Wobbly City: An interview with Alex von Schaick
lex von Schaick is a worker at Starbucks Coffee Corporation and an organizer
with the IWW Starbucks Workers Union.
: Tell me a bit about yourself and the Industrial Workers of the
VON SCHAICK: I’ve been working for Starbucks in Manhattan at 29th Street
for almost five months. I went public with my membership in the Industrial
Workers of the World recently. Since I began my involvement with the IWW,
I have become an active participant and organizer in both major IWW campaigns
in New York.
In 1905 the organizers of the Industrial Workers of the World (or “Wobblies”)
founded “one big union” to abolish wage slavery for the entire working
class. This IWW strategy contrasted starkly with that of the conservative
craft unions in the American Federation of Labor (AFL). The craft unions
took care of only their own members. Thus, they divided the working class,
allowing it to be conquered by the owning class. By embracing the entire
working class, the Wobblies’ industrial unionism included all workers,
regardless of race, gender, ethnic origin, or religion. The Wobblies organized
lumberjacks in the Deep South to form the first fully integrated lumberjacks
union. They organized multiracial locals of southern mill workers, iron
miners, agricultural workers, and black longshore workers in New York City
and Baltimore. One of the high points was their successful strike in 1912
in Lawrence, Massachusetts where 20,000 textile workers, a majority of
whom were young women, won a long, bitter strike, in spite of police truncheons
and militia bayonets.
What are the most important campaigns and organizing efforts of the New
York City IWW today?
The IWW has two major union drives in New York City at the moment: the
Starbucks Workers Union (SWU) and the Food and Allied Workers Union. The
SWU is part of the IWW’s local of retail workers while the FAWU falls under
the union’s food service and distribution. The SWU emerged almost three
years ago and has become one of the most vibrant IWW campaigns in a long
time. Since then, Starbucks workers have publicly declared their IWW membership
in four states and many more continue to organize all over the country
and the world.
What are the issues that you see with Starbucks? I thought they were a
responsible corporation that treated their workers with respect and dignity.
Starbucks talks a “socially responsible” talk, but the reality is less
pleasant. Starbucks fails to pay a living wage to its workers and shift
supervisors. Through agitation, the union has pressured Starbucks to raise
the initial wage in New York City from $7.75 an hour in 2004 to $8.75 an
hour. However, Starbucks still has a nationwide policy that discriminates
against long-term employees: after one substantial raise at six months
with the company, you are only eligible for raises of 10-20 cents and your
wage is capped at $11.00 an hour.
Starbucks’ scheduling policy compounds the low wages. All Starbucks workers
and shift supervisors are mandatory part-time employees. Schedules change
every week based on the managers’ discretion and business demands. On top
of this, Starbucks does not guarantee a minimum number of weekly hours.
A worker could receive 30 hours one week then 15 hours the next. This schedule
makes it extremely difficult to live. Also, ironically, while many workers
want more hours, Starbucks stores across the country are chronically understaffed.
IWW demonstration at a Starbucks in Edinburgh, Scotland—photo from www.starbucksunion.org
Scheduling is one of the areas where the union has been able to make a
difference on the shop floor. When workers in New York organized with the
IWW and went public with their union membership, they received an “unofficial”
minimum guaranteed schedule of hours and gained more control over their
I was reading recently the book
, a book about class violence in
the U.S. by Louis Adamic. He discusses the diversity of tactics used by
the Wobblies throughout history, always celebrating “abundant guts and
revolutionary fervor.” Can you talk about the tactics chosen by the New
Organizing at Starbucks, a powerful anti-union company, is an uphill battle
and we constantly seek to refine our strategy to ensure sus- tainability.
The union has won significant victories, such as higher wages, better scheduling
in union shops, and a number of individual grievances. Initially, we tested
the waters with a union certification petition through the National Labor
Relations Board (NLRB) as one part of a broader strategy. However the election
petition resulted in an appeal. We felt we would either lose the appeal
or the process would be drawn out for years, so we withdrew the petition.
Since then, we have emphasized “solidarity unionism.” Rather than focusing
on winning majorities in every shop, we have used pressure tactics to resolve
individual or store-wide grievances. When, for example, management began
discriminating against a union member for wearing a pentagram, a symbol
of her Wiccan beliefs, the union issued a press release and passed out
leaflets to customers at her store detailing the situation. Within a week,
we resolved the situation.
At a store with a union presence in Rockville, Maryland, workers confronted
their district manager about a recent firing and won the fired worker reinstatement.
So, even without formal union recog- nition from Starbucks, we were able
to affect changes.
Still, Starbucks’ anti-union campaign has made organizing extremely difficult.
Starbucks illegally fired two IWW organizers in 2005. A year later the
NLRB bro- kered a settlement that forced the company to reinstate both
organizers and agree to cease and desist all illegal surveillance, discrimination,
and bribery in its efforts to bust the union. Since the agreement, Star-
bucks has fired another six organizers and has continued other illegal
means of discouraging union membership.
One of the most potent weapons the Starbucks Workers Union does have is
publicity. The union has developed a sophisticated campaign, which aims
to hold Starbucks accountable and create a more favorable climate for organizing.
I have met some NYU students who seem really excited about the Justice
from Bean to Cup campaign. Is this a related effort?
Part of Starbucks’ formula for success has been its socially responsible
brand. Starbucks makes customers feel like they are doing “good” while
getting their coffee fix. Each one-pound bag of beans reads: “Good coffee,
doing good. We believe there’s a connection between the farmers who grow
our coffees, us and you…. By drinking this coffee, you’re helping us make
a difference.” By the same token, the company also touts its “stellar”
treatment of its employees.
The SWU launched a Justice from Bean to Cup campaign to force Starbucks
to live up to its socially responsible image. Justice from Bean to Cup
combines a number of different approaches. Students at NYU joined the campaign
and asked NYU to stop serving Starbucks bottled Frappuccino beverages on
campus; a worker-led delegation went to meet coffee farmers in Ethiopia;
and we have just released a short documentary entitled
Starbucks “Corporate Irresponsibility Report” that highlights our experiences
in Ethiopia as well as organizing on the shop floor.
Amersino grocery warehouse workers in NYC sign up to join the IWW in 2006
—photo from www.wobblycity.org
The IWW in New York is more than just Starbucks, right? Haven’t you won
some victories in Brooklyn?
The Food and Allied Workers Union (FAWU) aims to organize low-wage, mainly
immigrant workers in the hundreds of restaurant distribution warehouses
that pepper the industrial districts in Northern Brooklyn and Queens. The
campaign started in the summer of 2005 when IWW organizers met two warehouse
workers at the Bushwick community center. The workers complained of terrible
conditions at Handyfat Trading. They received $280 for a 60-plus hour week
(roughly $4.50 per hour with no overtime—in 2005 the New York State minimum
wage was $6.00 per hour), they had no sick or personal days, and their
manager would frequently launch into tirades, calling them “dirty Mexicans.”
As the campaign developed, the IWW learned that these working conditions
characterized the entire food distribution industry, as well as the kitchens
in most restaurants. Warehouse and restaurant owners— often immigrants
themselves—systematically abused and paid below minimum wage to their mostly
immigrant workforce and relied on inter-ethnic ties or the threat of deportation
to keep their workers quiet.
By December 2005, nine of Handyfat’s employees had joined the IWW and marched
on their shop to declare their union membership and demand proper wages.
Within several months, the union won a minority contract, complete with
wage increases, sick days, vacation time, and other perks. More importantly,
the threat of worker action silenced the most abusive manager.
In 2006 the union organized four other warehouses. In late April the owner
of Amersino Marketing Group rigged the union election by bringing in a
fictitious “night shift” to vote against the union. The following day he
illegally fired several union leaders. After ten months in court, an NLRB
judge ordered Amersino to reinstate two of the fired workers. The union
plans to appeal to win reinstatement for a third worker who was erroneously
left out of the decision.
At EZ-Supply/Sunrise Plus Marketing Corp., workers won their NLRB election
and forced their employer to pay the legal wage. In November 2006 the union
finally dragged management to the bargaining table and hammered out a tentative
Instead, in December 2006, the owners of several warehouses, including
Handyfat and EZ-Supply, decided to play their trump card. Also in December
the union filed back wages class action suit on behalf of workers at these
same shops. Over Christmas, workers at Handyfat, EZ-Supply, and a third
warehouse, Top City Produce, received identical letters from management
requesting them to furnish immigration papers or be dismissed. Many of
the workers had been employed at these warehouses for over a decade and
had never been asked to show any documentation of their immigration status.
Legally, an employer must request proper documentation within the first
72 hours of work. The week after Christmas, the management at EZ-Supply
fired all 14 union workers. The next day IWW representatives served them
with a summons regarding the union’s back wage case. The next week, Handyfat
What was the role of the community in this struggle?
The response from the community has been terrific. While there have been
a lot of lonely picket lines over the last year, several hundred supporters
marched for justice on Martin Luther King Day and Presidents’ Day.
New York’s largest Spanish-language daily, has run several substantial
articles on the situation, as has the
and various community
papers. We have also been increasing economic pressure on EZ-Supply by
convincing its customers to switch to other suppliers. While we aren’t
waiting for the NLRB or any other government agency, the NLRB is conducting
an investigation into the firings.
The Department of Justice is investigating the improper request for immigration
papers, which could result in jail time for the owners of EZ-Supply and
he major impediment both campaigns face stems from a lack of resources.
As a small labor union with a broad vision of social change, we don’t have
the funds and people power we need. This means we desperately need an office
where we can hold meetings and keep our materials, yet New York City’s
high rents keep this out of reach. The Food and Allied Workers Union’s
organizing efforts are hampered by the lack of a volunteer organizer who
speaks Mandarin or Cantonese. Fundraising efforts on behalf of the SWU
and FAWU are underway and will hopefully bear fruit. Additionally, the
Starbucks Workers Union and Justice from Bean to Cup hope to recruit students.
How do you explain the recent resuscitation of the IWW?
Although the IWW has been in existence for the last 102 years, membership
rapidly declined after WWII. For the next five decades or so a small group
of people kept the organization alive, without doing a whole lot of large-scale
organizing. Over the last six or seven years, union membership and the
number of serious IWW organizing drives have grown dramatically.
I see a lot of factors accounting for the gaining notoriety of the IWW.
I think that the neoliberal revolution initiated by Reagan in the U.S.
and Thatcher in the UK should put to rest the notion that employers and
workers share common cause. Organized labor’s response to the neoliberal
assault initiated by Reagan has been remarkably timid. In the face of privatization,
deregulation, and the erosion of U.S. manufacturing jobs, labor presented
a defensive strategy that attempted to mitigate the damage. Even with the
increase in funds spent on organizing that has followed the AFL-CIO split,
the percent of unionized workers in the U.S. has continued to go down.
As the ship is sinking, you have career bureaucrats like Andy Stern, president
of Change to Win, proposing a “new” unionism that represents a repackaged
version of conservative strategies that have dominated the AFL-CIO’s thinking
for the last 55 years.
The IWW, on the other hand, has always maintained a broader vision of rank-and-file
unionism and democracy in the workplace that many people find an attractive
alternative to the myopia of labor officials. My intent isn’t to be sectarian
or lambast all union officials, many of whom have spent their lives fighting
for workers’ rights. You will see Wobblies on the picket line of any union
that has asked for our solidarity and we have very strong ties with many
AFL-CIO and Change to Win locals and rank-and-file unionists in these organizations.
Rather, I’m trying to argue against an age-old labor strategy that refuses
to acknowledge class conflict, lacks a vision of transforming the world
of work, and encourages an alienated patron-client mentality among rank-
and-file members, rather than an empowered, participatory one.
Another phenomenon is that many veteran activists from the global justice
movement see organizing in the IWW as a logical step forward from the street
protests against corporate globalization. For this group of people, the
IWW represents an action-oriented vehicle for creating positive change
in the economic sphere.
Another factor is the Starbucks Workers Union campaign, which has attracted
a lot of attention in the media around the country and has sparked the
imagination of many young people. I hope that the experience of the Food
and Allied Workers Union, as it becomes better publicized, will inspire
more people to get involved with the IWW.
Andrej Grubacic is an anarchist historian and contributor to Z.