Union Busting at Starbucks

It’s a little-known fact that the right-wing hero and famously anti-union crusader Barry Goldwater was a very generous employer. His employees had good wages and good benefits and part of the Goldwater argument, and an argument against unions since time immemorial, has been that employers know what’s best for their employees and don’t need some outside troublemakers mucking things up. It can be a seductive argument when it is being made by employers who do, genuinely, seem to care about their employees’ wellbeing. But it’s a really screwy way of viewing the function of government. Imagine if, instead of taxes, we just passed the hat around to corporations (or citizens for that matter) to fund government. That’s not the way to enforce any conception of a just state or a level playing field. Same goes with unions. Either people have right to workplace democracy and to collectively bargain or they don’t.

Today’s incarnation of Goldwater are employers like Whole Foods, Starbucks and American Apparel, who pay their workers decent wages and provide benefits, but are almost as reactionary in their opposition to unionization as notorious “bad” employers like Wal Mart. Today’s Times carries the story of the NLRB slamming Starbucks for 30 cases of illegal union-busting:

This may be the latest salvo in a new kind of labor battle: union workers versus corporate do-gooders.

The allegations that the company fired employees who were supportive of unionization and threatened to fire others are more reminiscent of 1930s-era industrial management than of the carefully groomed culture of a company that wears its conscience on its recyclable coffee-cup sleeves.

“The N.L.R.B.’s complaint illustrates that this is a company with a profound disrespect for workers’ rights,” said Daniel Gross (no relation), a union organizer who dished out frappuccinos and mocha lattes at Starbucks before being fired last August.

To register their concern about global warming, people can petition their government. Or they can pay above-market prices for reliable, prestigious products that reduce emissions and save energy: a Prius instead of an S.U.V.; compact fluorescent light bulbs instead of incandescent bulbs; wind energy instead of coal-fired electricity.

By the same token, many people are willing to pay a premium for Starbucks coffee and Whole Foods vegetables in part because they swear by the products, and in part because the companies trumpet their “good corporate citizen credentials.” Whether the associates and team members who sell them $4 coffees and $7-per-pound heirloom tomatoes agree with that assessment may not matter.

Chris Hayes is the host of All In with Chris Hayes on MSNBC.

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