Poor People’s Campaign leader, Rev. Barber, boosts unions in Buffalo talk
The Buffalo baristas Rev. Barber is backing have touched off a Starbucks organizing drive across the country. Here, Starbucks workers in Superior, Colorado filed cards to join Workers United on December 30. As of mid February over 100 locations in 26 states have filed to unionize, with new petitions being announced almost daily. Photo: Starbucks Workers United

BUFFALO—Supporting organizing workers is a big plank in the Poor People’s Campaign platform, and its co-chair the Rev. William Barber II really made that point in a talk with Starbucks baristas n Buffalo who have unionized. As voters go to the polls today in Texas, the first primary elections of the 2022 season, the significance of a united front of people fighting to end poverty and people trying to form unions cannot be overestimated.

Barber also linked the drive-by Buffalo workers for the right to unionize to his campaign’s nationwide priority to protect and enhance the right to vote. That priority will also be atop the demands of a repeat of the famous 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery voting rights march, scheduled for March 6-11.

“We are deeply committed to the people who stand with these Starbucks workers who are united all over the country—from Buffalo to Memphis” who have organized at more than 100 of the chain’s stores, Barber told the group in their temporary headquarters in Buffalo.

The Poor People’s Campaign incorporated the fight for a $15 hourly federal minimum wage and the right to organize the unorganized as a key plank of its nationwide campaign, which will culminate, but not stop, with a mass March on Washington on June 18. Barber promised the Starbucks unionizing workers “will be there at the front of the stage” in D.C.

He also spoke days before the Starbucks workers’ latest win, in a 25-3 vote in Mesa, Ariz., on February 25. “Despite the corporation’s aggressive anti-union campaigning, Welcome to Workers United!” the workers posted, citing the Service Employees sector backing the nationwide Starbucks organizing drive.

“Shout out to the Arizona Western States Regional Joint Board members who showed up in solidarity. The people united will never be defeated!” their statement declared.

The Buffalo workers organized themselves from the bottom up and then started drives in six area Starbucks stores. They’ve succeeded in two so far. The votes are challenged in another. The drives continue in the others, despite company transfers of pro-union workers out of those stores—a common corporate anti-union tactic.

The same oppressors of workers are the oppressors of voters, studies show, especially Black and brown workers and voters. And oppressors of workers are prominent, and often dominant, in the corporate class.

So the two types of rights “go hand-in-hand,” Barber said, to applause from the assembled crowd of young workers in their Buffalo storefront headquarters.

“One reason people are trying to suppress voting rights means” success at the ballot box lets “people come together to change the economic structure.”

By contrast, Barber said, just as unions do, workers want respect, “a seat at the table, and to negotiate with management for a living wage…Whether you’re white or Black or brown, for Starbucks the color is green., If you challenge the company, they make you a target.”

They certainly did so in Buffalo. On February 22, bosses illegally fired Cassie Fleischer, lead organizer at the first Starbucks store, days before Barber arrived. She’s also a member of the Buffalo union’s bargaining committee. Workers United promptly filed a labor law-breaking (unfair labor practices) charge with the National Labor Relations Board’s regional office.

In Arizona, Starbucks ran its usual nasty anti-union campaign, but the workers fought back and talked back. In one “captive audience” meeting in Mesa, a leader among the baristas publicly challenged the company’s union-buster. When that “consultant” denied the meeting was anti-union, she shot back another question about whether the purpose was to tell the workers to vote “no.” The union-buster admitted it. “I think we can figure this out,” she replied.

Union organizers warn workers to be careful at the mandatory attendance meetings where “consultants” speak against unions. They note that often the real purpose of those meetings is to make controversial anti-union remarks, provoking attendees to speak out in favor of unions. This provides the company with a list of pro-union workers who end up on the list of employees the company then finds excuses to fire.

“When Starbucks uses intimidation tactics, they are robbing workers of their rights,” such as at captive audience meetings, Barber told the Buffalo group. He called the company’s tactics “mean and immoral.”

The Poor Peoples Campaign’s constituency, the nation’s 140-million-plus poor and low-wealth people, overlaps to a great extent with the movement of oppressed low-wage workers which began a decade ago among fast food workers in New York City.

Besides fast food workers and Starbucks workers, that mass movement includes adjunct professors, port truck drivers—whom the Teamsters are organizing—workers of color, recent migrants to the U.S., and warehouse workers, including at Amazon.

But before the Poor Peoples Campaign gets to D.C., it has other stops to make, and one of them, Barber told a prior press conference, is a 50-mile march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., on the 57th anniversary of the original march.

This march, too, will cross the infamous Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, named for a Jim Crow-era Klan leader who was an Alabama U.S. senator from 1897-1907. At the end of that crossing in 1965, troopers with firehoses and vicious dogs set upon the marchers.

The Poor People’s Campaign, the AFL-CIO, and civil rights groups will lead this year’s march. “Labor is all in,” said Fred Redmond, the AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer at a February press conference announcing the latest march.

The press conference, including an appeal for financial support:

“We already have people on the ground mobilizing. Alabama is ground zero for voting rights and voter suppression,” added Redmond, who just retired from the Steelworkers. Barber quoted Dr. Martin Luther King, who said: “Segregation was the way to prevent Black and white people from coming together.”

“Those who want to suppress the vote also want to suppress living wages and health care” for all, he added. “We need the full Voting Rights Act and the full John Lewis Act” to restore the rights of both workers and the poor, through the ballot box, Barber declared.


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.