There was something oddly edifying about showing up to the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) dual protest of a Starbucks and Landmark Cinema in Berkeley, Calif., last month, and being instantly recruited to help hoist the Dignity and Respect for the Working Class banner.
"Your Fellow Worker's arm is tired," one of the black-clad protestors implored me and I answered the call. How could I not? It had that "Wow, political romantics don't immediately recognize you as a killjoy" ring to it. A reach for a revitalizing swig of Diet Coke, however, almost brought solidarity to a crashing end. One of my fellow sign holders literally gasped. I might as well have shown up to a Christian Coalition meeting with a bag full of recently aborted fetuses.
"You buy that?" he asked accusingly, sighing to someone behind him when I nodded, "Get him some literature." Moments later a Killer Coke handbill—"Murder…It's the Real Thing"—was thrust into my hand. A couple dirty looks confirmed that whatever sheen I may have had was significantly dulled, yet despite my socially unconscious consumer faux pas I was nevertheless left on the line with a group that fancies itself "the world's toughest and most directly democratic radical labor union."
The actual Landmark workers, on the other hand, hardly seemed as militant as the 150 or so IWW supporters on hand. If they were conscripts in a Revolutionary Army, they'd comprise what would likely be deemed the Kevin Smith Brigade—slackers, 95 percent of them middle-class whites, copping soapbox monologues from Mallrats, answering the call to "Attention!" with a slouch, and flipping their hair out of their eyes with an absent-minded-yet-deliberate motion in place of the traditional salute.
"I'm not the type of guy to want to work my way up the corporation," one unionized popcorn scooper in a Bad Religion T-shirt told the crowd. "You know, I'm the type of guy who likes to be in a community of people. That's how I like to be. When you look at us, you know, the poor, we don't work for the rich on top. We're equal."
Another cinema worker related the harrowing story of negotiating with a corporate attorney who said Landmark's purpose in running a cinema chain was to turn a profit. If they couldn't do that in Berkeley, he'd said, they'd go somewhere they could. Hisses and boos filled the street.
"That's what we're up against here," he said. "People want to pretend Landmark is some wonderful progressive chain. Like, they show really cool movies and progressive films, so it must be a great place to work. It's not."
So movies aren't a good indicator of reality? Still, on this night anyway, management seemed to take a fairly laissez-faire approach to employees scooting back into the cinema to chat with their (supposedly) working comrades and pick up their patch covered knapsacks after standing out front shouting things like, "I don't know about anyone else here, but I want to be remembered as a person, as a part of the movement, that broke Landmark!"
That's an interesting stance to begin negotiations from, but there was no great struggle. No hoses, dogs. No scabs. None of that stopped Daniel Gross, the darling of the effort to unionize Starbucks, from wading into grandiose waters when he took the mic.
"For 101 years they tried to destroy us," he said. "They martyred our brothers and sisters. They deported us. They jailed us. The state of Utah killed Joe Hill. Frank Little, lynched. They thought they killed us. But they were wrong because in each and every one of us the martyrs' blood runs through our veins. Landmark needs to know that and Starbucks needs to know that."
Gross then lamented that "service workers by the millions have been passed over" by "trade union bureaucrats" who said they were "too transient" and "didn't fit into their cost benefit equation."
"It's a lie," Gross said. "It's a tremendous organizing opportunity. Migrant farm workers were also passed over in the history of this country." He went on to promise that his group was "reaching out to form a coalition with coffee farmers who are living brutal degrading existence in places like Africa and Latin America. We're transcending borders to take on this neo-liberal juggernaut."
After Gross wound down, IWW General Secretary Mark Damron sang loudly, "I am a union worker, proud as can be. I don't like them bosses and the bosses don't like me," before demanding, "Which side are you on? Are you on the side of property, of massive edifices, of profit?" He gestured up to a Landmark sign that was…well, not exactly "massive" or an "edifice." "Or are you on the side of working people? You have to stand against profit and for people."
IWW members and Starbucks and Landmark workers assured him with loud cheers they were, indeed, on the side of working people and, so, all that was left to do was march and spread the word. I begged off my corner of the banner—damn, Fellow Worker wasn't playing, this thing is heavy—but tagged along anyway with the red-and-black flag waving revolutionaries as they clogged first the sidewalks and then the streets shouting, "Who's in the Streets? The Working Class! Who's Gonna Fight? The Working Class! Who's Gonna Win? The Working Class?"
"Working Class better get out the way of my car," a young black man in a tricked out Honda Civic retorted as his light turned green.
After twenty minutes of this, the raucously defiant crowd rounded back to the front of the cinema where I asked the first Landmark worker I saw whether she wasn't a bit nervous slagging the boss so hard in front of her place of employment.
"I'm a projectionist. They need me more than I need them. It would take at least two weeks to train someone to take my place," she scoffed, sparking a new, ear-splitting (by now well-worn) chant of "We don't need the boss! The boss needs us!"
And my career as an accidental proletarian revolutionary received another boost.
The protest's point apparently made, we retired to Grassroots House—a home base for several local left-wing groups–for Tofu Pups, discussion and entertainment. Posters, stickers and flyers advertising various causes were plastered on every wall. Huge piles of literature struggled from the floor towards the ceiling. Out back a large sheet hung against the wall and before long scenes from the Oakland General Strike of 1946 were being projected. Cheers broke out at every picture indicating a city brought to a complete impasse. What's not to love for a bunch of union agitators? All commerce halted, everyone had the day off and the only way you could get into the giant party downtown was with a union card.
Next up was a short documentary on the Starbucks workers' struggle, "Together We Win," which laid out some egregious examples of corporate union-busting activities. "They had a guy dress up as a manager and come to the store and say he was a manager and he would buy the workers pizza and give out Mets tickets and gym passes," a former Starbucks employee related. "We were getting pizza on an everyday basis at the time." The horrors imposed on the labor movement, it seems have not come to an end. "And they were threatening workers could lose their jobs if they joined a union. A bunch of phony baloney, basically. They wanted to enforce rules that have never been enforced before." Such as firing people over till shortages, which, we are assured by our celluloid Fellow Worker were "probably rigged on the computer by the management and managers."
There were other issues as well. A Wiccan explained how her Starbucks manager's request that she remove a large pentagram medallion was discrimination based on religion. "We're never given 40 hours a week," another employee complained. "On top of that if we go into overtime, it's a disciplinary offense; we can receive a write-up for that."
None of this exactly veers into The Jungle territory, but I'll give the Starbucks Union credit for making the most out of pizza parties and pentagrams.
"Please stand with us so we can march proudly one day—Landmark workers, Starbucks workers, Wal-Mart workers, McDonald's workers—under the banner reading 'IWW Abolition of the wage system,'" Gross had shouted in closing back at Landmark.
No offence, but if the wage system is abolished and you choose to work at one of the aforementioned establishments it might be time to revaluate the cost-benefit paradigm you're applying in your life. You would think when the Vanguard of the Revolution internalized Marx's maxim "From each according to his ability, to each according to his need," they had higher hopes for their ultimate abilities than latte slinger or popcorn jockey.
Start your day with Reason. Get a daily brief of the most important stories and trends every weekday morning when you subscribe to Reason Roundup.