Lessons for US from Chile’s Starbucks Union Leader

Starbucks in Chile has been fined the most for anti-union practices devised in Seattle headquarters, where a tough campaign against U.S. employees has been brewed, writes Andrés Giordano.

Members of the Starbucks union in Chile rallied last year in support a new, more democratic constitution to replace the one handed down from the dictatorship era. (Sindicato de Starbucks) Chile

By Andrés Giordano
Labor Notes

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

The corporate culture of Starbucks is profoundly anti-union. Howard Schultz, who was the CEO of the company — and returned to that role in April — is a megalomaniac who cannot bear to see his workers organizing and deciding for themselves what is right.

Starbucks is one of the companies in Chile with the most fines for anti-union practices. All of that was conceived in Seattle, not in Chile. It was devised in the headquarters, where they are devising the tough campaign that workers in the U.S. are experiencing now.

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

These companies believe that, by crushing the will to organize, they can continue to apply their business model without any counter-weight. Luckily, the student movement made it possible for us to resist.

If there is one piece of advice I can give, it is that you have to be very persistent.

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

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Today I can say that we managed to twist the arm of a colossus. After 12 years, we have a collective bargaining agreement and we are getting raises that exceed 12 to 20 percent of salaries. We have gotten Starbucks — which never closes, at least in Chile — to close on May 1, International Workers’ Day, something we are very proud of.

We now have around 50 percent of the workers in the union, and we hope that this new contract allows us to advance to 75 or 100 percent, and, in three years, that we can be even more powerful in negotiations.

Union Renewal

Today, Starbucks workers in Chile have a strong union that can truly represent them. We tell you, from a deep feeling of fraternity and pride, please count on our organization and everything we can do to support you. You can also count on our comrades from the fast-food industry who have 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 old unions have lost, in part because they were beaten down by the dictatorship. We needed a renewal.

Young people could push a new way of doing unionism that made sense to the new generations, which have other ideals and ways of conceiving the world. We managed to make a place for unions in those new ideals.

It is very important for young people to recognize ourselves as workers who need a union to fight for our rights. We are the ones who are creating these enormous profits for the top executives.

We are in solidarity with the workers in North America. We believe that it’s a battle that must be taken on, but we want to warn you that it requires perseverance. It’s very important that this energy that has expanded into hundreds of stores be transformed into a union culture throughout Starbucks.

“We are in solidarity with the workers in North America.”

This is a struggle that won’t be won alone, but only by uniting thousands of Starbucks workers. At times it’s going to seem like you can’t win. But you can.

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

A Wider View

Student demonstration in Santiago, Chile, June 30, 2011. The sign says “education is not for sale.” (De simenon, CC BY-SA 2.0, Wikimedia Commons)

One of our main objectives was to give our organization a political perspective beyond just Starbucks. In Chile, the military dictatorship created a network of laws and regulations that made it so that unions could manage to win only small quotas of benefits.

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

Our perspective was to learn from the international labor movement and also to recover what had been lost with the 1973 coup and the dictatorship. So we had to think about a more political union, which would unite different demands that today are part of the ongoing constitutional process.

Our union managed to break with the small union model, which focuses only on issues at the company, and positioned itself to demand, among other things, better pensions. In Chile, pensions are miserable because we have a totally private system where each person saves individually. Even though we were all very young, we mobilized for that.

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

I hope, from Congress, [where the author recently won a seat] to be able to represent those rights that have been profoundly marginalized in Chile so that, once and for all, we recover what the Pinochet dictatorship took from us — the right to organize and true union freedom.

Andrés Giordano is the former president of the Starbucks union in Chile and a recently elected congressman. These remarks were edited from “Revolutionary Grounds,” an event hosted by the Emergency Workplace Committee, Starbucks Workers United, and the International Committee of the Democratic Socialists of America.

Nelson Soza contributed to translating and editing this interview.

This article is from Labor Notes. A longer version, including contributions from members of Starbucks Workers United in Buffalo and New Zealand Starbucks organizers, was originally published by The Forge (forgeorganizing.org). Dan DiMaggio translated some sections for Labor Notes.

The views expressed are solely those of the author and may or may not reflect those of Consortium News.

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1 comment for “Lessons for US from Chile’s Starbucks Union Leader

  1. May 27, 2022 at 14:01

    I’m wondering if the raises obtained thru the contract simply codified a raise that would’ve been given anyway, considering the time it took to negotiate contracts. I always encourage workers to not have an election or seek a contract, as contracts always have no-strike clauses which prevent workers from addressing issues as they come up. And with the astronomically high turnover, few if any of the original workers to started the organizing process will see the results. Instead, workers should actually organize, engage in escalating tactics which put more and more financial pressure on the company to meet their demands. This won many victories in the IWW campaigns of the 2000s and in other industries.

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