Will Work for Beer, Coffee

I didn’t delve too deeply into labor issues in Fermenting Revolution. But I’m now doing research for a book on coffee, an industry with a history of slavery and other labor abuses that continue to this day. I’ve also been approached by a publisher about writing a more overtly political, rather than environmental, book about beer. So, as I sit here on vacation at the beach with my extended clan, labor is on my mind. Here are a few nuggets regarding beer and coffee unions.

Many people know that Coors has a long history of union-busting. It finally ended in 1987 when the AFL-CIO reached an agreement calling for a union election. But Coors faced new boycott threats as recently as 2002. Coors’ parent/partner company Molson is currently embroiled in a union dispute regarding the planned shuddering of their Edmonton brewery. The company is planning the shutdown in order to crush an ongoing strike there even though it was ranked the number one brewery of the company’s ten operations.

Anheuser-Busch has been the target of multiple boycotts over the years, including one as recent as late 2005. Last summer, 1500 teamsters at SABMiller struck over health care disputes. Yuengling Brewery in Pottsville, Pennsylvania, the nation’s oldest brewery, is owned by a notoriously conservative family who financially supports republican political candidates, is also a known union-buster and is currently the object of a teamsters boycott.

Starbucks LogoStarbucks, the world’s largest specialty coffee retailer, is virulently anti-union. In 2004, several workers were fired for attempting to organize. Lawsuits and settlements ensued although Starbucks has admitted no wrongdoing. This past January, company Chairman Howard Schultz was quoted by the Seattle Times as saying: “If they had faith in me and my motives, they wouldn’t need a union.” I guess that means they don’t have faith in you Howie.


4 Responses to Will Work for Beer, Coffee

  1. Tim O'Brien says:

    I’m glad you’re getting more interested in labor rights. The more you research this project the more you will find slavery, indentured servitude, child trafficking, forced labor and sweatshops of all kinds. People think sweatshops were abolished long ago but as the USA becomes deeper and deeper in debt to China the more we see how dependent American consumers are on goods being produced in sweatshops and by slave labor.

    If you can find a witty way to present this issue like you did with beer then you could draw some desperately needed attention to this critical issue.

    In solidarity as us union folks like to say…

  2. Karen says:

    Labor rights are getting less and less attention but we all have to watch this issue. For a lot of us are employees and will get hit with this at one time or another.

  3. Espresso Monkey Mel says:

    The plantations/estates that Starbucks purchases their coffee also do not let their workers unionize. Last week I visited an estate in Nicaragua that exclusively sells to Starbucks. The workers that live on the estate permanently were not allowed to talk to us. The situation of these farmers reminded me of when I organized with migrant farm workers in the Willamette Valley area in Oregon. Similarly the workers were not able to leave the farms where they worked long hours for little pay. They were entirely dependent and indebted to the farm owners. Their is a lot of talk right now in the fair trade world about certifying coffee plantations that meet specific criteria as fair trade products, which already happens with tea and bananas. This is a highly controversial issue because at the roots of the fair trade movement is the “empowerment of small farmers and artisans organized in democratic cooperatives” –i.e. not working within the plantation system. Although from what I saw last week it is clear that these laborers need to be empowered and treated like valuable human beings just as much as small farmers that own their plots need access to markets and fair prices for their coffee. Starbuck’s baristas and plantations workers need to unite to give Howie a run for his money–literally!

  4. beeractivist says:

    Tim – I’m working on it.

    Karen – My personal goal is to be gainfully unemployed some day.

    Mel – I’m interested to hear more of your thoughts on this. I’m currently undecided on the “to estate or not to estate” fair trade debate.

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