“You have to be very persistent”: lessons from the Starbucks union in Chile

Andrés Giordano is the former president of the Starbucks union in Chile and a recently elected member of Congress. These remarks were edited from “Revolutionary Grounds”, an event organized by the Emergency Workplace Committee, Starbucks Workers United and the International Committee of Democratic Socialists of America. A version was originally published by The Forge. The current union president and one other member will join the 2022 Labor Notes conference.

The Starbucks union was founded in Chile in 2009, at the same time as major student mobilizations. These mobilizations were part of the germ that made it possible to unionize at Starbucks and in an area like fast food, which is very difficult to organize.

Starbucks’ corporate culture is deeply anti-union. Howard Schultz, who was the CEO of the company [he returned to that role in April —Eds.]is a megalomaniac who cannot bear to see his workers organize themselves and decide for themselves what is right.

Starbucks is one of the Chilean companies that imposes the most fines for anti-union practices. This was all designed in Seattle, not Chile. It was designed at HQ, where they are designing the tough campaign you are currently living through.

In Chile, we had to negotiate with a company that did not negotiate collectively. They have not moved, despite our 30-day strike in 2011, including a 12-day hunger strike by myself and two other leaders. The company offered no raise, no improvement in conditions. It was a very tough battle. We had to fight for years against layoffs by the hundreds.

These companies believe that by crushing the will to organize, they can continue to apply their business model without any counterweight. Fortunately, the student movement enabled us to resist.

If there’s one piece of advice I can give, it’s to be very persistent.

I started in this field 12 years ago, when I was 23 and was elected president of the union. It took us from 2009 to 2015 to get the first reasonably decent collective agreement. We used all types of strategies – legal strategies, protests, strikes that paralyzed stores, even an international complaint to the OECD [the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development].

Today I can say that we managed to twist the arm of a colossus. After 12 years, we have a collective agreement and we obtain increases that exceed 12 to 20% of wages. We made sure that Starbucks—which never closes, at least in Chile—closes on May 1, International Workers’ Day, which we are very proud of.

We now have about 50% of the workers in the union, and we hope that this new contract will allow us to move forward to 75 or 100%, and in three years we can be even stronger in the negotiations.

UNION RENEWAL

Today, Starbucks workers in Chile have a strong union that can truly represent them. We say to you, from a deep sense of brotherhood and pride, please rely on our organization and all that we can do to support you. You can also count on our fast food comrades who organized in Chile because they saw that it was possible at Starbucks.

They used to say [about baristas and fast food workers], “they will never organize.” But our union has managed to be a leader. It has the energy that the old unions lost, partly because they were brought down by the dictatorship. We needed a revival.

Young people could push for a new way of doing unionism that makes sense for new generations, who have other ideals and ways of conceiving the world. We succeeded in making room for unions in these new ideals.

It is very important that young people recognize themselves as workers who need a union to defend their rights. We are the ones who create these huge profits for the senior executives.

We stand in solidarity with workers in North America. We believe this is a battle that must be fought, but we want to warn you that it takes perseverance. It is very important that this energy that has spread through hundreds of stores is transformed into a union culture throughout Starbucks.

It’s a fight that won’t be won alone, but only by uniting thousands of Starbucks workers. Sometimes you will feel like you can’t win. But you can.

Our only formula was sometimes to rise from the ashes like a phoenix, when they were pulverizing us and attacking us and firing people and we thought, “Does what we are doing make sense? Today we can say yes, it is worth it.

A BROAD VIEW

One of our main goals was to give our organization a political perspective beyond Starbucks. In Chile, the military dictatorship created a web of laws and regulations that ensured that unions only managed to win small quotas of benefits.

There are no major trade union federations in Chile which have the right to negotiate. A union that represents Starbucks workers cannot also represent workers in other industries; everyone must save themselves.

Our perspective was to learn from the international trade union movement and also to recover what had been lost with the 1973 coup and the dictatorship. It was therefore necessary to think about a more political union, which would federate different demands which are today part of the current constitutional process.

Our union has succeeded in breaking with the model of the small union, centered solely on business issues, and has positioned itself to demand, among other things, better pensions. In Chile, pensions are miserable because we have a completely private system where everyone saves individually. Even though we were all very young, we mobilized for this.

We have mobilized for free and quality education [a major demand of the Chilean student movement]. We have found meaning in the demands of the feminist movement; today we have a women’s committee within the union. All of this has given a whole new meaning to our union, despite the fact that it is very young.

I hope, from the Congress, to be able to represent those rights that have been deeply marginalized in Chile so that, once and for all, we recover what the Pinochet dictatorship took from us: the right to organize and the real freedom of association.

Nelson Soza contributed to the translation and editing of this interview. A longer version, including contributions from members of Starbucks Workers United in Buffalo and Starbucks organizers in New Zealand, was originally published by Forge (forgeorganizing.org). Dan DiMaggio translated some sections of Labor Notes.

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