Opinion: Fear of a Unionized Starbucks

What if your barista is as good as you?
What if your barista is as good as you? Photo by Open Grid Scheduler/Grid Engine/Flickr
The coffee giant Starbucks has been in the news a lot lately as more and more of its stores unionize. Employees are walking out in an organized fashion and are starting to demand safe conditions and fair pay.

Naturally, conservatives tend to teabag the comment sections of these stories with horrific predictions. Soon a cup of coffee will be $20! All the stores will close! Karl Marx’s bearded visage will appear in the foam of every latte and begin uttering the dread spells of socialism directly to our children!

Under it all is the sentiment that baristas (and fry cooks and grocery clerks and the rest of the essential workers we previously championed for keeping the country functional) do not deserve these things. They should quit if they don’t want to be peons, not fight for the privileges that should belong only to the professional class. There is a fear leaking out of the holes made by all the exclamation pointed comments that the precious hierarchy of social importance is under communist attack.

But like, why though? Why is the idea of a someone making a nice living serving the public so abhorrent?

It’s a question that needs an answer. America primarily deals in service. Somewhere between 70 and 80 percent of the workers in the country are employed in some form of the service industry, making it the backbone of the economy. For all intents and purposes, baristas and their brethren are the economy far more than manufacturing, health care, and the like.

Whether you think that’s a bad thing or not, it is a reality, and it cannot be changed by starving people or putting them at constant risk. If we are going to be a place where most Americans work service jobs at least some part of their lives, shouldn’t they have access to the vaunted American Dream while there?

What exactly is wrong with working in a restaurant or shop for a decade at a time? Or being able to buy a house and take a nice vacation while doing so? There are certainly days when I think it would be wonderful to leave the journalism game and go back to working in movie theaters seeing people alive with the wonder of film. Being served by well-rewarded employees who are happy to be where they are and feel like a part of the community sounds pretty nice, as does the possibility that anyone of us could tell a toxic boss to go stuff it because we could get a decent McJob and still have a nice life.

The benefits of a world like that are legion and the downsides almost completely absent. Logically, a unionized Starbucks world makes sense. Unfortunately, opposition doesn’t come from a place of logic. It’s a terrible monkey-brain part of many humans that demands a servant class be a punishment. The justification that many people use to uphold the increasingly desperate income equality ratios in America is that at least the middle managers are better than those lowly service workers. A lot of bad can be excused by entitlement to be awful to others without repercussion.

What I see in comment sections is fear of losing that entitlement. If Starbucks employees stand up, it might mean that their “social betters” are actually just as much on the bottom. It wouldn’t lose those in the middle money or property or opportunity or access, but it would destroy the little social cache they enjoy in a world where billionaires get to race to space for fun. It’s a petty thing, but it’s the prime thing standing in the way of worker rights in the popular mindset. The thing conservatives hate the most is that service workers might be as good as them.
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Jef Rouner (not cis, he/him) is a contributing writer who covers politics, pop culture, social justice, video games, and online behavior. He is often a professional annoyance to the ignorant and hurtful.
Contact: Jef Rouner