“Imagine the power of our partners and hundreds of thousands of customers each sharing a simple message, one cup at a time,” Schultz wrote on the Starbucks blog.
The coffee company’s chief executive, Howard Schultz, conscripted “countless low wage workers into the austerity army” in asking his Washington, D.C.-area employees to promote the billionaire-backed Fix the Debt campaign by scrawling the words “Come Together” on customers’ cups.
“Fix the Debt” would harm those workers by cutting tax rates for the wealthy and social programs that employees depend on, such as Social Security.
Schultz’s use of hourly employees was both shrewd and deceptive. Logistics aside, a Come Together message inscribed by a billionaire CEO and printed on coffee cups could never pack the same punch as one that was handwritten by workers making $8-something an hour. Schultz’s blog post was quickly followed by a mass e-mail from Fix the Debt, bragging that “Baristas at Starbucks are showing their support for bipartisan solutions this week.” CEOs hawking “shared sacrifice” are a dime a dozen. A working-class seal of approval is much more valuable, even if—like so much in the American workplace—it’s coerced. (Starbucks assured CNN that workers could decline to participate. But not all who are drafted will risk becoming a conscientious objector.)
As sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild has observed, and Starbucks has unwittingly reminded us, the service sector is replete with “emotional labor”: not just physical production but interpersonal performance. Workers are paid not only to perform a task but to act out a part—from speaking from a company script, to smiling despite verbal abuse or physical pain, to urging that Congress embrace a deal that could imperil their retirement.
The Come Together episode illustrates the rise of political coercion in the workplace. That trend drew rare attention last year with a series of stories about companies that told their employees whom to vote for (Koch Industries), tracked workers’ political donations (Murray Energy) or warned of layoffs if President Obama was re-elected (Westgate Resorts). In the Citizens United era, companies have even greater freedom to impose their politics on employees, from convening a mandatory meeting devoted to political “persuasion” to firing an employee for affixing the wrong candidate’s bumper sticker to her car.