- Interview by
- Sarah Hurd
The Starbucks at the intersection of Clark and Ridge on Chicago’s far north side was one of the city’s first Starbucks shops to unionize. Since then, workers there have continued to be some of the most militant in the city.
After winning union recognition and striking over understaffing in early July, the workers have continued to organize and face pushback from management. After one of their leaders, Emily Alaimo, was given a final notice last week, the workers went out on strike again. We spoke to Alaimo about the strike, the union, and the role of performance and pleasure in union organizing.
How did you end up working at Starbucks?
I started working at a campus Starbucks in college then joined the Peace Corps. Then I got evacuated after nine months of my service because of COVID and was like, “I guess I’ll work at Starbucks again. What else am I gonna do?”
That experience of being a student worker, being in the Peace Corps, and then being back at Starbucks — which of those were most politically shaping for you?
My politics goes back to being a teenager and only listening to hardcore punk music and being radicalized through that scene and the people in it. Then I got caught up in studying political science and then working on a congressional campaign, but nothing sparked me or got me thinking “I love politics.” I went to the Peace Corps after the congressional campaign and made two realizations.
One was my politics are so important to me when I view them outside the context of some politician or working in some government cubicle somewhere. And the reason I couldn’t view myself in a 9-to-5 is that that’s not for me, and I want to be on a stage somewhere. I started taking burlesque classes during the pandemic as part of reclaiming this part of me that I felt I was so out of touch with. Now my performer thing is “a spellbinding spectacle of the revolution” where you can’t look away, but it’s for such a good cause.
Can you tell me a little bit about your coworkers at the shop and what it means to be a union with those people?
I think it’s so funny that Starbucks is acting shocked that all of their stores are unionizing, because when I look at the people I work with at Starbucks, especially at this one in Chicago, it’s all people that share a lot of the same beliefs as me, who see beyond this capitalist hellscape we live in and want something better for everybody. It’s a lot of starving artist types, like me, people who work at Starbucks because they are performers, like in theater, or they work in some gig job.
What were the conditions that led to your organizing, union recognition, and then the continued fight?
Initially we wanted to organize because we saw it happening elsewhere. But there was a culture in our store where everything was pretty good. We had a good relationship with our manager; it was a pretty fun place to be. And the few of us that were talking used the word “onion” on the floor because that’s how scared people were to even say the U word. People were like, “We have it pretty good here — why would we do that?”
But then Starbucks made the worst move possible, and this union-busting campaign that happened outside of us started affecting us before we even started mentioning going union.
Starbucks started cutting our labor and not giving anyone hours, even though we had a store full of people who were begging for hours. It got to the point where people were losing benefits because they were reduced to part time for too long. Then once that started happening — once people lost their benefits and we started saying “How ’bout that onion?” — we got a lot more people on board.
What helped us win the union vote is that it got so bad, so fast. Starbucks corporate and our DM [district manager] pushed our [store] manager to betray the relationships that he had with people who had worked for him since he opened our shop. It got really ugly and personal. Our first strike and first set of demands were over labor cuts. They reduced the number of people we would have working on the floor at a busy time from seven people to four (if we were really lucky). It really makes you do the work of two to three people at a time when it’s busy.
People were coming in and seeing how chaotic it was and how slow we were moving, then they’d turn around and walk out. Starbucks was sacrificing business in the name of union busting.
So we went on strike for two days on July 4 weekend. After that, they gave out more write-ups, and I got one of them. It has gotten bad. They’re really coming after union organizers now. It’s not just “We’re not going to schedule you, and we’re going to make it a terrible place to work, because there’s no way that you can even manage this floor with the number of people we give you” — it’s “We’re going to try to get you fired and betray our own protocol and policy to write you up in these unfair ways and then tell you that it’s not to get you fired — but it is.”
Our most recent demands from this march on the boss that happened just this past Friday were to stop the corrective action against the union organizers that includes writing people up for any verbal warnings or coaching conversations. They had put a couple of partners on a “final written warning” when neither of them had any prior write-ups at all. That’s unheard of — you can’t do that.
So we asked our district manager to rescind those. We also made demands in solidarity with the partners in Anderson, South Carolina, whose store was closed after a march on the boss. We gave her until the end of the day to say, “I intend to do something about this.” She didn’t do that, and instead I got a final written warning letting me know that I could be fired.
The manager is real fake and gave a corporate-friendly response and referenced Starbucks’ missions and values — they love doing that — and said:
We really want to live by these values and meet you as real partners and collaborators. This is a new beginning for us now that we’ve gotten to meet face to face, and we understand each other; we’re on the same team.
And then she wrote me up and gave us no response.
Then you guys went on strike, again.
As soon as I got that final write-up, I put it in the group chat and was like, “Hey guys, this is an act of war. I don’t care what her response is, I think we need to strike,” and everyone was like, “Absolutely.” For the last strike, they didn’t even try to open, but this time they sent in a horde of managers. They opened from 10 AM to 1 PM and only had the drive-through open. And they all went in the back door because they were scared to walk past us, which I found very entertaining.
We turned a lot of people away — I would say our rate of turning people away was over 50 percent. So they just closed.
Can you tell me a little bit about what that picket line looked like and your general theory of what makes good picket-line vibes?
We just try to have a block party. Our whole thing is: we want it to be fun. It’s supposed to make you feel something. And when you tap into that feeling of liberation and pleasure, once you get there, that is almost like, “Wow, I am free from my shackles. I can never go back to not knowing that.” And that inspires all of my organizing. So I bring the flow toys, I bring the poi and the hoops, and we have disco on, because how can you not dance to disco?
When I was there at the last one, you guys had a great playlist. Just banger after banger.
I was the DJ.
Well done. So much Abba.
It’s also kind of an inside thing because that’s what we do in the store. For some reason, disco became the music of our little revolution in the store, because there is a bangin’ disco playlist that we can play in there. Whenever the vibes are down, we just put that disco playlist on. So we knew we had to bring that to the strike.
Having stuff like that is so important. In a reality like this, where we are fighting just to survive, I feel like it is so important to have something like your little disco playlist that you can go to that brings you joy and gives you what you need to keep on going.
I feel like we are all experiencing this big push by the ruling class to co-opt queerness as much as possible. When it comes to queer people organizing at Howard Brown and in Starbucks — what role do you feel like that plays in challenging that co-optation project?
Honestly, so much. A big part of me being able to step out of what I thought being involved in politics was was accepting that I was queer as shit and never going to fit into this mold that is only made for straight people. It’s queer organizing spaces where I feel like there is real change happening, because in the queer community we’ve moved beyond needing to be accepted by heteronormative society. We don’t want to be part of that. We want to transcend all these barriers that have been put in front of us and think outside the confines of capitalism.
It feels like this kind of organizing is an antidote to conservative business unionism.
That’s why I love seeing stuff like the Stripper Strike, because that is not how I would have, ten years ago as a teen organizer, thought that organizing could look or would ever be respected on a picket line. I’m sure for some people they still don’t think that’s organizing, but that’s not our problem.
This movement that we’re in right now is the future. It’s the way that we move forward.