Comm Ave Starbucks Strike Ends: Does that mean strikes work? | UB today

Questrom’s Michel Anteby explains the difference between Starbucks’ action and the threat of a strike by freight train workers

It’s hard to imagine how 18 workers at a Starbucks on Commonwealth Avenue in Boston could have anything in common with 50,000 conductors and engineers from the national union Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen. But one word linked them this month: strike.

Starbucks workers at BU’s central campus site went on strike in July, demanding more flexibility in their working hours and complaining about the treatment of employees by a manager. After 64 days, the longest strike in Starbucks history, the walkout ended Thursday, with both sides claiming victory when the store reopened.

Head photo of Professor Michel Anteby.  A tanned man wearing a light blue collared shirt looks and smiles at the camera in front of a gray background.
Michael Anteby. Photo courtesy of Anteby

The National Freight Train Union has never called a strike, but the mere threat of a walkout, which would have had a devastating impact on the American economy, was taken so seriously that President Biden stepped in and US Labor Secretary Marty Walsh had to help end a deal after 20 straight hours of negotiations. As with Starbucks workers, both parties left satisfied.

Does this mean strikes really work? In this new post-COVID world, where workers feel more empowered to fight for greater flexibility and other benefits, will we see more industrial action? UB today spoke with Michel Anteby, professor of management and organizations at the Questrom School of Business and professor of sociology at the College of Arts & Sciences, about strikes, employees, companies and who has influence today.


with Michel Anteby

UB today: What struck you about these two cases, the striking employees of Starbucks and the threat of a strike by the freight train union?

Anteby: What strikes me between these two contexts is that Starbucks is pretty typical of today’s economy. It is a service company. The workforce may be full-time or part-time, people come and go, turnover is likely high. Companies have generally had a divide and conquer strategy in these cases rather than trying to cater to every location.

The freight train problem is really unique, in that it is an interconnected rail system and if a regional company or a hub pulls out, the whole system could be lost. It’s a completely different economy. Very different situations. Some might wish the freight train situation had more to do with the way these things were organized, with the power of the unions. But apart from transport, airlines, electricity, there are very few industries that are integrated like that.

UB today: So what makes some strikes more effective than others?

Anteby: Maybe during COVID there was a feeling that a lot of jobs were essential. Many frontline workers have been praised for being that frontline. This included grocers, truckers, nurses. The narrative of you being a hero, being essential, was there. This has allowed workers to see themselves as essential. But in the eyes of employers, they are always replaceable.

It means you are essential. But you are also replaceable. But some are not replaceable. Think Uber and Lyft drivers. They were considered more essential during the pandemic. But a lot of people were interested in this job, so there was a lot of turnover and they could be replaced.

The central, replaceable discussion resonates a lot. I conducted a study of puppeteers at Disneyland in California. A small group of about 30 puppeteers. They decided to organize, not strike, but in the process Disney just decided to shut down the show they were employed in. They all took other jobs, and only a handful remained at Disney to do other jobs. They were replaceable.

UB today: Has technology changed the way workers organize themselves or made them more worried about being replaced by automation?

Anteby: I would dare say that technology has been oversold to replace workers. Uber was built on the assumption that automated cars would replace drivers. It doesn’t happen. If anything, automated cars crash, so it’s very hard to see that happening. I feel like technology is helping workers organize, benchmarking working conditions, being empowered to improve conditions.

UB today: Did the length of the strike at Starbucks surprise you?

Anteby: I suspect they want broader changes, not just for themselves. They really want to make a statement. Some Starbucks locations have unionized. It seems to me that it is more on the principle position and frustration with a manager that’s just on salary. I understand why Starbucks is so concerned. This is a precedent of who is worthy to join the ranks of leadership. If you delegate this to a team of workers, it sets a dangerous precedent, at least from a head office perspective.

UB today: What role does COVID play in all of this?

Anteby: I published a study on Instacart. They were called heroes during the pandemic. Their slogan was: “Not all heroes wear capes”. We followed [employee] buyers who had joined them during COVID. Those most likely to embrace the hero narrative were also workers who felt completely entitled because they saw themselves as heroes. Those most motivated and committed to the mission were workers who were ambivalent about being heroes. They knew they were doctors and nurses. They would try to go beyond that. They found toilet paper when it was hard to find. Drop off the groceries inside the homes of vulnerable people. The first group that thought they were heroes, they just left the platform. Those who were more resilient tended to be more productive.

UB today: How do employers deal with this question of who is essential and who is not?

Anteby: Nursing and teaching, these are two professions where the amount of training and certification to get up to speed has a much longer track than others. We need to better understand how easily replaceable workers are when employers make these decisions. Air traffic controllers under President Reagan were overqualified, but the federal government was willing to let them go and replace them with military personnel. The question is how captive you are to your employees. The most captive [a company is] employees, the more likely a strike is to succeed.

UB today: What did you think this week when you saw the strike at Starbucks was over?

The result underlines that even workers deemed “replaceable” can organize collectively and have a say in their working conditions. This is especially true when the brand equity of consumer-facing businesses is at stake.

While Starbucks spokesperson Reggie Borges wrote that “no negotiations have been conducted with these partners [workers] for their return, ”he said in a telephone exchange [with] that “the minimum availability policy [that workers took issue with] did not apply to these Starbucks workers, as their union work predated the rule. Thus, he implicitly acknowledges that organizing efforts have helped workers have a stronger voice when it comes to their working conditions.

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