Young Workers Spearhead Social Movement in the U.S.

Derek Lewis

Summary: On the ongoing unionization efforts of Starbucks and Amazon workers. Based on a presentation to the July 2022 Convention of the International Marxist-Humanist Organization — Editors

We know the capitalist mode of production demeans the worker and taxes them emotionally, physically, and psychologically. We know the mode of production is frustrating and monotonous, and this in turn contributes to its alienating nature. However, what is of particular interest for this report is the other side of that dialectic, that is the resistance of the working class. On December 9, 2021, the first Starbucks in the U.S. was unionized. PBS reports since late last year, 280 Starbucks stores have petitioned the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to hold union votes and 122 stores have voted to unionize. A friend of mine, Allie, and my closest confidant, Cole, both provided me with information for this report. In addition, I was able to speak to two Amazon workers named Nyzja and Sam (pseudonym).

On April 1, 2022 the New York Times reported a successful vote to unionize led by a grassroots organization that has come to be known as the Amazon Labor Union (ALU). While this is fantastic news, and Chris Smalls has had unprecedented opportunity to meet with members of the bourgeois state, such as Bernie or Biden, to what avail remains to be seen. In May, a vote in another store lost. On June 13 the Washington Post reported a worker was arrested for distributing fliers outside of the factory where they work. Further, Amazon is contesting the victory of the ALU, arguing the employees were intimidated by Small and others. While the reverse is most likely true, this proceeding may go on for weeks or months, and Amazon plans to call “‘dozens and dozens of witnesses” to stall and put off any opportunity for the ALU to bargain for a better contract. Despite this, Vox has recently reported a leaked Amazon memo that warns they may be running out of workers to hire, which would grant current employees significantly more leverage if utilized properly.

Resistance to the Capitalist Labor Process

I believe the persistence of this wave of resistance against capital is part of a larger historical development whose origins lie in the labor process itself. In Chapter 7 of Capital, Marx outlines the “Valorization of Labor” and describes the ways in which the worker is robbed – robbed of their labor, the value it creates, and their humanity. This process, crudely described, is such that the capitalist pays the laborer a wage that has been determined to by the “socially necessary labor time” for the work expected of them, for example, the current minimum wage ($7.25). However, while it may appear that the capitalist has traded fairly with the worker, if the capitalist truly did so, they would go out of business. Rather, the capitalist valorizes or realizes additional value from their employees’ labor, termed surplus value. This is because labor, along with the products of nature, is the source of all value and can create more value than it is assigned in the market.

Not only is labor – besides nature — the source of all value, but Marx also tells us it is central to what makes a person human. Thus, the creation and extraction of surplus value alienates the worker from their product, as it is converted to exchange value and the profits pocketed by the capitalist; however, it extends further than this. The centrality of labor to our species-being means that an appropriation of our labor is an appropriation of an extension of ourselves. Therefore, the alienation experienced under capitalism is not just quantitative and related to economic or productive mechanisms, but there is an important qualitative aspect or feeling to our alienation. The qualitative aspect goes even further than alienation from the fruits of our labor, as it also extends to the labor process as well.

We see, then, that alienation is four-fold: First, the worker is alienated from the product itself. This step separates materially the worker from their creation, the producer from their product. Second is the alienation from process of production itself, which under capitalism is simplified to the point of repetition and monotony, stripping itself of any complexity and desirability. The latter deprives the proletariat of meaningful work which, essentially, is what makes us human (according to Marx). The two of these, then, contribute to an alienation from our humanity – which again Marx largely defines through our ability to labor. This third form, alienation from our humanity, is also alienation from our species-essence or being. The fourth form is alienation from other people. The latter two are perhaps the most abstract of the forms of alienation, but nonetheless an important influence on the anti-capitalist efforts of workers worldwide throughout history of capitalism.

Today, I see these types of alienation as a driving force of the national and global efforts to unionize. While I do not want to minimize the role of securing better material or economic conditions as a push for unionization, a huge part of this push comes from a desire to improve the process of production – how the floor is run, what the expectations/conditions are, how the worker is treated (by management and customers), how long the hours are, dead labors’ domination of living labor. Raya Dunayevskaya, in Chapter 7 of Marxism and Freedom, outlines a Marxist-Humanist notion for understanding alienation. For Dunayevskaya, the domination of dead labor over living is particularly salient and potent in causing human alienation, and this has been intensified all the further in the era of State Capitalism and the (fourth?) industrial revolution. What follows are some anecdotes which highlight the personal experience of members of the proletariat who work for Starbucks and Amazon.

Starbucks in a College Town

COLE: Cole worked at a Starbucks near a large, well-known college (this is the second Starbucks Cole has worked at). Cole had issues in particular with his manager, whom he understood as trying to extract as much work from him while doing as little as possible. At times, there were discrepancies between the wages Cole was supposed to receive and what he actually received. Often, the manager would understaff the floor – likely to keep the costs of labor as low as possible – and leave fewer than what was already too few people on the floor. Importantly, Cole relayed a story of his manager getting berated by the district manager, and while this does not excuse the behavior of his former manager, it does help us understand that these labor relations are not individualized but systemic, they are not isolated but widespread. Cole’s manager is merely a cog in the corporate machinery of Starbucks. Like cogs in the machine, managers must perform their function or get fired, just as Cole must make lattes or be replaced. Capitalism strips all work of its human quality that has the ability to connect people to one another; rather, it dehumanizes us to the point we begin to see our fellow workers, our fellow humans, as no more than a part of a machine.

Regarding unionizing, when Cole and I initially met he was tepid about unions; however, as time went on, he realized, largely by his own reasoning, the important role unions (can?) play in minimizing the exploitation of workers today and opening channels for societal change tomorrow. Like many workers in the U.S., Cole was propagandized to believe unions are corrupt, steal your money through dues, and don’t do anything. This is an image the capitalist class has constructed to stifle the undercurrent of dissent against the current mode of production. By the time Cole left Starbucks, he had become a staunch supporter of unions and a huge proponent. He and his coworkers began discussing the possibility of unionizing with one another, quietly and in secrecy. Early on, anti-union propaganda was put up in the café’s corkboard and the employees, Cole included, were, “trained on how to not talk to union organizers.” Cole ended up leaving before the union-busting efforts of Howard Schultz and Starbucks came into full effect, as did many of his coworkers. This Starbucks primarily serves and employs students. While this does mean there is an expected level of education and political consciousness that will accompany these workers, there are also time constraints, idealized career paths, and pleasures of being young that can take precedence over unionizing efforts for many college students. Speaking with Cole, this was a significant challenge; further, it is one I fear will further hinder unionization efforts as Starbucks begins hiring workers under 18 more and more to offset those purged during union-busts. Cole supports the current efforts to unionize while refusing to even enter a Starbucks.

A Suburban Starbucks

ALLIE: Allie worked at a suburban Starbucks and was frequently the punching-bag of the customers who saw her as expendable or servile as she felt a type of dehumanization due to the monotony of capitalist production. One time Allie complained to me that she couldn’t make another frappuccino, after having made some 150 earlier in her eight-hour shift. She asked me what the point was – her labor is meaningless. This is not because it does not provide a use-value, people are satisfied by these frappuccinos. The creation of these frappuccinos, of these commodities, is streamlined and planned out to be as efficient as possible. Allie is abstracted, as the labor process is, as she works and becomes increasingly mechanized.  There is nothing special or meaningful about being a barista at Starbucks, there is no craft or pride: all that remains is the blind creation of capital at the expense of Allie’s mental and physical health, at the expense of the proletariat. Allie shared a statistic with me that reflects this alienation, reporting that roughly 80% of partners (baristas) have been hired within the last year and 50% of district managers have been hired within a year. The turnover rate is increasingly high, part of a larger trend termed “The Great Resignation.”

One such failure of the Starbucks corporation is not being able to provide their workers with adequate machinery. A new beverage was introduced to the menu, “shaken espresso drinks,” which required an additional shot for every size. Corporate pushes these drinks and continues to expand the variations offered. Despite this and despite complaints from Allie’s store and store’s stores nationwide, new espresso machines that can compensate for the increased demand are not introduced. No wage increase is introduced either. Meanwhile, whispers of unionizing get workers fired and Starbucks resorts to hiring 16-17 year-old highschoolers, and perhaps younger, to staff their stores.

The first store unionized on December 9, 2021. As mentioned, 280 Starbucks have submitted a petition to the NLRB to hold votes and 122 have voted to unionize. This is incredible news that should be celebrated. However, the task is not nearly done and the blind followers of capital at Starbucks have engaged in grotesque union-busting efforts. A leaked video Allie shared with me shows Howard Schultz, the recently returned CEO, telling managers to ramp up their union-busting efforts. In an internal company video, which is supposed to deter workers from voting to unionize that Allie also told me of, the narrator refers to Starbucks as, “A company that does not need someone in between us and ourpeople” (my emphasis). Howard Schultz in an interview with the New York Times said there was no need for a third party to insert itself in Starbucks’ dealings with its employees and implied they wouldn’t come to the bargaining table (per More Perfect Union’s Twitter). This is the dialectical opposite of the efforts of the masses to resist capital’s oppression. Schultz claimed in the same interview that the history of unions from the 40s-60s was rooted in company abuse of their employees and that, “We’re not a coal mining company; we’re not abusing our people.” This is of course a logical fallacy on the part of this member of the capitalist class. Coal mining may very well be backbreaking, but Schultz is lying through his teeth when he says they are not abusing their workers – wage labor in and of itself is abuse to the worker! Allie agrees and staunchly supports the unionization efforts of Starbucks employees nationwide. If anything, this experience radicalized her.

Voices of Amazon Workers

NYZJA: Nyzja worked at Amazon about 2 weeks as an in-store shopper. She worked out of Whole Foods and shopped for people (packaged, got ready to send), almost like a fulfillment center for food. She was able to work at her own pace, worked with the manager when initially hired and then worked on her terms, picked the hours (minimum of 8), with one 30-minute break. She was expected to complete orders before a certain time. While unsure of how strict they were, Nyzja did go without her break a few times, a violation of labor laws. The workers were isolated and kept to themselves, a barrier for collective action, as part of the gig economy Nyzja didn’t really know whom she was working for or with.

She only worked at Amazon for two weeks but noticed tension between the Amazon shoppers and the Whole Foods workers, rather than the solidarity I expected. She quit because, “I didn’t want to be stuck in a grocery store all day… it was just too much” and it was boring, even numbing, to simply grab groceries for others under fluorescent lighting. Her later job as a TA was more fulfilling, she said, and she highlighted getting to interact with kids. Lack of person-to-person contact made her Amazon job especially hard. Company issued iPhones were used the whole day. She and the Whole Foods workers were dominated by the iPhone, by dead labor.

Nyzja sees unionizing in general as a good idea. She argued Amazon is a huge company, and that it needs a general union and specific types for specific work, noting that she can’t speak for someone in a fulfillment center. She argued the company itself ought to try and figure things out before a union, saying “Companies in general need to be mindful of situations they’re definitely putting their workers in. Going back to the whole Amazon and Whole Foods situation… you need to make sure your workers are treated right and actually have a space to make sure your work gets done.” However, if Amazon – or any – other corporations did as she suggested, they would be out of business.

SAM: Sam is an Amazon worker at a “fulfillment” facility in Southern California. I do not know Sam as well as the other interviewees, and he was not as warm to my socialist or pro-union ends. I decided it would be best to keep his real name out of the final report due to the intensity of Amazon’s union busting efforts and the fact he remains employed there. Despite the name of the facility Sam works in, it is in no way fulfilling work. Like all capitalist labor it is monotonous, dehumanizing, and abstracted so that it bears little to no semblance to the type of fulfilling work Marx and Dunayevskaya argue makes us human. On this, he told me, “[The work] is brutal, nonstop, and pointless. You pack up 100 boxes or packages and then there are 100 more to pack up. And if you don’t meet your quotas, you’re fired or threatened.” A warehouse associate starts at $17/hour and is monitored closely. New technology, as has always been the case under capitalism, is used to control the workers and increase their productivity for the benefit of the capitalist rather than to ease the backbreaking work imposed upon wage-laborers. Sam confirmed to me that the company’s internal chat forbids employees to use banned words like “union” or “slave labor” or “plantation” and is heavily monitored. He says this has never been a problem for him personally since he sees working as a part of life. Sam “stays out of drama” and puts in the work, “even if it sucks.” Perhaps he sees it as a necessary evil.

Next, I asked him if anyone had been injured on the job due to the need to meet the quotas put forward by Amazon. He said yes, one time a friend of his was. I asked him if he thought these injuries were a part of work like he said, to which he responded yes. He also said injuries aside, the heat of the warehouse is sometimes unbearable, and people have suffered heatstroke. I went on to prod that unions may be an avenue to increase labor protections and make sure there is compensation in the event of an injury; however, he interrupted me and said he wasn’t interested in unionizing. Sam sees unions in the light many in the U.S. do: they are corrupt and/or ineffective and all they do is take the workers hard-earned wages. I didn’t want to get into a debate, so I concluded by asking what he thought about Chris Smalls and the Amazon Labor Union and if he thought they would be more transparent with their members than a traditional union. Sam was skeptical. He agreed they may be better than a traditional union, but he did comment that, “I don’t know Chris Smalls, I don’t know any of them personally.” Sam does not see Chris and his co-organizers, despite their commonalities, as natural allies, it appears. This struck me as somewhat odd, though within the framework of alienation it would make sense that Sam sees himself separate from Chris. Alienation from our labor and its product is dialectically linked to alienation from our fellow human beings, and with it, shared class interests in emancipation.

The Future

Nonetheless, the momentum is on the side of the proletariat. Even after decades of anti-union propaganda there is a resurgence of militancy and an expansion of unions in this country. Even after decades of anti-socialist propaganda there is a renaissance of the U.S. left and one that is beginning to embrace, rather than eschew, mavericks like Marx, Engels, Lenin, Luxemburg, and Trotsky and their works. I believe Raya Dunayevskaya, founder of Marxist-Humanism in the US, is next in this lineage. Marx wrote, “The alienation of man thus appeared as the fundamental evil of capitalist society.” Dunayevskaya’s Marxist-Humanism offers a theoretic framework for us to analyze capitalism and do away with this fundamental evil. Capitalist production creates an enmity between us and our labor. Working becomes tedious, boring, and when we get home all we want to do is watch TV or get drunk or sleep. Contrary to the notion that socialists are lazy, I am sitting here writing to you all today that a primary defect of capitalism is how it robs work, labor, production of all joy, beauty, and passion. The worker is no longer just a producer but more and more a part of, a cog in the production process. Marxist-Humanism offers a lens to understand the socioeconomic contradictions of capitalism that is unique in its emphasis on the worker as a subject who is objectified. Further, Dunayevskaya analyzes the peripheral effects this will have. The stories I’ve relayed above perfectly encapsulate what she means when she discusses alienation or the machination of workers. The ongoing plight of workers and their efforts to unionize – even when confronted by nefarious corporate union busting schemes – are exactly what we should be applying Dunayevskaya’s analysis to. The present moment is ripe for organizing, unionizing, and revolutionizing.

Footnotes

PBS: https://www.pbs.org/newshour/economy/workers-protest-starbucks-plan-to-close-a-unionizing-store#:~:text=It’s%20one%20of%20a%20growing,stores%20have%20voted%20to%20unionize.

NYT Amazon Labor Union: https://www.nytimes.com/2022/04/01/technology/amazon-union-staten-island.html

NYT Schultz: https://www.nytimes.com/2022/06/11/business/dealbook/howard-schultz-starbucks.html?

WaPo Union-Busting: https://www.washingtonpost.com/technology/2022/06/13/amazon-union-retaliation-allegations/

Vox Amazon Labor Shortage: https://www.vox.com/recode/23170900/leaked-amazon-memo-warehouses-hiring-shortage

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