How do we decide whether a company is good or bad? It is the relentless return to this question which makes “Wrestling with Starbucks” such an important and deeply satisfying book.

The union movement is riddled with communicators who condemn and deplore stuff. As a rule, we are outraged. It’s a style of communications which ultimately alienates the audience; the brain disengages and the angry buzz becomes just another background whine. This is a critical problem for the union movement, because the media persistently restricts their gaze to strikes and stories of abuse. How can we convey a workers’ perspective without sounding like punk squatters who have illegally occupied the moral high ground? We have tried humor; we have appealed to reason; we have targeted consumer pockets and community morals. But a worker-centered communications paradigm still eludes us. Union communications come across as self-rightous rather than democratic and participative, and the public just turns the page thinking: “well they would say that, wouldn’t they?”

Kim Fellner has changed the record. For that reason alone I would suggest that all unionists read this book.

Wrestling with Starbucks

In Working with Starbucks she situates herself right alongside the audience; she almost seems to become a fellow reader. Rather than presenting facts from on high, she uncovers them through going places and talking to people. She often pauses to make an aside, or to draw on memory, but then she goes straight back to reporting on what she finds, exactly as she finds it. In doing so she reveals an astonishing empathy for other people’s difficulties, be it workers, managers, or fellow coffee lovers. And yet never once does her vantage point seem to dominate the book’s sense of objectivity. The nett effect is to give us a sense of having understood, rather than being informed.

Fellner’s credentials speak for themselves. She helped set up the National Organizers’ Alliance (http://noacentral.org/) and is currently the development director for Working America (http://www.workingamerica.org/). She worked for the Service Employees International Union; the Screen Actors Guild; and is a member of the New Unionism Network. She also served time as executive director of the National Writers’ Union. And yet through all of this she has somehow kept her vision open and fresh. Elsewhere she speaks of the movement’s internal problems: “the sound bites never get much beyond “blah, blah, blah, blah, organize, blah blah blah, blah change.” And yet she has never given in to cynicism. “Looking into the middle distance, we can perhaps see that new wave of union evolution gathering strength… We need to restore poetry to our politics, the meaning that strengthens the muscle. Bread and roses. It may be more than we bargain for, but for progressive labor, it’s the real deal.”

As an activist, Fellner knows that workers, as consumers and producers, have a lot more power than they ever care to use. Why the seeming complacency? Because bargaining over pay is not enough. And because, despite what some union organizers might have us believe, we do not live in a world populated with technicolour goodies and baddies. If we are to go on strike then we need to understand why, at a personal and a collective level. It is not enough to be told. The same applies to boycotts. There was once a time when revolutionaries proposed the agenda and sought labor’s support to bring it to power. Fellner’s book helps us see a 21st century alternative. Unions and labour activists need to stop instructing and directing. Together, we need to listen, watch, discuss, and reflect. In doing so, we build social relations based on solidarity and cooperation, rather than received anger.

So what’s the verdict on Starbucks? To tell you this would defeat the whole point. The sub-title of the book is “Conscience, Capital and Cappuccino”. The order of these three words is important. We can collect facts about a multinational, and we can relate these to the system in which it operates. Both of these things Fellner does extraordinarily well. But unless the story and the process draws us in and gets us involved (ie through conscience) then all we have done is read a book. And as He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named once said: “Philosophers have only interpreted the world… The point, however, is to change it”.

You can order a copy of Wrestling with Starbucks here: http://rutgerspress.rutgers.edu/acatalog/Wrestling_with_Starbucks.html

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