Analysis: Workers United paid nearly $2.5 million to organizers, "salts" and activists at Starbucks
A preliminary analysis shows that the campaign to unionize Starbucks is not a mere "grassroots" campaign, but a purposely-orchestrated, well-financed campaign by Workers United.
See correction at bottom.
The union behind unionizing over 300 Starbucks cafes around the United States has paid nearly $2.5 million to workers involved with unionizing the iconic coffee company, according to a LaborUnionNews.com preliminary analysis of publicly-available information.
While the actual amount is likely much higher, according to financial records (known as LM forms) on file with the U.S. Department of Labor, Workers United—an affiliate of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU)—paid 41 union consultants, organizers, union “salts,” or union activists $2,422,324 in 2022.
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As the LaborUnionNews.com analysis only examined the public reports for Workers United and its Regional Councils, not the SEIU or any of its districts and locals, the actual number of individuals on union payrolls working the Starbucks campaign may, in fact, be much higher.
Additionally, the 41 individuals who were paid the nearly $2.5 million by Workers United are only those who could be cross-referenced through news articles and public profiles online.
Many in the media and elsewhere have labeled the union efforts at Starbucks as a “grassroots effort.” However, based on the monies paid to individuals—which ranged from a low of around $11,000 paid to “activists” to more than $130,000 to a union organizer based in Los Angeles—it appears that the union effort has been a very well-financed organizing effort that included the use of numerous union “salts.”
* It should be also noted that the figures do not include fees paid to law firms and public relations firms.
Outing the “Salts.”
A union “salt” (sometimes called a “union mole”) is a person paid by a union to infiltrate a company and unionize it from within.
In early April, Bloomberg writer Josh Eidelson—himself a former union organizer for five years—published an article in Bloomberg Businessweek entitled “The Undercover Organizers Behind America’s Union Wins.”
The article (which included a video) focused on the tactics that Workers United and the Amazon Labor Union have used at Starbucks and Amazon, respectively.
Without stating how much each was paid, Bloomberg’s Eidelson identified several Workers United organizers-turned-Starbucks ”salts.”
One of the union salts featured by Eidelson was Jaz Brisack. Although it has been reported by the New York Times that Brisack, as a Workers United organizer, has moved on from the Starbucks campaign to the union organizing campaign at Tesla’s upstate New York battery factory, in 2021, Workers United paid Brisack $68,884, and another $67,485 in 2022.
The monies paid to Brisack, of course, are on top of whatever the unsuspecting-Starbucks paid her as an employee.
Eidelson, in his Bloomberg piece, also profiled several other union salts, Will Westlake, Arjae Rebmann, and Zachary Field, as well as other unnamed salts.
Field and Westlake lived in a group house with a couple more salts. That crew avoided hosting co-workers or even bringing home dates. Instead, some of them hung up pictures of Karl Marx and United Farm Workers co-founder Dolores Huerta, and the group used flashcards to quiz each other on Starbucks recipes and compared notes with other salts on which co-workers could be key to a successful union drive.
“Westlake says he changed his look partly to make it more obvious he wasn’t a straight dude and to help his mostly female co-workers feel more comfortable around him,” reported Eidelson.
According to Workers United filings with the Department of Labor, Westlake was paid $20,487 in 2022. Workers United did not, however, report the amounts paid to Arjae Rebmann or Zachary Field and it is unknown whether they are still employed by Starbucks or have moved on to other employers.
The lack of payroll data could mean that Rebmann’s and Field’s 2022 salaries are listed on another union’s payroll (like the SEIU, or Workers United’s locals) or, perhaps, a group like the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA).
“Last year,” Eidelson reported, “thousands of members of the Democratic Socialists of America said in an internal survey that they were interested in pursuing jobs in workplaces that would also be strategic targets for organizing.”
As the DSA is not a labor union, it is not required to furnish payroll data to the Department of Labor which means, if the DSA is paying or supplementing DSA members’ incomes as “salts,” their incomes may not be reported at all.
The architects behind Starbucks Workers United’s campaign
As alluded to above, in much of the reporting over the past 18 months, by portraying the union organizing at Starbucks as a “grassroots” campaign, the media has inadvertently led many to believe that the campaign was a campaign led-by Starbucks’ baristas, as opposed to a purposely-orchestrated campaign by Workers United.
However, Eidelson’s profile of Brisack and her mentor, former AFL-CIO organizing director-turned-union-consultant, Richard Bensinger, indicates that both Bensinger and Brisack were the primary architects of the entire campaign at Starbucks.
Bensinger, along with Chris Townsend—a consultant with the Amalgamated Transit Union—runs the Inside Organizer School workshops, according to Eidelson.
For his part, in 2022, Bensinger was paid nearly $145,000 from Workers United’s headquarters, as well as its Rochester Joint Board.
Yet, thus far, Bensinger and Brisack’s roles as campaign architects have been largely downplayed and underreported in the media.
Whether the media is intentionally or unintentionally downplaying the union’s role in the campaign by making it appear “grassroots” is unknown.
Take Michelle Eisen, for example, who was described in a news report in Phoenix as “a union organizer at one of the first stores to organize in Buffalo, New York” leading readers to believe that she might be a Starbucks employee involved with the campaign in Buffalo.
However, according to Workers United public reports, Eisen was paid a total of $49,734 in 2022.
Similarly, Maggie Carter, described in one news article as “a barista at Starbucks on Merchants Drive in Knoxville” was paid $10,974 and listed as an “organizer - intern” by Workers United.
In March, Carter testified before Bernie Sanders’ HELP Committee. Although the amount Workers United is paying her in 2023 won’t be known until next year, Carter was described in another article as “a Starbucks barista in Tennessee.”
Nabretta Hardin, one of the “Memphis Seven”—seven Starbucks employees in Memphis who were fired by Starbucks for allegedly allowing a television crew to film an interview about the union campaign inside the store while it was closed—was listed by Workers United as an “organizer intern” and paid $12,229 in 2022. In a recent CNBC interview, Hardin was not introduced as an organizer intern, but as a “Starbucks employee.”
The tip of the iceberg?
This analysis is only a preliminary examination of the publicly-available information filed by Workers United and cross-referenced to articles and other public sources, and does not include other expenditures by either Workers United, the SEIU, or other groups like the Democratic Socialists of America. However, it does show that, rather than being a “grassroots” campaign led only by Starbucks baristas, it is a well-financed campaign led by Workers United.
Correction: The originally-published version of this post identified a union organizer and her salary who was attributed with having been paid through two different union payrolls when she was, in fact, only on one union payroll. That has been corrected, as well as the total monies paid out.
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