What "Superstore" Can Teach Us About Unions

We should be 100% on board with unions—but we're not. Here's why.

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On the latest episode of the Boss Barista podcast, guest Zoe Muellner shared that she didn’t know a lot about unions prior to joining one. In our conversation, she and fellow organizer Robert Penner talked about the Colectivo Collective: a group of baristas and other coffee workers looking to unionize their workplace, Colectivo Coffee, which operates a small collection of coffee shops in Milwaukee and Chicago.

“My only real familiarity with unionizing was through the television show Superstore,” Muellner said at one point.

One of the single-biggest topics I’ve gotten pushback on in the four years I’ve done Boss Barista is unions. When I released an episode with organizers from the Gimme! Union—an interview that was conducted by my former co-host, Jasper Wilde—I received messages from colleagues asking if the concerns of the union were truly valid. A couple years later, I wrote a piece about the language utilized by the ownership of Tartine after its baristas and workers decided to unionize—and it didn’t really land.

There could be various reasons for that opposition. Still, I don’t think we talk about unions enough. I also wonder why unions aren’t more universally embraced—what stigmas might be holding back workers from learning more about them?

Superstore is a prime-time sitcom about hourly wage workers at a big-box store. Episodes on the show are eerily accurate in their portrayal of power dynamics between employers and employees. Hours get cut in an effort to save money. In the first season, a manager attempts to give an employee a pseudo-maternity leave by suspending her for six weeks with pay since the company doesn’t offer any paid leave. In a joke to corporate, America Ferrera’s character casually mentions a way to cut costs by reclassifying employees so their benefits are taken away—and corporate goes for it. And in season five, employees attempt—and ultimately fail—to start a union.

We don’t often get to see how others are treated at work. Instead, we rely on our own experiences or shared moments with coworkers, which is what makes Superstore so interesting. In this article for Slate, Rebecca Onion writes that the show “is the only contemporary sitcom about American workers that threads class consciousness—the persistent low-level conflict between management and staff, the human impact of low pay and bad health insurance, the befuddling effect of managerial tactics that thwart workers’ solidarity—through every episode, without being too didactic about it.”

Superstore achieves this balance by avoiding pitting its employees against an individual manager, instead pointing correctly to the powers at “corporate.” Creating a sole antagonistic boss would risk viewers’ interpreting a conflict as individual, as “this person is a jerk.” Instead, the show reminds us that those in power will always be in some sort of opposition to those below them—especially if their exploitation results in more money for those in power.

Every single coffee union I’ve chatted with has faced incredible strife. From management not recognizing their organizing efforts to union organizers being fired from their jobs, workers lobbying for better conditions have faced real hardship to get their concerns noticed—and they often have to challenge leadership who attempt to dismiss and deny their needs at every turn.

This is confirmation bias at play. If a leader believes they’re doing a good job, union efforts can threaten their perception of reality—and their only way to understand them is to perceive them as a threat, and deny their legitimacy.

This is what happened for the Colectivo Collective. Baristas and other coffee workers attempted to demand accountability from leadership, and instead were forced to talk with representatives from the Labor Relations Institute—an organization that describes itself as helping its clients “earn, protect and retain their direct relationship privilege, as we have for nearly 40 years. We also help leaders in unionized work places protect management flexibility and engage their represented employees.” In this statement, the organization is admitting that its job is to help managers maintain the status quo—to protect power, in other words—and to make sure management can retain the upper hand over employees.

When the Colectivo Collective folks first shared their intent to unionize, Colectivo responded with a letter stating, “Fun, camaraderie, and flexibility in our jobs—yours, ours, everyone that we work with—would be replaced by contracts and boundary lines.” In other words, “It’s your fault if we don’t get to do fun things because you wanted to join a union”. (You can read the letter here in its infuriating entirety.)

This reminded me of the last episode of Superstore’s fourth season. It’s “employee appreciation day,” which translates to one-off perks like free massages and an ice cream stand. Jonah, one of the workers, points out that employee appreciation day seems always to fall around the time of year when union cards are signed, and wonders if that’s a coincidence. Some coffee folks might remember the walkouts at Slate Coffee, and how management attempted to appease employees with a pizza party rather than address their concerns.

I have to imagine that some of what makes unions unpopular results from the way that workers are siloed—mistreatment often happens in individual interactions, which means it can be hard to clearly see the negative impacts of harmful managers and leaders. When we do hear bad things about companies’ labor practices, that information is seen as coming from “agitators,” making it easy to write off their concerns as invalid. Meanwhile, those in power, like the owners of Colectivo, get to use language like, “Hey! Let’s have fun and not unionize!” while organizers do the hard work of plainly pointing out unfair power dynamics.

We don’t like hearing unpleasant things, because they challenge the way we view the world. But this is not to say those difficult topics should be avoided, or that the rhetoric of unionizers needs to change. Rather, we need to be able to hear others, and ask questions like, “If someone is telling me their workplace is harmful, what can I do to better understand that?”

I’m angry that we’ve come to this point. Work conditions shouldn’t have to be bad for folks to want to unionize. Unions are a way of standardizing communication and ensuring that workers have just as much power—a real seat at the table—as their employers.

Even if that’s already happening at a workplace, a union should do nothing to threaten a business. More than half of all employees in Finland, Iceland, and Norway are part of unions. In Denmark, McDonald’s employees, who are for the most part unionized, start at $22/hour, and McDonald’s is still making money hand over fist. Clearly, their unionized workforce hasn’t threatened growth or prosperity.

So what it is? Why are we so weirded out, or even threatened, by unions? Perhaps it’s easier to believe that what’s already in place is what works. Perhaps it’s because we want to trust our employers. I have to hope that more people come to recognize just how valuable unions can be—and how employers’ responses to union efforts are often a reflection of their own fear of losing power.

Seriously, though—watch Superstore.

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