Chris Townsend on the State of the Unions

The Starbucks union organizing drive was triggered by a group of young baristas who began organizing Starbucks stores in Buffalo, New York. And that union organizing effort spread to stores around the United States. 

Chris Townsend

True as far as it goes.

But a little reported factoid about that organizing drive?

Those initial Starbucks stores in Buffalo were salted.

Salting is a union organizing term meaning taking young activists, training them, and placing them in a store or factory that you want organized.

Chris Townsend was one of the forces behind the Union Organizer School that helped educate and train the new crop of young union organizers who are being salted in workplaces around the country.

“It’s like dropping a handful of salt into a pot of water, knowing that by salting the water it will boil a little bit faster,” Townsend told Corporate Crime Reporter in an interview last month. “It’s an old labor movement tactic. It’s having labor organizers go to work at a workplace with the idea in their mind that they are going to see if there is support for trade unionism and to see whether they can move those workers who are already there toward organizing.”

“And there are gradations of it. The company can hire people who are pro-union. Or very pro-union. Or just a little pro-union. The salting tactic has caught on with this younger generation. It is part of what happened in the early Starbucks organizing. It is happening in hundreds of other workplaces around the country. I commend the young generation who wants to do this. It is certainly needed.”

“We know that the vast majority of the working class, seventy or eighty percent or more, would gladly join a trade union if the opportunity presented itself – but for the fact that the employer would insert themselves and terrorize people. If people were allowed an uncoerced choice to join a union, the trade union movement would be growing by leaps and bounds. But we are not able to have uncoerced decision-making.” 

“So the vast majority of workers want a union. And the worker who joins a workplace as a salt frequently acts as a catalyzing agent to show those workers that there are reasons to challenge the boss. It’s a leadership tactic.” 

The Starbucks union organizing in Buffalo was a project of the Insider Organizer School where you sent salts into the first stores to kick off this campaign?

“The program to target the original stores in Buffalo was a product of the Workers United joint board in upstate New York,” Townsend said. “But the school was attached to that joint board. It provided the discussion venue and the debate venue. And it provided for the numbers of young workers who want to participate in a process like this. Many of them came out of this school. The school provided an intermediate body for folks to debate and discuss and learn. And that enabled them to decide whether or not they wanted to go out and do this work. It was a right hand left hand kind of arrangement.”

“But I want to give full credit to Workers United, the upstate joint board and Richard Bensinger, Gary Bonadonna and Jaz Brisack. These are the folks who will be remembered as the folks who initiated this Starbucks campaign. But it was done hand in glove with the Insider Organizer School.”  

“When we started the school in 2018, I was able to organize two transit properties in Washington, D.C. with workers who had come through the school and agreed to go to work at the property. We organized about 350 people at those properties.” 

The Starbucks drive involves about 10,000 workers in more than 300 stores. But that’s only two percent of the 400,000 Starbucks employees. 

Other than Starbucks, where are the other organizing drives?

“I think it’s safe to say that at least twice the 10,000 workers at Starbucks would have joined the union were it not for this incredible anti-union repression.”                               

“But let’s look at your question sector by sector. Retail. There is significant movement in the Trader Joe’s company. Trader Joe’s United is an independent union. I believe six Trader Joe’s have unionized. There is an outdoor goods chain called REI. I believe that the union has organized eight or nine REI stores.” 

“Fast food. There is a beachhead at a Chipotle in Lansing, Michigan.”

“Dozens and dozens of not for profits have unionized in the last few years, again with an overwhelmingly younger, highly educated workforce.” 

“The museum industry is organizing. Graduate students are organizing. My old union, the UE, so far this year has successfully organized 18,000 graduate students.” 

“Amazon Staten Island – the workers formed their own union.” 

“There are hundreds of thousands of workers in motion. And there are others we don’t know about. We have not seen this kind of activity in decades.” 

In September 2021, soon after taking office, President Biden invited labor leaders to the White House to honor labor unions. And at that event, he said this: “I intend to be the most pro-union President leading to the most pro-union administration in American history.”

How is he doing?

“It’s preposterous on its face. There have been certain side pieces and appointments. But to declare yourself to be the most pro-union president in history defies the boundaries of imagination. This was the President who undermined and destroyed the railway workers strike, which should have taken place last December.”

“The government is not going to sufficiently regulate the railroads and control their egregious behaviors, both against their customers and their own workers. Strike action by the workers would have helped bring attention to this and it certainly would have done wonders to fix some of the egregious problems that railway workers are forced to labor under.” 

“If in fact President Biden was the most pro-union President, he would have assisted those workers in conducting their strike action. The strike would have been short lived. The railroads are a money machine. And my prediction would have been that a rail strike would have lasted at best a few days. And we would have come out the other end of it in a far better situation.”

“Instead, the Biden administration decided to play politics with the strike. They initially undermined it, and then killed it. And here we sit today with railway workers in virtually the same place they were before the strike. The wage settlement was inadequate. The sick leave crisis remains unaddressed.”

“And Biden was not alone in creating this myth that Biden is the most pro-union President. The bulk of the labor leadership is also complicit. It has every interest in wanting to perpetuate this myth. It sets an incredibly low bar.”

“Joe Biden is a President who will talk to the labor leaders. And suddenly that becomes a pro-union act. There were decades where labor leaders were pushed to the fringe, not welcomed in the highest circles. These are things worth noting. But to merely be invited back to the White House for a halfway serious conversation does not suddenly elevate the President to the most pro-union President in American history.”

“If he was a pro-union President, he would come up with a project to assist workers to organize labor unions. He might insert himself into the Starbucks union effort to see it dramatically expanded, to promote it, to speak in support of it.”

“The most recent damning indictment of Biden came from Sean O’Brien, the President of the Teamsters Union. As we came down to the final few weeks before the settlement with UPS, O’Brien spoke out several times publicly telling the White House – I don’t want you involved in the UPS negotiations. The Teamsters Union represents two of the rail brotherhoods. And so the Teamsters were well aware of what impact Biden had on the rail strike. I commend O’Brien for having spoken out. And there was pressure against him speaking out, I’m sure.”

And did O’Brien say he didn’t want White House involvement because he feared Biden would get involved on behalf of UPS?

“Absolutely. We know that the Chamber of Commerce had written an open letter, pushing the White House to get involved the way they got involved in the rail strike. If I was a worker in a shop and needed an advocate, I would think picking someone from the White House would not be the best choice. I don’t think these people have our best interests at heart. This White House doesn’t understand strike struggle.”

“Had Biden sided with the workers, it would have required him to oppose the corporation. He could have convened a meeting of the rail CEOs and read them the riot act about just one issue – give your workers proper sick leave. Give your damn workers some sick leave. But there was no willingness to raise their voices against any of the corporations.”

“We are in an era increasingly where we are seeing a merger of the corporate leadership with political leadership. It’s exceedingly rare that political leadership will take on corporate crime and corporate practices.”

“When Joe Biden engaged in rank union busting from the White House, one might have expected some folks to be willing to raise their voice and say – this is not good public policy. This doesn’t comport with your claim to be the most pro-union President in United States history. That number of voices was very small. I was among them, but I’m a low level union organizer.” 

“That whole episode said – if the labor movement cannot push back at what was on its face union busting, there is no limit to this man’s anti-union conduct. There is no bottom to that well.”

And within weeks of Biden announcing his re-election bid earlier this year, all of the top labor leaders and all the top progressives in Congress endorsed him, without a mention of the union busting. Why would they do that?

“For the AFL-CIO leadership to unconditionally and at an historically early point in time to endorse this gentleman is absurd on its face. This was a reflection of the complete subordination of the top AFL leadership to the Democratic National Committee.” 

“My understanding was that a meeting was convened in a hurry to meet some Federal Election Commission filing guidelines. There was a technical demand on the part of the White House. It was a voice vote. And there was only one dissenting vote. There was very little debate and discussion about the merits and demerits of this action.”  

[For the complete Interview with Chris Townsend, see 37 Corporate Crime Reporter 33(12), August 28, 2023, print edition only.]

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