A New Generation of Labor Causes

The Lempert Report
March 08, 2023

Welcome to Lost in the Supermarket. You might well recall that my prediction for 2023 for grocery retailers was all about labor. How the biggest challenge that's facing our industry was understanding the current labor dilemma and how to solve it. I just spoke with a leading grocery retailer the other day, and he shared that since the pandemic, they've lost over 15,000 employees and they're struggling to replace those with better pay, better benefits, and listening to how they can make these jobs more attractive today, Lost in the Supermarket is all about labor. And I'm pleased to have a discussion that you may find controversial, but it will be frank and honest. And one that we have to hear with Jon Melrod. Jon grew up in an apartheid like Washington, DC. He was active in the student movement that opposed Vietnam and was a supporter of black liberation.

Phil: He has embraced the ideology that the working class holds the power to radically transform society. He's immersed himself in the day-to-day struggles of Milwaukee's working class, both on the factory floor and in the political arena. Over his shoulder was FBI, surveillance and interference, and he organized a militant rank and file caucus and rose through union ranks to a top leadership position in United Auto Workers' Local 72. He attended Hastings College of Law in San Francisco and graduated, come loud and opened a law firm in representing hundreds of political refugees. Jon, welcome to Lost in the Supermarket.

Jon: Well, thanks a lot, Phil. And I'm not sure what I have left to say after that introduction.

Phil: You're gonna have a lot to say and with you, you know, I'm very excited, that Tyler, who actually is not only part of the labor movement, but also works at Starbucks, is joining us from Massachusetts. Tell us about Tyler.

Jon: Yes, I met Tyler a number of months back, actually. I met Tyler when we were at a Labor Notes conference in Chicago in June of last year, and I was in charge of moderating a panel, and the name of the panel was Join an Existing Union or Form Your Own. And Tyler was one of the panelists on that. He works at Starbucks and he's organized his Starbucks shop so that it's represented by Starbucks Workers United, and that's also affiliated with a larger union Workers United. And then I believe the S E I U is in the background. There were other people, people there who were from Amazon, Amazon Labor Union, who had organized their own independent union as have the workers at Trader Joe's and the workers at New Seasons Market up in the Portland area, which is a great market. The working conditions aren't so great from what they tell me, but it's a, you know, a specialty market. So there is a union movement that Tyler can tell you more about, but is really spreading among young people. It's a very different than our unions in my day.

Phil: So Tyler, welcome to Lost in The Supermarket. Thank you for joining us. And I guess my first question to you, Tyler, is what made you want to get involved in, in organizing your other workers? Were the conditions at Starbucks that bad?

Tyler: Well, you know, I think that the first thing that got me really involved was understanding labor and, and being really interested in history. I also was in law school at the time I graduated last year, and, at the time I understood the importance of building worker power and democracy in the workplace. Even if you have the best, you know, work environment possible, the only people who can truly build worker power and have, you know, worker democracy are the workers, you know. And so in understanding that, I knew that it was chiefly important to try to talk to my coworkers about organizing. And then, additionally, yes, as, as far as, especially during the pandemic, working at Starbucks and being in the food industry in general has become even more of a difficult and stressful environment on your body, on your mind. more delivery orders, more mobile orders means higher, volume of work that you have to do during a given shift.

Tyler: And then at a certain point, COVID pay and other protections were cut. and, you know, there have been a lot of issues that I think have been exacerbated, especially with people getting sick, high turnover rates and, you know, the great, what resignation, right? all of that sort of culminated in just putting more of a burden on the backs of service workers. And so it was kind of an enmeshing of, of perfect elements all coming together at once. that really motivated me to move forward. And then seeing Buffalo file in August, definitely just catapulted me forward even more.

Phil: So full disclosure, I am, a union member as well. AFL CIO run SAG Aftra. So I understand and value, you know, union membership personally. I guess, Jon to one point, you know, we're seeing a very different groundswell as it relates to unions than we have probably over the past 20, 25 years ago, where unions sort of like fell away and now they're resurging and folks like Tyler, you know, are really getting more excited than probably we've seen in 30, 40, 50 years as it relates to unions. Am I correct in that assumption?

Jon: Well, I think it's reminiscent to me of when I first became excited about labor and I looked at the 1930s when there was that spirit of solidarity and militancy that led to the sit downs in Flint, Michigan, and the organization of the large industrial unions in the C E O. Now, I have to say that my book Fighting Times Organizing on the front lines of the class war discusses the American Motors factory, which most people don't remember. We used to make ramblers then American Motors models, but our, we had a

Phil: And you worked on the, and you worked there on the shop floor?

Jon: I worked on the shop floor, actually, I was putting in seat belts and taillights for quite a while before I moved up in the union and was a rep full-time representative. but that union was particularly strong because it had maintained some of the early democratic and militant procedures from the early days when it was organized in 1933. And that led to a very different union experience than a lot of other people were having even at the same time. And we can go into that at some point later on if we'd like to.

Phil: Yeah, I mean, describe to me, I mean, I remember the A M C pacer and then they had a muscle car that came out and for the most part, you know, a M c products were good. What happened? Did they lose their way or was it the struggle with labor that had 'em, you know, fall apart and had to get, you know, acquired by, you know, Renault?

Jon: Yeah, Renault. That's it didn't exactly transpire in that sequence. Renault, if you remember, had introduced LA car many, many years ago. Yeah. And they only had about 300 plus dealers for the LA Car Network, and they wanted to make a second entry into the United States, and they needed a dealer network. And that's why they initially acquired an interest in American Motors, was to have access to that dealership network. Because th then as it evolved, they developed two small models, small compact models, the alliance and the Encore, which we made in the plant in Milwaukee and Kenosha that were very popular to begin with. And it was quite successful, and we were quite excited. The sales slowed down and Reau began to put the squeeze on the plant, but the real, the real fight for the survival of the factory came from Renault more than it did American Motors.

Phil: So let's talk about, you know, where we are today. And Tyler, I know that there was, an individual who was fired from Starbucks. He was a union organizer. Like you, has a video up that on TikTok is over 17 million views. Are people just, you know, getting involved in the union to get famous?

Tyler: Yeah. I think that, first of all, no, absolutely not. because, you know, over 200 workers have gotten fired. And I imagine over 200 workers have not become TikTok famous, as much as I'm sure they would love that. I think however, that we've utilized, these social media platforms like TikTok, like Twitter, like Instagram, to convey our message and our experiences to a broader audience, we understand that Starbucks, really puts a lot of investment in faith into its PR and, and how the public perceives them. And so we understand that, you know, the average customer may may not be coming into our store knowing all about the union or what Starbucks has been doing, but if we can raise awareness to that, then we can add more supporters to our cause as it were. so I think that, you know, getting that information out, via social media platforms like TikTok is incredibly important. And in many ways it does go viral because I think that our struggle as you know, millennials or Gen Zers, is relatable to a lot of people. And when they, when the veil is lifted off of, you know, the, the good PR image that Starbucks has, a lot of people wanna, you know, broadcast that and support it. So no, I don't think we're trying to become TikTok famous, cuz I, my viral video hasn't happened yet, but maybe this will do it.

Phil: Okay, well I hope so. So a question for, for both of you and Tyler, I'd like you to go first on this. again, you know, we, we know that what we're seeing are more labor unions growing in popularity. according to Gallup, I think a few months ago, they issued that 68%, unions are, are growing higher over the last nine months. but with that comes a cost and we're now in food inflationary period. whether it's the price of, you know, eggs that we've seen go through the roof or coffee or whatever, now we've got the labor cost going up, whether it's from benefits, better working conditions, higher per hour pay, whatever, that gets passed onto the consumer. So, you know, I'm gonna gonna make up the numbers cuz I haven't been to a Starbucks in a, in a bit. but I'm gonna say, you know, coffee is like three bucks. the price to, to compensate for all these things is going to go up higher than that. Doesn't that create some negative impact for what you're trying to do from the customer who has to shell out those extra dollars to, to really achieve what you want to achieve?

Tyler: Yeah, great question, Phil. so first and foremost, I believe that that's sort of a red herring that a lot of corporations like to make, because what they're not doing is looking at the global scale of, of what's truly happening, right? So you mentioned inflation costs, right? Well, what is contributing to the supply chain issues right now? Well, we are currently still in a pandemic, which has decimated and eradicated large swaths of different labor industries. And on top of that has through climate change in the excessive, you know, expenses that corporations have taken, to damage the environment, we have seen a change in our agricultural output and ability to continue to foster our growing population. So supply chain issues have really impacted our ability to, you know, keep up with the costs. So inflation has risen. We're also looking directly into the face of a potential recession and inflations are made to, you know, try to artificially inflate the market.

Tyler: And on top of that, a after all of that too, you know, I think there's a lot of corporate gaslighting in the sense that, you know, we're looking at these costs within the frame of A C E O or a board of supervisors still making millions or potentially even billions of dollars a year, right? No one's talking about Howard Schultz taking a tax cut or, or not a, not a tax cut, but a, a pay cut rather, to be able to afford these sort of things, right? No one's talking about them stopping, you know, all their litigation with Whittler Mendelson and paying them $500 plus an hour, to litigate the over 1200 counts of labor law violations that they've committed, right? So the, the onus is often put on the workers for standing up for themselves and almost never on the corporations or, or larger entities at play who are genuinely causing these problems. and of course, you know, corporations also tend to own the media and in pay into that as well. So there's a lot of self-serving, ideology going on here, but I think that it's never the wrong move for workers to stand up for themselves. and anything that is thrust into the onus of the workers, is most likely coming from, you know, the corporate leaders at the top.

Phil: So before I let Jon, chime in on this, you know, we just wrote an article, last week about Coca-Cola on their latest investing call. you know, talked about the fact that we're gonna see more increases in price, from Coca-Cola. and one of the reasons for that is they fa they feel that, that they can get away with it, that the consumer loyalty is so strong with their brands, that they can raise prices, that yes, they do have some increased costs of raw material, because of supply chain issues and so on. But that's not why they're raising prices. You know, the c e came out, you know, clearly and said, because we can raise prices, we're going to, and then we also talked about how much money he makes, to, to your point as well, and how many shares of Coca-Cola stock he has. so I think Tyler, you're right on, when it comes to bringing that up. so Jon, what's your take on me going into Starbucks and because of folks like Tyler, I've gotta pay more for my coffee?

Jon: Well, I think it's, I think it's important, something that Tyler just said, which is the wage component is a very small factor. If you take a pie chart and you look at all the different costs that a particular factory or industry has, labor is much, much smaller a slice than it's made out to be by the media and by the corporations. And the reason I know that is we used to do the numbers when I worked at American Motors to see how much labor costs went into each automobile. We were able to work our way back and break it down. And it was, you know, it was a factor. It would be wrong to say it wasn't a factor, but it was not the decisive factor. It, it's more that when you live under a capitalist system, sort of the internal laws of capitalism drive corporations to try and maximize their profits no matter how and at whose expense, you know?

Jon: And I was in Whole Foods. I live in a little town, Sebastopol and Sonoma County, and I used to love it. I knew all the, you know, the checkout people, we knew each other by name. And I go in and there's only one line, and I look over and there's 10 robot machines where you're supposed to self-checkout. And I said, Hey, I'm too old to figure out how this works. You know, it's like, I went into a restaurant the other day and they said, you gotta put your phone up next to this barcode to read the menu. And I said, I don't read menu's off of barcodes, you know, but I I, it was the same thing. And I talked to one of the older guys, Bob, who, you know, an older guy who's worked there quite a few years, has always expected to retire. And I said, Bob used to be on the Shortline checkout for 10 items or less. And he said, look over there, those machines are taking my job. So, but,

Phil: But wait, wait, Jon. But in all fairness, the reason that so many retailers went to self scan, during the pandemic was for two reasons. Number one is they couldn't hire enough people to be cashiers. They, they walked off the job in just about any supermarket. They just didn't want to deal with angry consumers, who when they said, you know, you have to wear a mask or whatever else. So they left so that they couldn't hire cashiers who on average in the US make only 11 bucks an hour. So you can see why they couldn't hire 'em. and a lot of shoppers didn't wanna have a, a connection with another human being, a checkout, they preferred the machine because they didn't want it. They felt they couldn't get, you know, covid from a self scanner. So, you know, I think that now as we're coming out of the pandemic, hopefully, you know, and we, and we will see some people going back to work, as cashiers that might change. but it wasn't designed by that retailer to say, okay, I'm gonna get rid of Bob. I'm gonna put in a cell scanner. They just couldn't hire people.

Jon: Well, I, again, I think we've gotta be really careful. There may be, and I don't deny that factor existed during Covid, but then Covid shouldn't be an excuse to continue policies that increase the exploitation, the difficulty of jobs. I mean, it's certainly not Covid that has led Starbucks to cut, cut wages of union employees. I mean, only to give raises to the WA stores that have not voted for the union. That's just a clear move of union breaking right maneuver. So, you know, these things have to all be parsed out, whereas there's, I don't deny there's an element of truth to what you say, but I think we're coming out of the pandemic, hopefully, but I don't think we're gonna go back to hiring more cashiers like Bob. We're gonna be seeing more automated checkout counters rather than Bob's.

Phil: I would agree. So Tyler, I'm a new employee at your Starbucks. Give me your pitch, why should I join the union?

Tyler: Well, first of all, welcome to Starbucks. Thank you and congratulations on the Green Bean, as we call them. but you know, I think the, the first thing I usually say is, have you heard of or are you familiar with, like that our stores unionized that we're a part of a, a union movement? And honestly, most people so far said, yes, I'm aware of this for folks that aren't. I genuinely just start by asking, well, do you know what a union is? and you know, usually they'll give some sort of like, like I, I'm kind of aware, but not really i'll, so I'll kind of go into it and say, well look like the union is us coming together as workers to demand more, you know, better protections at our workplace, higher wages and, you know, a myriad of other benefits that Starbucks wouldn't otherwise give us, and to kind of come together to protect one another.

Tyler: Do you want to know more about, you know, what that entails? And usually they'll say, yeah, okay, for sure. So off the floor, I'll give them a call and we'll have like a 30 minute conversation, or I just kind of give them a rundown of like, the history of it. but really once we get to the heart of understanding what a union is, and Phil, I'll ask you as a green bean, you know, what, what is it that you care about most that you'd like to see change here? I know that, I know that you're new at Starbucks, but like, what are some things, you know, I assume you're not coming from a six figure salary down to just starting to work at Starbucks, you know, what is something that would make your life easier? What is something you wanna fight for?

Phil: Well, what I'm looking for is I'm looking for a work environment that I can feel proud of, have some comradery, with people. And at the end of the day, at the end of my shift, say, wow, you know, I wish I could have stayed, you know, that extra hour longer. So it's not just about whatever I'm making on an hourly basis, but being in an environment, you know, seven, eight hours a day that I feel good in.

Tyler: Yeah. Well, I'm, I'm so glad that you're working here, Phil, and I'm, I'm really, glad that you said that because honestly, we've become really close, through organizing this union. We have a store group chat if you want us to, to put you in it. and we usually have meetings, sometimes like a couple, couple times a month or, you know, even just a hangout. Last week we went to Kaylee's and had a, a nice movie night. So if you want to go to that, like we'd love to include you. but you know, no pressure. I know you're busy, but I'd love to talk to you more about this.

Phil: So Jon, you know, you hear Tyler's pitch, you've been doing this for a while. how can folks like Tyler, other organizers, whether it be at Starbucks or Trader Joe's or any other Amazon, any of the retailers who are going through this, how can they use their skills to, to really hear what, you know, employees have? What are their issues, what can they do to, to take that learning and, you know, bring it into a reality and make change?

Jon: You're asking how management can do that?

Phil: No. How, how can folks like Tyler, do that, the organizers at store level?

Jon: Yeah, it's interesting. I follow the newsletter that Starbucks Workers United puts out, and in the last issue, they addressed it a problem that we used to fight over in the factory all the time, which is racism and sexism. You know, it used to be at the core of our fights to, I mean, we just had brutal experiences with, with supervisors that would exchange, you know, better jobs if women would go home with them, you know, that would talk to black workers in the most obscene of terms. And, you know, then we'd have to try and get a petition going, our grievance going, you know, take worker action on the shop floor to, you know, back that form and off. So, you know, that's the way we had to do it. And the same thing to take up issues of racism.

Jon: We had to really fight to make those part of the union agenda. Now I'm reading the most recent, the March 1st, 2023 Starbucks newsletter. And they talked about the people of color keep everything together. They call that pocket. And 49% of Starbucks workers are people of color. In the old days, those people were inadequately represented, their special concerns were not addressed. But now I see that's becoming a part of the lifeblood of the union, is to incorporate those people and their complaints to make it a better workplace so that they're not being exposed or experiencing sexism and racism on the, on the shop floor. Tyler can tell you about a, four week strike in his area in Massachusetts where the workers went out because the company hired a real hard-nosed supervisor that I believe was either very racist or sexist, I don't remember. And workers walked out and they camped out for a month in front of the store so that they could have the teamsters not deliver, cuz the teamsters Union showed support with the Starbucks workers' Union. So all of those things add to a comradery, a feeling of unity, a feeling of community, which is a lot what the union should be about. You know, back in my day we used to have social events, we used to have softball leagues, we used to have bowling leagues. It wasn't just what we did in the factory, but what we did outside the, outside the factory as union brothers and sisters.

Phil: So last question, and, and I'll ask again this question of, of both of you and Tyler, I'd like you to go first. What's your objectives and goals for 2023? What would you like to see happen, by the end of December of this year as it relates to unionization, not only with Starbucks, but across all of retail?

Tyler: Wow. Yeah. gosh, there are so many ways that I could answer that question, but I'll start with the most glaringly obvious one for our campaign. I'd love for Starbucks to sit down with us to negotiate a contract. I'd love to really get deep into the actual process of bargaining for a contract because they've refused to do that lately. but as far as like the broader scope of retail in general, I would love to see more workplaces and more workers generally, organizing in places that we never would've thought possible before. Right? That's what they said about Starbucks, that's what they said about McDonald's a while back. That's what they've continued to say about most of the food and retail industries. You know, target has been a bastion of anti-union, animus for a very long time. so is Walmart, you know.

Tyler: And on top of that, the, Dunkin Donuts presents out here. Dunkin sells more drip coffee than Starbucks in New England. it's like 48 to 44%. I would love to see Dunkin workers taking up the fight, and I'd love to help support them in that. I know Pete's coffee's going, I'd love to see, yeah, Walmart, target, more Amazon warehouses. I'd love to see more parts of our own supply chain with Starbucks start organizing collectively in solidarity with us and in collaboration with us. I'd love to see every single workplace in every single area organized, but end of 2023 is probably not possible. But getting some more of those big players like Target, Walmart and Dunkin Donuts going, that would be a dream.

Phil: Jon, what's your dream for 2023?

Jon:  Well, if I could be a bit self-centered , I wrote a book, as I mentioned, it was called Fighting Times Organizing on the Front Lines of the Class War. And I wrote it because it opens with a story of how I was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and given only six months to a year to live. And that cancer, the surgeon tr traced it directly to toxic chemicals that I had been exposed to in the factories I had worked in, most particularly Tri Chlor ethylene and tanning solvents. Those things have got to be cleaned up. I mean, workers should, it's, it's, the example is pales East Palestine in Ohio right now. I mean, they've got, I saw it on this morning news when I was working out. They have workers who don't even have protective equipment who work for the railroad company in their cleaning out these toxic pits of chemicals.

Jon: Now, just from my own experience, I can tell you what that does to your body. It really, you're risking your life and you shouldn't have to risk your life to do a job in the United States today. So when I mentioned my book, I'd like to see a lot more people reading it because I think it's inspiring. And that's what I hear from people like Tyler. Oh, Tyler's holding up my book. That's great. , you know, and they say it's inspiring. I mean, I get calls from a guy who's on the organizing committee at Trader Joe's, a call from an Amazon worker in North Carolina. They call me to ask questions and consult. So if any of your listeners are interested in the book, if you go to my website, jonathanmelrod.com, just on the landing page, you can get 40% off by putting in the code.

Jon: And it's a good read. Everybody said it's page turner, but I'd like to see workers' interests really put into the foreground forefront. And Bernie Sanders is proposing to do that with Starbucks. He wants to bring Howard Schultz in front of his committee in the Senate to talk about the situation at Starbucks. Why have they spent so much money on Hitler Mendelson, which is the most vicious union busting firm in the country when Tyler said $500 an hour, he's way off. It's closer to a thousand dollars an hour. What they pay those lawyers, I mean, think of how they could just use that money to, to, you know, for benefits for workers or recently on the railroads where they've made record profits, the seven railroad companies, they couldn't even find it within themselves to give five paid sick days to the workforce. And I read about a worker who didn't go to the doctor because he was ill. This was last June. He was afraid of being disciplined. He couldn't take an unpaid sick day or an unauthorized sick day, and he collapsed from a heart attack a few weeks later that just shouldn't have to be in the United States today. This is the wealthiest country in the world, but the wealth is concentrated with two smallest sliver at the top.

Phil: Well, I thank both of you, for joining us today on Lost in the Supermarket. You're both doing a fabulous job. And we need to raise awareness across every business, as Tyler said, whether it be retail or other businesses, to make sure that whether it's our health, whether it's our safety, that we are all being protected. As you said, Jon, you know, in the US we're the wealthiest country in the world and we need to take care of each other. So I thank both of you for joining us, and good luck to both of you and, we're behind you a hundred percent.

Jon: Thank you, Phil. That's great to hear.