Mixed fortunes

Letter from America

Paul Garver surveys US politics a year into Biden’s presidency

I struggle to tell how truly screwed the US Democratic left feels: about the persistent failure of the Biden administration to pass its comprehensive Build Back Better Act past the small right wing of the Democratic Party – personified by Senators Manchin and Sinema – coupled with the unanimous intransigence of the Trump-controlled Republicans; about how tenaciously Bernie Sanders keeps attempting to pass smaller pieces of legislation to help the working class, only to face the same obstruction; then there’s the backsliding of the Biden administration on promises to reform the shameful way the US treats refugees and undocumented immigrants on the Mexican border; and, finally, about Ukraine, where Putin’s aggressive provocations prompted an over-militarised, diplomatically weak and confused reaction from the US government.

But there is some good news. In recent weeks, workers at some 67 Starbucks locations in the USA filed petitions to the National Labor Relations Board demanding recognition of their Starbucks Workers United Union. The union has won elections at two stores in Buffalo; others will follow. Starbucks management is striking back hard, firing seven workers for organising at a shop in Memphis.

This new organising wave is still relatively small compared to the 9,000 Starbucks locations, with over 250,000 baristas in the USA alone and another hundred thousand or so internationally. But this tiny start might be deceptive. The strongest Starbucks union is in Chile, with about a 30% level of organisation – some 250 unionised members – achieved since 2009, with lengthy strikes in 2011 and 2013 to gain a collective bargaining agreement with only modest gains in 2015. Significantly, the Chilean Starbucks union emerged from the same generation as former student leader Gabriel Boric, the new president of Chile. Starbucks union president and Boric supporter Andres Giordano was also elected to the Chilean Congress.

The DSA International Committee organised a webinar at which Giordano met organisers for Starbucks and other US fast food restaurants as part of a project for mutual and reciprocal solidarity between US and Chilean workers and democratic socialists.

The Starbucks baristas organising in the US, like their Chilean forerunners, are typically current or former university students, under 30 years old, diverse in their gender identities, totally new to the trade union movement, and networked mainly through social media. It is reported that many had their first and only political experiences in the Bernie Sanders campaigns.

Can Starbucks baristas play any serious role in leading the global working-class revolution? Wouldn’t a huge centralised logistics company like Amazon be a more strategic target? The US labour movement is eyeing Amazon, and with reform leadership recently elected to the Teamsters Union, it may find resources to implement a national organising plan for that company.

In good news from Mexico, utilising 2019 labour legislation that enables workers to replace the corrupt protection unions that dominated their labour movement since the 1940s, workers at the large GM plant in Silao have ousted their protection union and elected a new independent union, SINTTIA. This is also positive for US workers. The Silao plant assembles trucks, largely for export to the USA and Canada. Wages have stagnated at about 20% of GM pay rates in North America. For three decades, American auto workers faced blackmailing threats from the company whenever they tried to bargain for higher wages and benefits or opposed the growing division into permanent wage tiers that pay drastically lower wages to newer workers. GM and other companies insist that due to NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Agreement), they can move production to Mexico to benefit from drastically lower wages. This started well before NAFTA came into effect in 1994, and many jobs in the heartland of North America were lost as auto plants were closed. In 1989, when I was teaching a class in the joint UAW (United Auto Workers)-GM educational programme, a manager just back from Mexico described how he bribed Mexican union leaders who kept wages low at the factory. The auto workers were angry at jobs being lost in the US by such illegal practices, but also depressed and resigned.

The union leadership bargained for their existing members, while abandoning the newer generation of auto workers. The UAW’s membership was halved, then halved again. Feeling abandoned both by their union and the nation, many working class families shifted their allegiance from Democrats to racist, anti-immigrant, reactionary Republicans.

But back to the good news. Ironically, under the Trump administration NAFTA was replaced by a new free trade treaty for North America with somewhat better provisions for labour rights. Silao could encourage the revitalisation of both Mexican and US industrial unions.

Finally, we hope for the election of two new democratic socialists to the US House of Representatives from Texas, which held its primary elections in March. Jessica Cisneros, an immigrant rights attorney running in Laredo, has forced a run-off against right-wing Democratic incumbent Henry Cuellar, a darling of the oil industry and anti-abortion movement, after neither candidate received over 50% of the votes. In Austin, DSA member Greg Cesar won his primary and is almost certain to win in the general election in November, despite being un-endorsed by the Austin DSA over differences on Palestine. The Squad of democratic socialists in Congress will grow, but they may find formal membership of DSA more of a liability than an asset – not because of the predictable vilification from the right, but due to sectarian attacks from inside DSA, such as the attempt to expel Rep. Jamaal Bowman for a trip to Israel sponsored by liberal Jewish advocacy group, J Street.

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