Hot Coffee Takes: Labor Edition
Schultz leaves, Michigan abolishes right-to-work, and problematic rhetoric abounds. Discover more in this new Boss Barista series.
Hi friends! A kind reminder that this is a community-supported newsletter. About 100 of you folks have made a financial contribution, and I’m hopeful that more of you will consider making the switch from free to paid. The link below will help you figure out payment stuff.
This week, I’m excited to introduce a new, recurring feature: Hot Coffee Takes, which shares bite-sized news updates about coffee, labor, and the hospitality industry.
There were a few inspirations behind this new series. Recently, I outlined some of the lessons I’ve learned over the course of six years of Boss Barista. One is that I thrive within a set structure—but I realized I could be using structure as more than just an accountability tool. I’m someone who loves panel and game shows, and the idea of a recurring segment on Boss Barista felt like a natural fit.
Then, this week, a few topics popped up that didn’t feel big enough to be fully fledged articles on their own, but which still felt significant enough to share. And so, Hot Coffee Takes was born.
In this space, I’ll be sharing news items, updates, and thoughts centered around a specific, changing topic. I’d also love to use this space as a place for group conversations—as subscribers, you’re invited to share thoughts, start dialogues, and provide deeper insights on a given topic in the comments. You’re also welcome to ask general questions about coffee, or share your thoughts on future segments. I can’t wait to hear from you!
Howard Schultz Steps Down as Starbucks CEO—Finally!
During his third stint at the helm of Starbucks, Schultz’s singular goal seemed to be shutting down the mounting unionization wave at stores across the country. Some publications are implying that he’s stepping down as CEO to avoid testifying before the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions. Sen. Bernie Sanders has been particularly vocal about questioning Schultz about his alleged union-busting tactics, resulting in numerous complaints to the National Labor Relations Board. Initially, Schultz declined to testify, which compelled the committee to threaten to subpoena the CEO. Schultz then agreed to appear before the committee on March 29. He was slated to transition out of his CEO role on April 1, but bowed out just 13 days before transferring power.
A few years ago, I wrote about how union-busting isn’t about money but power, and I think what’s telling about Schultz’s early exit is how much power relies on going unquestioned. It feels like Schultz is doing everything he can to circumvent questioning because he knows popular opinion isn’t on his side, but he can go largely unchallenged if he avoids direct inquiry from people who have the ability to craft and change policies. It does seem that his departure won’t affect his Senate testimony appearance, but I do think his not being involved in the business will absolutely play into how he talks to the committee (it’ll be nine days between him stepping down and his testifying).
On that note...
Has Everyone Forgotten That You Have a Right to Unionize?
I’m working on a story about a union where some patrons (not employees) have questioned the need for collective action.
One of the arguments Schultz made against unionizing was that a place like Starbucks—which supposedly prides itself on worker-friendly policies—doesn’t need a union. Media about the union has rightly centered on dismantling that claim by highlighting cases of retaliation and the precariousness of employment at Starbucks: Many baristas have been fired for union activity or had their hours reduced so severely that they’d had to find other jobs.
But even if Starbucks were a model employer, workers still have a federally protected right to form a union. A union isn’t simply a response to a lousy workplace—it’s a tool for workers to ensure that they have a say in their workplaces, and doesn’t necessitate either a good or bad environment to be worthwhile.
Michigan and the Repeal of Right-To-Work Laws
I recently interviewed Ted Fischer, author of “Making Better Coffee: How Maya Farmers and Third Wave Tastemakers Create Value,” and neoliberalism came up a lot in our conversation. I mention that because the arguments for right-to-work laws sound like neoliberalism disguised as free will.
Michigan recently repealed its right-to-work law. Right-to-work laws allow workers to opt out of joining a union or paying union dues, but still enjoy the protections of a union. But I think, in this case, the idea of “choice” is clouded by corporate interests, and presenting people with a “choice” that might, on its face, seem good for the individual (not paying dues) weakens the power of the working class against those in power.
For the year I spent as a teacher, I was automatically enrolled in the teachers’ union, and if I remember correctly, I paid about $100 a month in dues. I wasn’t part of Teach for America (I applied but didn’t get in) but was heavily influenced by their rhetoric, which is decidedly anti-union. At 23, I had no idea how important the union was—I could look at a chart and know exactly how much money I’d make every year I taught: $45,000 my first year, about $47,000 the second, $54,000 in the third, a jump that represented both an increase in experience but was also the expected year I’d get my masters and receive a bump in pay based on educational advancement. I also had an advocate in my corner when leadership bullied us into not taking sick days.
At that age, I would have likely opted out of the union given a choice. Now, I see how easy it is to manipulate people—especially young ones—into making choices much more advantageous for those in power than for workers as a collective through the guise of individual autonomy.
This is an idea I'm still working through, so I'd love to know your thoughts.
I’m So Tired of This Rhetoric
My colleague, Fionn Pooler, writes a weekly newsletter compiling the biggest coffee-related stories of the week (and I edit the newsletter for Fresh Cup, where I’m also the managing editor). This week, he shared a story about U.K. doctors striking for better pay. They used the tagline: "Thanks to this government you can make more serving coffee than saving patients. This week junior doctors will take strike action so they are paid what they are worth."
So I hate this for a lot of reasons. I hate that junior doctors are barely getting by (the article linked above quotes many new doctors who have to rely on others to subsist), and I’m 100% in support of doctors striking to get fair compensation. But for goodness’ sake, why are baristas so often used as a negative comparison when arguing for dignity and higher wages?
One of the reasons the British Medical Association (BMA), speaking on behalf of striking doctors, used the barista comparison is because coffee chain Pret A Manger announced a series of wage increases over the last few months, and BMA clarified that they are in support of baristas receiving wage increases. But that doesn’t stop this rhetoric from being problematic. Its use in this campaign sends a clear message, and seems to follow a pattern of picking on service workers—and de-emphasizing the value of their work—as a justification for higher wages for people in seemingly more “important” sectors.
Again, it’s a problem of false dialectics. Like in the union conversation above, the “burger flippers shouldn’t get paid more than I do” argument poses an incorrect relational problem: You don’t need to work in a poor environment to deserve a union, and you don’t need to justify a wage increase by comparing your industry to another.
I really like talking about language and word choice, so this might be a topic to explore later.
Bonus: Should We Be Adding Savory Stuff to Our Coffee?
Forget olive oil in coffee—I can’t stop thinking about parmesan cheese in espresso martinis:
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What do you think of this new recurring segment? What’s on your mind that you’d like to chat about? Have you doused your morning cup with olive oil yet? Let me know in the comments!
Additionally, here are some other topics I’ve been thinking about discussing—I’d love to know which ones you’re most excited by:
Latte art and why I both love and hate it
Punch cards and loyalty programs (spoiler alert: I hate them!)
Why we should be paying more attention to iced drinks
What information you should look for on a coffee bag
See you next week!
Photo by kevin laminto
The right to unionise - yes, yes, a thousand times yes! The only people who can say whether a union is ‘necessary’ are the workers themselves. Let *them* decide - not owners or customers!
And about right to work laws - At the end of the day, they basically have nothing to do with preserving the individual choice of workers. They were/are designed and function to undermine unions.
It is just as you say - the obvious ‘free rider problem’: workers who opt out of joining the union (and paying the dues unions, like any organisation, need to operate/survive, and do essential things for their workers, like strike benefits) still get absolutely everything the union achieves for the work force, like higher wages and better benefits, but get all this for nothing, without any dues or other responsibilities of membership. That is to say, they ‘ride’ for free, which as you point out undermines the union and its capacity for collective action.
I think it could be compared in some ways to the way communities tax everyone to pay for services that benefit all, even if some will not need or ever use some of those services - schools, for example (regardless if you have school age children or not, everyone pays to support the school system because its existence and effective operation benefits everyone, makes the community a better place to live.
latte art? have always been amazed (impressed too!) by this - have no idea, to be honest, how it’s done, how hard it is to do - but I guess if we come to expect this, it could be a burden on baristas?