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Analysis

Why Starbucks wouldn’t let us say ‘Black Lives Matter’

Starbucks uniform printed with various imagery of a protest, August 19. Liberation Photo: Shoshana Jette

As both a global pandemic and mass uprisings against police brutality surge across the United States, working class and oppressed people have taken the struggle for justice from the streets into their workplaces. Despite many corporate slogans and advertising campaigns that feign support for these struggles, in reality politicizing the workplace is often met with intense pushback. In Boston, the message from companies like Whole Foods and Starbucks was clear — any gesture shown in support for Black lives on the job, no matter how small, is grounds for punishment.

After the Minneapolis police murdered George Floyd and the first rebellion erupted in late May, the focus of my coworkers at Starbucks was immediately directed to the streets. The next day, we received a warning from up the corporate ladder that said showing support for Black Lives Matter would not be tolerated. Their rationale was that displays of politics damage business.

We knew that the movement on the streets was more important than the will of the corporation. The directive backfired. We began talking on the shop floor about issues beyond just the BLM ban. We talked about our safety concerns regarding serving customers during a national pandemic. We talked about how our shop shouldn’t even be open. We talked about how our public image is dishonest, how corporate exploits us, and how Starbucks under-pays farm workers in the global south. Right there on the shop floor, a decision was made: silence would be unacceptable.

Soon, we learned that Starbucks’s decision to ban pro-BLM political expressions had been leaked to the public by an anonymous employee. People around the United States were outraged and began an online demand to “#BoycottStarbucks.” At work the next day, we were informed that the ban on BLM slogans and logos had been reversed. The threat of losing business pushed corporate to give in to our demands.

At a Whole Foods supermarket in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the bosses have been unwilling to concede to similar demands. Workers began wearing “Black Lives Matter” masks on the job. On June 25, 13 of these employees were asked to leave the premises for what management called a “dress code violation.” This directive backfired and workers quickly organized a walk out. At first, seven workers participated, but in a matter of weeks, many more joined in. Just like at my Starbucks, these workers knew that silence would be unacceptable.

This action gained the attention of local media. Emboldened, workers called for a protest outside the store. Other Whole Foods locations organized solidarity protests. Whole Foods retaliated by firing several organizers. As of June 20, the campaign filed a class-action lawsuit for free speech in the workplace, as well as an injunction for publicly supporting the BLM movement while privately helping to crush it. Organizers are also currently seeking donations via gofundme, to allow more shop workers to join the action without risking pay losses.

The campaign at Whole Foods has made me reconsider the real motivation behind my own employer’s decision to reverse their ban on BLM support. More than media backlash, what corporations fear the most is a united workforce. Whole Foods’s resistance to a simple worker demand has galvanized worker opinion against the boss and led to a significant campaign to build worker power, one the company can’t seem to beat so easy. Through conceding to the singular demand of my coworkers early on, Starbucks was able to avoid this issue sparking a broader workers’ campaign like it has in Whole Foods, where labor might win big.

These workers are proving that when we organize, we win — with or without the support of a formal union. In both cases, resistance to simple demands led to stronger campaigns, and deeper workplace unity. Across the country, workers are striking and walking off the job at a greater frequency than they have in decades, with increasingly radical demands.

As the world economy continues to plummet, the ruling class and the corporations they serve are turning to new methods of repression and exploitation — but working and oppressed people in the United States are also learning and adapting. Whether we are in the streets or in our workplaces, we will fight to bring our movement to victory.

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