Thursday, February 15, 2007

Selective enlightenment & the neo "good employer"

The standards for being a "good employer" in this country have changed a lot in the last century. One example of this trend is Starbucks, who certainly pay and benefit their employers better than any other large food service chain in the country, and that's not to be sniffed at. But Starbucks also aggressively union busts and intimidates those who would organize for collective bargaining rights.

On labor standards for their coffee growers, Starbucks is similarly selectively enlightened: it's great that they will only sell fair trade coffee, but only if STARBUCKS, and not international oversight and policy experts like the Workers Rights Consortium or the U.S. Labor in the Americas Project, get to determine what fair trade means in the details. On this matter of defining fair labor practices overseas, Starbucks' standards fall predictably lower than than those of the people who study the issue for a living.

Putting American Apparel's porn-lite ad campaigns aside for the moment to focus solely on the company's labor practices, you'll find a similarly mixed picture. This retailer's terrific website boasts glowing worker testimonies and makes their L.A. factory seem like a dream spa, which I'm sure it truly resembles - the workers get generous breaks, plenty of light and air, and even massages! But what if they want to form a union? No freakin' way. American Apparel spent considerable energy and money in 2006 making sure this did not happen through intimidation, harassment, and firings.

What's with the paternalism and the massage bribery? How can an employer honestly say they respect and honor their workers' lives when they won't allow them to make their own decisions about representation? And with more American workers joining the service sector each day, when will Starbucks organizers, for example, gather a critical mass in the face of the company's vast money and influence? Will they ever?

While we're at it, Betty just received this email from a community organizer in Oakland, CA, regarding IKEA (the place where all Betty's furniture came from for the last five years):

On the good side, [IKEA] have met and exceeded a local hire policy
requirement in East Palo Alto for several years now...the City staff person...holds
the company's feet to the fire.

On the bad side, they are deeply afraid of workers talking to each other,
or, God forbid, organizing. We conducted a survey of big box retail
workers in Emeryville, where the Bay Area's first IKEA is located. In
order to stop us, they tried to get my surveyors arrested, called me at
home and intimidated my wife, implied to workers that they would be fired
if they responded to our survey and hired a *very* expensive union-busting
law firm to write threatening letters to us. All over a 15 minute survey
being conducted by undergrad students. Not nice people.

Like her boxy, functional IKEA furniture, Betty also enjoys her occasional Starbucks holiday cookie and corn syrup coffee, and she owns some underwear from American Apparel, which she figures is a step up from the Gap in terms of worker rights and even the environment. Cold comfort? Yes. A step in the right direction? Perhaps. Maybe the American labor movement and all civil rights struggles (Betty thinks particularly here of the gay rights movement) have more in common than just gallons and gallons of coffee. Must progress always be so slow?


Nancy D., Girl Detective said...

Betty: I don't have much experience with union law, so forgive the naive question, but isn't "intimidating, harassment, and firing" a violation of labor law? I'm sure this kind of stuff happens all the time, but if so, why is it so hard to build a case against these employers? Or are they just skirting what they can legally get away with?

I don't think we should expect any employer to welcome unions--by definition, unions go against their interests and create an oppositional relationship with workers--but they should obey the law. I was part of the early stage of a unionizing movement at my first workplace, and it was one of the oddest experiences I've ever had. The "management" didn't try to prevent the union, but the process created a huge amount of tension and conflict between people who had previously been friends, worked together happily, and had not thought of themselves as "management" and "workers." The union only got off the ground after I left the organization, and in the end everyone was happy with it, but it was a really tumultuous year with a lot of bad feelings and back and forth accusations. I had thought that a progressive nonprofit that dedicated itself to improving conditions for immigrants and day laborers would deal easily and welcomingly with a unionizing effort, but this was not the case. Which is just to say, that even at the friendliest places, unionizing is a fraught business.

Betty & Bimbo said...

Nancy D.- You raise good points, all.

As far as Starbucks/AA/IKEA organizing goes, my sense is that the movement for a union inside any of these companies is not yet strong enough to warrant a strategic legal intervention that would generate a lot of press publicity, go to the Supreme Court, etc. I mean, these organizing efforts haven't even had an NLRB vote yet.
The kind of union busting that is more widespread at Starbucks et al. at the moment is from all I've heard the kind that is harder to quantify - whispering campaigns, comments to workers about how lucky they are and the kind of tension from management that you describe at your workplace.

It's also *very* easy to fire a worker for something else (uniform violation? not washing their hands well enough? bad attitude?) when your real motive is union organizing - this happens all the time. It's like when they arrest day laborers for jay-walking just so they can send them back to Central America.

Verbal and phone harassment are impossible to prove without tape recordings, and even if you could make a documented case the employer can again cite other arcane workplace violations or just fire you for no reason at all - as long as you don't say it's about workers organizing, it's not illegal. People in power obviously have a much easier time cementing what they want in these circumstances.

Finally, I don't think that unions must necessarily be bad for management. Auto workers from the 1950s and 60s often felt loyalty not only to their union but to their company as well, and stayed for many, many years. I think that having a set of understood inviolable rules between management and labor not only protects the more vulnerable party, but can have the day to day effect of making things smoother for both parties. Put yourself in management's position: someone just got mangled by a machine on the line? take them to a hospital and pay the bill or dump the body behind the factory? The union makes this difficult choice for you.

Betty & Bimbo said...

I guess the question that all three of these companies bring up for me is why do they even try to be nice if they're not going to go all the way?
Do you value workers' lives or not? If not, why even make overtures? Obviously, I'm glad that they do make overtures and actually do some stuff, but I'm just curious as to what exactly is motivating their small potatoes activism...

But Wal-Mart, although it had a rough year, will always have customers because of their prices (a 10 year old in China helped you get a good deal on that radio). And just imagine how much people would stop complaining about Starbucks if the lattes weren't $4.50?!?!?

Betty & Bimbo said...

Hmm, I realize I'm talking to myself now and must look like a crazy person, but maybe I answered my own question without knowing it.

If you create conditions, as all of these companies do, that are way better than those offered at the Wal-Marts not to mention in Latin America - and remember that Wal-Mart is now the WORLD'S biggest commercial employer - than perhaps you really can stop unionization because the workers ARE genuinely lucky and they know it. And you keep the relatively affluent progressive customers like me coming back by advertising your ethics all over the store. Combine these elements, and you're golden! This is almost too brilliant.