In a recent South Side Branch meeting, our icebreaker question was “What should Chicago DSA’s focus be in the next year?” The clear majority of branch members brought up supporting labor struggles. This is no surprise. Since the pandemic began in 2020 the labor upsurge across union and non-union workplaces has been a consistent bright spot at a time when many of our other efforts have been stymied and stalled. I believe that by seizing this momentum we can provide essential support that will help new unions to win their elections, existing unions secure contract wins for their members and raise the expectations and militancy of the whole working class.
A few months ago, Kristian H., an NPC member and Texas comrade, introduced some of us to a catchphrase that I think is brilliant: “Sip and Ship.” The idea is this: In the coming months we should put efforts toward supporting Starbucks workers in their struggle to unionize and bargain for a contract. In doing so, we can build capacity to provide meaningful strike support for UPS workers in the lead up to their contract battle next summer. We can’t treat these different workplace struggles as separate because they are not separate. The trends affecting baristas and other service industry workers are actually very similar to those affecting logistics workers and we have seen in the past 6 years of DSA-coordinated labor support that our ability to act as a bridge of solidarity between workplaces makes a huge difference when it comes to getting big wins for the working class.
The general consensus on why we should support Starbucks organizing thus far has for the most part been “because it’s happening”. This is a fine reason for individuals to support an organizing effort but for our organization to commit to something, we need the work to be strategic. In the past, the argument has been made that service industry organizing is not a worthwhile use of time because turnover is high, union density is especially low and the workforce is made up of a combination of people in precarious living situations and people who treat the work as a “side hustle” or “starter job”. The sector was not viewed as strategic in the way shipping and manufacturing were because the value created seemed less concrete than other industries. While these arguments are worth engaging with, they shouldn’t be treated as hard and fast realities.
The current condition is this: We have become a service-focused economy. An increasing percentage of American workers are in service work and working Americans depend on those services to get through the day. Many of those service jobs, such as nursing and teaching, were once seen as professional middle-class jobs distinctly different from precarious service jobs like barista.The last several decades, however, have seen that distinction disappear. This is tied to a concept that Barbara Ehrenreich popularized decades ago — the proletarianization of the Professional and Managerial Class. What were once high(er) status jobs have experienced wage suppression and decreased social standing. Teachers and nurses have seen their jobs transform from those defined by professional standards established by their peers to ones in which their bosses see them as mechanical units of production. This prioritization of profits means workers are being increasingly subject to the mentality that those of us who have worked in the service industry know well, “the customer is always right.”
This proletarianization of previously comfortable, middle-class service jobs has blurred and maybe even erased lines we drew in the past between different industries. We now live in a world where not only are teachers increasingly treated as service industry employees, many of them are working part time side gigs in the service industry because they can’t make enough money teaching to support themselves. We are the same; our fates are deeply connected and the more we can build solidarity and new unions in these areas, the better off all of us who serve in a million different capacities will be.
So what does this have to do with Starbucks?
The Starbucks workers were the ones who took action. But they didn’t do it in a vacuum. Many of them received support from volunteers of the DSA/UE project the Emergency Workplace Organizing Committee, and many more received support from the SEIU affiliate Workers United. These organizations provided connective tissue and a network of support that allowed workers to overcome the impossible odds of organizing new, un-unionized workers in the service industry. Starbucks is actually well-situated by service industry standards because there are locations everywhere in the country, the workforce is left-leaning and the management tries to look similarly. This doesn’t mean success is guaranteed, far from it. We should be prepared for many of these unionization efforts to fail (as most union drives do) and we must also prepare for the bosses to close unionized shops. But even in those losses there are wins. Every time a Starbucks boss breaks the law to harm workers, the public learns that even “liberal” companies are machines designed to create profit at any cost. Every time workers ask their bosses to meet their basic needs and those bosses retaliate, the workers learn that the only thing the company respects is power and their only power comes from withholding their labor together.
Every unionizing Starbucks is a laboratory trying out new tactics and forging new organizers in the fires of struggle. Chicago DSA can stoke that flame. We have already started regularly mobilizing to shops where actions are happening and building a list of working class people ready to boycott. We can build on that work, establishing close ties between DSA organizers and worker leaders in each store so that, if and when these workers escalate their fight against the boss, we can be right alongside them. By giving so many DSA members that concrete experience of fighting the boss, we can transform the political analysis of thousands of working class people with no previous labor experience and move them to action, including potentially in their own workplace.
While I myself never worked at Starbucks I have had conversations with several workers about their experiences, and I’ve worked plenty of customer service jobs myself. I remember my own (failed) attempt at unionizing the brewery I worked at before the pandemic. I went in believing that this company would probably voluntarily recognize us. “The brewers are making the same beer that their union counterparts in St. Louis make and this company is progressive,” I thought to myself. After countless conversations, after getting 65% of the workers to sign union cards, after a captive audience meeting in which management accused me of being a spy and a stooge and a bully, after my hours were cut and managers posted up in the bar to make the workers nervous, after the company “re-structured” and those of us who led the organizing were all on the list of “necessary cuts” I finally understood fully that the bosses and I were always going to have to struggle against each other for power.
One of my coworkers who helped lead the union effort took our loss as the opportunity for a career change. He moved from Chicago to Portland and got a job at UPS where he became a driver and a militant member of his union, Teamster Local 162. He and some of his union brothers oriented Portland DSA toward labor struggles. Not just Teamster struggles, but the fights of Nabisco workers, Starbucks workers, healthcare workers, teachers, and more. Trying to do new organizing and coming so close, and being ratfucked right at the end taught him how to organize. And compared to the insurmountable challenge of making a union from scratch, organizing within an existing union, no matter how calcified and corrupt, felt easy by comparison.
Like Starbucks, UPS has locations all over the country. In fact, just about every home and every business is on a UPS route. Unlike Starbucks, UPS is already union. In fact, its workers are represented by the International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT), one of the largest and most powerful unions in the country.
The Teamsters just had an internal leadership election in which organizers like my friend in Portland put in hundreds of hours outside of work to push for a fighting, member-led union. The “Teamsters United” slate ran on a platform of increased democracy, militancy, and an explicit threat to strike UPS if the bosses didn’t agree to end its two-tier employment system. Under two-tier, incoming workers receive significantly worse contracts than those who were hired in the past. The union reform caucus Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU) mobilized its members behind the Teamsters United slate and beat the corrupt “Hoffa-ite” leadership that had colluded with the bosses to let two-tier come to pass years ago. Sean O’Brien, the newly elected TDU president has spoken alongside Bernie Sanders and described contract fights as “a full contact sport.”
25 years since the Teamsters shut down UPS. 1 year until our contract expires. Every step of the way, in every warehouse and in every truck, we will be fighting relentlessly for a good contract. And we intend to win. pic.twitter.com/6R1QkTWpdN
— Sean Orr (@SeanOrrMKE) August 4, 2022
As we have learned through our electoral organizing, the work doesn’t stop when the campaign is over. Now that these unionists fighting for democratic reforms have organized and won, they are continuing the work of building relationships, power, and their collective understanding of what’s at stake. In Chicago, Teamsters Local 705 rank and file leaders have been hosting “Teamster Thursdays” every week at the “Jeff Street” hub — the largest UPS hub in Chicago proper. At these events, workers talk about the challenges they face at work, educate each other around contract points that are most important, and even mobilize in support of other unionization efforts. Despite the contract being months away, the organizing is happening now, and if we are strategic, socialists will build the organizing infrastructure alongside and as these workers.
Like Starbucks, the workforce of UPS is incredibly diverse both in terms of race and age. It is a very fertile environment for introducing people to our politics because of its spread, which includes both young people experiencing the post-2008 squeeze and older people who can remember when things used to be better. Like with Starbucks, we have an in with a certain subset of the workforce and their relationships open a door to people we wouldn’t reach through Tweets and marches.
The UPS fight is bigger than one company. It is a battle for the future of the logistics industry in America. Companies like Amazon are very transparent about what they want to see in the coming years. They want to enact a similar process to the “servicification” I mentioned above but in this industry it goes by the name “gigification.” This process turns salaried employees into “independent contractors” using their own vehicles to make deliveries. It’s marketed as a “more flexible” model for workers but is in fact a cheat for companies who can pass off almost all of their responsibilities to take care of employees. The bosses at UPS have been experimenting with this model already and if they had their way they would turn current drivers, who currently make a living wage, into part time gig workers.
The leadership of the Teamster United slate made another promise on their platform, to unionize Amazon. Since the pandemic, Amazon has gained full control of its industry and is currently churning through workers — using them up and throwing them out without any pretense of loyalty or meritocracy. We have two futures to choose from: either Amazon’s model of treating human beings as a disposable stop gap measure until machines are advanced enough to replace us all, or the Teamsters’ struggle to expand living wages and full time status to the workers who make this country operate.
The 2023 UPS contract will be the battleground where the workers and the bosses fight over the future of this industry, and therefore our country. The workers are doing everything they can to organize and show their strength, but in order to win big (and continue winning), they will need to regain the ground lost during the business unionism days, so our UPS siblings are going to need unprecedented community support. This looks like financial donations to create a strike fund that has the potential to support workers for as long as it takes to win. This looks like vocal support from within the halls of power that make it a political liability to do anything but stand by the workers. If a strike happens, this looks like picket line support with loud voices and big bold signs that make scabbing not worth the trouble. Luckily there is an organization perfectly positioned to organize all this and more.
Although many newer members might not know this, Chicago DSA has been involved in strike support for years now. In the Pre-Bernie-Bump days, members did picket line support where they could. When membership boomed thanks to Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign, many of the incoming members had organized with their grad student union, worked as union organizers, or been involved in other political organizations as activists. These members came together ahead of the 2018 hotel workers strike and organized picket line support for the hotels that needed an extra boost to win. In 2019 when the Chicago Teachers Union went on strike the organizing was scaled up to include “Bread for Ed” which provided food to teachers on the picket line and full mobilization around the city to make sure CTU demands were met. Since then the Chicago DSA Labor Branch has supported strikes across the city and Midwest, from nurses and healthcare workers to industrial bakers to agricultural manufacturers to art teachers.
The current branch steering committee ran on a platform of re-invigorating the Strike and Solidarity sub-committee and launching a new committee supporting the organizing of workers in democratically chosen areas of focus (Healthcare and UPS Teamsters). Through the UPS Teamsters group, interested CDSA members are aided in the process of becoming Teamsters and existing UPS Teamster-members are kept in contact. The labor branch will be doing this work, as they have been for years, but for us to be successful, it can’t just be the same 40 people mobilizing over and over again. We need all hands on deck. We need to be talking to our electeds and our endorsed candidates about how they can support Starbucks and UPS organizing. We need to find the places where we can combine our labor support work with existing campaigns and work smarter not harder to reach people. We need to have dance parties and field days and game-athons — anything people will attend — to raise money for strike funds and organizing materials.
At the last Labor Notes conference, Amazon Labor Union leader Chris Smalls asked the crowd attending his keynote address the rhetorical question of what would happen if all the attendees of that convention mobilized to an action. We have the opportunity to answer that rhetorical question next summer. The National DSA convention will bring a thousand of the best socialist organizers in the country together in our city of Chicago. To pull off a mass mobilization to a UPS picket line would take a great deal of organization but would send a powerful message to the bosses. With this added muscle and media reach right at crunch time, the possibilities for shifting the public conversation and material support in the direction of workers are tremendous and unprecedented.
Beyond the nuts and bolts of supporting and relationships building, there is a broader goal we can’t lose sight of. Our goal is to aid in the working class’s self organization so that it can build and wield enough power to run society. This is often something DSA downplays in favor of keeping our eyes on the prize in terms of winning non-reformist reforms and holding electeds accountable, but it is the ultimate goal of the socialist movement. To achieve this, we must transform ourselves as individuals and as a collective. I have learned first hand that labor struggle is transformative not only for the members of an individual workplace but for every person who takes part in the fight. It is a process of developing internal discipline and capacity for communication. Each one of us who heeds this call to fight for workers in industries other than our own will become bonded across workplaces. When our workplaces eventually need support, we will be able to call upon those relationships. We, as Chicago DSA, will have opportunities to get to know each other, and in doing so, learn how best to talk to one another. We will hopefully build trust through small opportunities to come through and help one another across campaigns, branches, and working groups.
And, who knows, maybe 50 years from now, when every workplace has a union and every union has a militant shop floor layer, the “General Strike” that exists now only in our collective imagination will have some chance of coming to pass. And maybe 100 years from now the culture that we have built of worker power and community solidarity will form the foundation of the society that we know can exist, in which the people are in charge and the resources are shared.
Now that I’ve zoomed out to the most maximalist view of this struggle I should rein myself in a bit and re-focus on the specifics. Here is what you can do to support this work (in order from lowest to highest commitment):
- ATTEND THE GENERAL CHAPTER MEETING AND VOTE YES ON THE PROPOSAL
- SIGN ON TO THE UPS PROPOSAL AND TO HELP MAKE IT HAPPEN
- SIGN UP HERE RSVP FOR THE NEXT STRIKE & SOLIDARITY MEETING
- SIGN UP HERE TO GET INVOLVED IN THE JOBS PIPELINE
If you are uncertain where to get plugged in, reach out to the Labor Branch Steering Committee to schedule a one-on-one conversation with one of its members. They can direct you toward meaningful work based around your skills, interests and availability.
Can you imagine a day in which no packages were moved? Can you imagine the build up that would occur if a single hub shut down for a single day? During the uprising, we talked a lot about “who shuts shit down,” but when we think about who really has the power to grind business as usual to a halt, logistics is high on the list. A society that has seen logistics only grow in importance, linking products not only to businesses but also to individuals puts a historic amount of power in the hands of the workers who get things where they need to go.
It’s not enough for us to decide “sure let’s let the labor people do UPS stuff.” We must all take full responsibility for our role as individuals and as a chapter in what could be the most important labor battle of the decade. We should do this because we want our hardworking UPS comrades to get a fair contract. We should also do this for ourselves because the ripple effects of this contract fight have the potential to reverberate through every workplace in the country and it will either serve as the rising tide that raises all of our boats or a huge blow to every one of us who sell our labor to survive.
So I now call the question: Which side are you on?