Working In These Times: Organizing on Wobbly Ground: Learning from ‘Solidarity Unionism at Starbucks’

-By Adam Kader

June 16, 2011- The decline of unions does not mean the end of the labor movement. Indeed, the last few years have seen a proliferation of new kinds of worker organizations and workers' rights campaigns. Some of the most exciting of late have been conducted by community-based groups (rather than workplace-based unions), such as the Coalition of Immokalee Workers and those part of the National Domestic Workers Alliance.

In Solidarity Unionism at Starbucks, a recent pamphlet published by PM Press, Daniel Gross and Staughton Lynd highlight an increasingly important feature of today’s labor movement—nonunion workers using direct action strategies protected by the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA)—while examining the Industrial Workers of the World’s (IWW)'s ongoing efforts to organize Starbucks.

During the last decade, Chicago-based IWW has seen a resurgence of organizing activity and visibility. That's in part because the 106-year-old international union, which once had 100,000 members but is now only a fraction of that size, formed the Starbucks Workers Union (SWU) in 2004 in New York City. It was the coffee chain's first union, and it has since expanded.

The Starbucks campaign is remarkable because it draws from both IWW's history and the best practices of worker centers, which are the principal heir of the union's rich organizing legacy. Ironically, today’s IWW activists, or Wobblies, can learn from worker centers. In fact, one sign of the IWW's revival is the emergence of the IWW-affiliated Lucy Parsons Workers' Center in Chicago. Gross and Lynd’s pamphlet is particularly instructive to Wobblies who are challenged by the task of reaching out to workers in need of organizing. 


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