I think that such organization is possible , but only in certain locations where both the laws and the local culture are such as to facilitate such efforts.
Québec today has a long standing tradition of militant unionism far greater than almost anywhere else on the continent. In Saskatchewan unions such as the RWWDSU thrive in the lengthening shadows of what was once the most left wing community on the continent. Saskatchewan socialism has, today, been corrupted beyond all recognition, but the populist tradition still lingers. Should young workers there be privileged to have known their grandparents or grand uncles/grand aunts about 50% of them would have had a family member who was a convinced socialist, one not shy of stating their views. Presented with the option of unionization- with a radical rhetoric thrown in- the old "lefty genes" have a tendency to reactivate. Perhaps many parts of Newfoundland, Minnesota and Wisconsin are the same.
One thing that I do think is that such vague radicalism is insufficient for unionization to take a general hold outside of isolated branches of such enterprises as Starbucks. In order for the efforts to expand beyond isolated instances a community as well as a workplace mobilization has to occur. The example of a large proportion of the population of a city, even one so small as Québec City (or even Regina-much smaller), organizing a boycott of recalcitrant companies would bring the bosses to heel much faster than simple organization of workplaces, one by one, could do. Such a campaign would also reverberate worldwide and make unionization much easier in other locations.
Am I too pessimistic in my assessment that unionization in places such as Starbucks will proceed very slowly in the foreseeable future ? Time will tell. In the meantime visit Molly's Polls to express your own opinion. I hope to comment more on this matter over there.


Transcona Slim said...

There are examples of folks organizing at McDonlds:

I think the second, the McDonalds Workers Resistance Network, sort of like an affinity group organizing model, is pretty interesting and is better suited for places like it then traditional "union" style organizing.

mollymew said...

Thanks for the comment Slim. The problem is that I don't think that there is a single McDonalds in the world where the workers are organized into a majoritarian union that can bargain with the company. There has certainly been a lot of effort over the years in many different countries. The actual situation of the workforce of fast food joints almost automatically necessitates the "affinity group"/"minority unionism" (to give it another name-I've also seen it referred to as "solidarity unionism" in the IWW) style of organizing. "Community unionism", in a fuller sense, is a far distant goal that, right now, could only be dreamed about in smaller cities.
In the past the IWW actually had major success in the lumber and agricultural sectors, with workforces that were perhaps even more "temporary" than what fast food joints are today. The difference is that this was over 80years ago, and the present situation is far different. It was much harder for bosses to combine in those days, for one thing. Today the enterprises that are successful are transnationals almost by definition.
As I said, I'm agnostic about the prospects, but I hope to comment on its more fully over at Molly's Polls. It would be great if it could happen, but it may or may not come to pass. Experience will tell.