Daniel Gross is the lead organizer in the ongoing IWW IU/660 effort to establish the only unionized Starbucks in the United States. He’s a worker at the 36th and Madison Starbucks in New York City, the immediate focus of the campaign. During a demonstration in front of his workplace during the RNC, Daniel was arrested along with co-worker (and union supporter) Anthony Polanco. He now faces a trial in October, the most serious charge being resisting arrest. Left Hook’s Derek Seidman recently had a chance to catch up with Daniel Gross to find out more about his predicament and the state of the union campaign.
(You can learn more about the struggle of the Starbucks workers and find a way to help at www.starbucksunion.org)
DS: The last time I saw you was when you were getting hauled away in a police bus from the demonstration in front of the 36th and Madison Starbucks during the RNC. Your union called the event to rally support and keep the heat on Starbucks. What exactly happened that day? It looked like you were about to end the rally when the police arrested you?
DG: The Union called for a march during the RNC to protest the intervention of the Bush Administration into the Starbucks organizing drive. As expected, with Capital in distress the State came to the rescue. The march began at the Starbucks where the union vote was denied and continued on to the regional headquarters of Starbucks. We ended by returning to the store to let them know the IWW is not going anywhere until every Starbucks worker rises out of poverty. Wobblies and supporters were in attendance from around the country! The demonstration was peaceful at all times but that didn’t keep the NYPD from badgering us the entire time.
Just seconds before the conclusion of the rally, I was grabbed off the sidewalk and arrested. A few moments later, my co-worker and outspoken union supporter, Anthony Polanco was arrested as well. The targeted arrest of two union workers at the store raises serious questions about the criminalization of dissent in general and more specifically law enforcement’s willingness to use force to break a union. After spending the night in jail, Anthony and I were brought before a judge. The good news is the prosecutor downgraded Anthony’s disorderly conduct misdemeanor to a violation and the rest of the charges were dropped. The bad news is the prosecutor is throwing the book at me. The so-called plea bargain he offered me was pleading guilty to the outlandish resisting arrest charge and doing a week in jail. Keep in mind I engaged solely in pure First Amendment activity. I rejected the offer and will go to trial in October. Of course, if I lose the case the sentence is likely to be even more severe. However, I am confident that a jury of my peers in New York City will see through the Bush/Bloomberg hype that prevailed during the RNC. I am also very pleased to be represented by activist attorney Leonard Weinglass. He understands what’s at stake in this trial and he knows a thing or two about repression at political conventions. (Editors Note: Leonard Weinglass along with William Kunstler represented the Chicago Seven including Tom Hayden and Abbie Hoffman in the trail arising from events at the 1968 Democratic National Convention.)
Every time we have held a rally in front of Starbucks, the company tells the police we are blocking the entrance and harassing customers. So most disturbingly perhaps, Starbucks finally got what they wanted with our arrests. That’s why it’s important I am acquitted of all charges so as to deprive Starbucks of the ability to use my potential jail sentence as a fear tactic against workers. The Starbucks Workers Union is asking our friends around the world to take a stand with us against the criminalization of dissent and union-busting. As my trial date approaches, legal solidarity actions will be posted on www.starbucksunion.org.
DS: Did Starbucks have any reaction to the arrest of you and your co-worker? I know you both had been issued your final warnings.
DG: Starbucks has not made any statements about the arrests. People from around the world are contacting Starbucks demanding Anthony and I not be fired. So far that support has kept us our jobs. I appreciate it so much that working people, dog-tired from a long shift and the commute home, are taking time out of their day to make a phone call or send an e-mail to ensure Starbucks can’t silence the union.
DS: How’s the response been– in New York and beyond– to this campaign? Are people finding out about it? Are you finding a lot of support?
DG: The campaign is growing at breathtaking speeds. More and more Starbucks workers are learning they have the right to form a union and that the IWW is here to help.
DS: Besides the most immediate reasons for a union, what do you see as the bigger issues and implications involved in this fight?
DG: We’re asking folks to join with us in imagining a fighting union of retail workers and what a constructive force in society such an entity would be. The Retail Workers Union of the IWW looks forward to the day when "associates" at Wal-Mart, "team members" at Kinko’s, and "partners" at Starbucks march together under the black and red banner reading, "Abolition of Wage Slavery". Retail workers are some of the most exploited employees in the world. I believe a multi-dimensional revolutionary movement will necessarily require the participation of this group of workers. Also, retail workers organizing and speaking out has the potential to shift values within society. Almost everyone interacts with retail workers every day of the week. The corporate retail giants depend on their customers not having to think about the plight of the person standing behind the counter. Humanizing retail workers to other fellow workers making purchases sparks questions about the real price of something you buy at a Wal-Mart. Organized retail workers help shed light on the entire system of corporate rule where workers are pitted against other workers by the bosses.
DS: I’ve talked about your union struggle with some other people who don’t have the same sort of political awareness about it. They have some of the same concerns that I imagine you encounter from folks while leafleting in front of Starbucks: worries about the prices going up if wages and benefits go up, for instance? What are some of the arguments you get from people on the middle ground, and how do you respond?
DG: Communicating to the general public about the need for a union at Starbucks can be challenging. Starbucks invests a lot of money and effort to create a socially responsible image. "Middle-of-the road" people often point out that Starbucks is better than some employers. This is true, but that doesn’t change the fact that Starbucks workers live far below the poverty line and deserve to live free of repetitive strain injuries. The best way to counter Starbucks propaganda we’ve found is with hard data. The numbers don’t lie, whether it’s the poverty wage, the hours we get per week, the nuts and bolts of the health plan or the 401k. As far as prices going up, Starbucks has $4 billion coming in at current prices, plenty to go around. How about Chairman Howard Schultz spreading around the $17 million he took in last year? In fact, the Starbucks Workers Union opposes the price increase set to take effect at Starbucks, allegedly because of increased dairy prices. We think Starbucks customers are already being gouged enough. By the way, not every Starbucks customer is a yuppie!
Derek Seidman lives in Providence, Rhode Island. He is a co-editor of Left Hook (www.lefthook.org) and can be reached at [email protected]