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Want to Save American Democracy? Then Care About Starbucks Workers’ Union Victory

It’s common wisdom these days that American democracy is hanging by a thread.

The efforts by Republican-dominated state legislatures across the nation to pass voter-suppression laws, the now intensified gerrymandering that has historically enabled Republicans to consolidate political power with a minority of votes, the events of January 6, the details of which unfold on a daily basis, revealing the intense and very real machinations that nearly de-certified the presidential election, triggering the national chaos of constitutional crisis—these developments and more should, for any observer paying even cursory attention, shine a bright light not just on how fragile our democracy is, but also just how intensely under assault it is.

America is full of haters of democracy, and they have power.

Last week’s special issue of The Atlantic, devoted to studying American democracy in crisis, detailed these many and powerful threats to a government by, for, and of the people. Barton Gellman’s harrowing and already much-discussed piece “January 6 Was Practice” spells out the concrete prospect of this threat playing out, writing,

“The next attempt to overthrow a national election may not qualify as a coup. It will rely on subversion more than violence, although each will have its place. If the plot succeeds, the ballots cast by American voters will not decide the presidency in 2024. Thousands of votes will be thrown away, or millions, to produce the required effect. The winner will be declared the loser. The loser will be certified president-elect.

The prospect of this democratic collapse is not remote. People with the motive to make it happen are manufacturing the means. Given the opportunity, they will act. They are acting already. Who or what will safeguard our constitutional order is not apparent today. It is not even apparent who will try. Democrats, big and small D, are not behaving as if they believe the threat is real.”

Who will try? Who will care? These are stirring questions we need to explore to get to the heart of the problem of democracy in America.

If we really explore them, we might discover America—and Americans—don’t have much commitment to or expectation of a democratic society.

Do most of us really experience democracy on a daily basis?

Most Americans go into a workplace every day where they have little say—and expect to have little say—about how that workplace runs.

I myself, for example, work in a university in which most employees have union representation, and yet the institution’s governing structure is still rigidly hierarchical, enabling authoritarian tendencies.  I expect democracy, and it’s still hard to implement. It’s unpleasant to imagine what my workplace would be without the multiple unions giving employees some same say and some protections.

Of course, only 11% of American workers enjoy unionization.

So for the most part Americans spend a good portion of their daily lives in places where there is no guarantee and likely no expectation of democratic participation.

And by and large, we aren’t taught to care.

Last Thursday, employees at a Starbucks in Buffalo voted to form a union, making it the first of the over 8,000 coffee house locations in the U.S. to unionize. Employees at another Buffalo location also voted to unionize, although the corporate powers are challenging the vote, and employees at a Mesa, Arizona shop are also pursuing a union vote.

It’s a huge deal—people standing up a declaring they want a voice at the table in their workplace, to participate in making decisions about their lives.

Unless I missed it, I didn’t see a lot of coverage about this hard-fought victory on MSNBC. Rachel Maddow, Lawrence O’Donnell, Brian Williams, Joy Reid and the bunch, even Chris Hayes so busy covering the January 6 investigation, said little to nothing about this unionization victory.

And yet people fighting for—and recognizing the lack of—democracy in their everyday work lives is key to conditioning us to expect, cherish, and fight for democracy in our larger political world.

Starbucks’ corporate leadership fought hard against the unionization efforts, and their governing board is stacked with union-busting moguls.

And recall that just last November the National Labor Relations Board declared that Amazon had intimidated workers and improperly pressured them to vote against unionization.

What does that say for our real respect for democracy that there’s such acceptance of unfair and unfree elections in the workplace?

Democracy should be thoroughgoing in a truly democratic society. Should workplaces be democracy-free zones? Because someone owns a company should they have the right to dictate everything?

While our pundits in the corporate media rightfully worry about free and fair elections for local, state, and federal government offices, they—and we all—ought to worry about free and fair elections–about democracy generally—in all aspects of our society.

And we should recognize, when Gellman asks who will fight to save democracy, that the Starbucks workers in Buffalo sure took a stand for democracy.

It would help the efforts for democracy in America overall, if this effort received attention and applause as an effort to secure democratic rights, especially when the odds are stacked against unionization efforts.

Indeed, as one Starbucks barista, Casey Moore, put it, “Every single day was us learning about how difficult it is to form a union in this country and just the odds against us are incredibly insurmountable.”

This unionization struggle, as she describes it, is key for American just to realize they deserve democratic rights. Just listen to this:

“My dad is in the teachers union, but I had only ever really associated unions with teachers and nurses and mainly construction workers in the building trades. So when I first started I was like, ‘Really, a union for baristas?’ But then the more I learned about it, the more I thought, ‘Why not?’ There’s no reason that baristas shouldn’t get the same benefits and quality of life that other workers do.”

To save democracy, we need more Americans to think like Casey, and we need our corporate media to give such democratic struggles attention and stop behaving like, well, corporations like Amazon and Starbucks, fighting bitterly against democracy.


Tim Libretti

Tim Libretti is a professor of U.S. literature and culture at a state university in Chicago. A long-time progressive voice, he has published many academic and journalistic articles on culture, class, race, gender, and politics, for which he has received awards from the Working Class Studies Association, the International Labor Communications Association, the National Federation of Press Women, and the Illinois Woman's Press Association.

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