Saturday, September 17, 2022

The Advocate uses its manufactured crime panic narrative to aid Starbucks' war on workers

Much of this is copy/paste of a long tweet thread. But it, like most long tweet threads, seems like something that should have been blogged. So I'm blogging it.

Yesterday, the Advocate presented a long story about the closure of one of the two Starbuckses on Canal Street. The story touched off a bit of a row on Twitter over several points. The story's writer, business reporter Anthony McCauley got involved in some of the back and forth. I don't like to fight with reporters on Twitter. McCauley is actually one of the more thorough and informative on staff at the TP/Advocate. Generally, I think most of them are just trying to do a job.  The problem with most New Orleans commercial media (particularly at the Advocate and at our local TV stations) extends beyond the individual reporters. Rather, all of these companies are beset with an institutional right wing anti-worker bias that has worsened as the pandemic crisis has heightened irreconcilable economic tensions between labor and ownership. I don't think most reporters have a lot of control over that. But they do shape what the public sees of their work and this article is a prime example of that.

One complaint from readers about yesterday's article was that it did not sufficiently interrogate the company's dubious assertion that the closure was caused by "security concerns."  Instead it gathered statements from business ownership and real estate aligned figures whose biases and interests would appear to confirm the Starbucks point of view such as the Louisiana Chamber of Commerce, the Downtown Development District, and haberdasher David Rubenstein. Readers pushed back on this point.  Was this really a "high incident store" to use Starbucks's terminology? What does that phrase even mean? Is there any data explaining it? As a result, the article has been updated. It now says we don't actually know what any of that is based on. Starbucks isn't telling us.

After publication of an earlier version of this story, Jefferies said that Starbucks did, in fact, keep an incident log at the store but the company declined to share any data on the number or types of threats faced by staff. But he said the decision to shutter the location was taken after consulting with staff, managers and "local leaders".

"This is certainly, unfortunately, a high incident store," he said.

Another issue raised by readers was the greater context of Starbucks's ongoing national campaign against organizing efforts by its workers.  Among the company's union busting tactics has been sudden and unexplained closures of stores all over the country so it's natural to wonder how the Canal Street closure might fit in. Starbucks's Maple Street location voted to unionize earlier this year.

Starbucks's reaction to union activity has been shockingly aggressive. There is even speculation that the company's strategy is to push the legal limits so far that we could eventually see the whole National Labor Relations Act scrapped by the right wing Supreme Court.  Here is an In These Times article describing  the sort of confusion and intimidation Starbucks has subjected its workforce to in order to discourage unionization.

That response fits a pattern of new initiatives Starbucks has rolled out in the wake of the organizing wave, which includes benefits that the company says it cannot guarantee for its unionized workforce. In May, the coffee chain announced wage increases for workers, but said that it was prevented from assuring raises in stores that were in the process of unionizing or that had successfully done so. Last month, Starbucks also hedged on offering abortion access benefits, including out-of-state travel expenses, to workers in unionized stores, citing contact negotiations.

SBWU has demanded that these benefits be extended to all employees, including those at unionized stores. Starbucks is permitted by law to offer these benefits to workers at unionized stores,” the union wrote. Our bargaining committees will demand that these modest improvements be given immediately to all the partners.”

See also this recent Chapo interview with three Starbucks workers who talk about their experience organizing and the constant bad faith and retaliation the company has subjected them to. Given this context we should automatically assume any action taken by the company, such as a store closure, and the reasons the company cites, are probably happening in bad faith or should at least be heavily scrutinized. As you can see from the ITT article, concerns over safety have been a point of contention between workers and management in Starbucks stores nationally.

It is reasonable to assume, given that Starbucks in fact says in the T-P article that the New Orleans store closure is among several they are deciding to do across the country for the same reason, that this move is related to their ongoing labor issues.

New Orleans is not the first nor the only city to see Starbucks closures because of security concerns. Shortly after the letter to staff was written in July, the company said it would be closing 16 stores for security reasons: a half-dozen each in the greater Los Angeles and Seattle areas; two in Portland, Oregon; and one in both Philadelphia and Washington, D.C.

Management does this sort of thing all the time and Starbucks is no exception. They make moves to intimidate workers, to confuse them, to divide them if possible, and to gaslight them with ham-handed draconian solutions to valid complaints.  Workers feel unsafe and ask for support. Instead the company just haphazardly messes with schedules, or transfers staff or closes a bunch of stores to show that they can. It's pure intimidation and it's very typical behavior

Meanwhile the T-P/Advocate's initial approach to this situation was to ignore the unionization angle entirely even though it may in fact be the central issue. In response to online criticism, they have grudgingly added it to the story today. However, in doing so, they've also attempted to reduce the matter to a mere question of whether or not the Canal Street store has a pending NLRB petition filed.  Surely we can see that the answer to this question does not change the overarching context. At the very least, we understand that most organizing activity happens prior to and outside of the NLRB process. Do we understand that? Maybe the paper doesn't want us to.

Ultimately, the problem here is the TP-Advocate aspires to function as a company newspaper in a company town. This week, for example, its "Virtual Panel On The New Orleans Economy" featured this lineup. 

The panel, sponsored by AARP, will feature Anne Teague Landis, CEO of Landis Construction Co.; James Ammons, Chancellor of Southern University of New Orleans; Lynette While-Colin, Senior Vice President of small business growth at the New Orleans Business Alliance; and David Piscola, General Manager of the Hilton New Orleans Riverside Hotel.

When the paper doesn't think a discussion about "the economy" deserves even a single voice representing labor or advocating for the poor in any sense, it follows that its reporting will default away from those perspectives as well. 

Which is how stories that are really about the economic hardship and sense of precarity visited on the city's most vulnerable populations as a result of the bosses having won the pandemic, are so easily converted by commercial media into crime panic sensationalism. Because from the point of view of those who hold power in New Orleans and seek to extract profit from it (and to the media institutions in their employ) the way to address these traumas is to remove and/or suppress their victims with a more brutal police state. Please see, again, this month's Antigravity for much more on that. Note, as well, this week the Wall Street Journal has jumped in to make New Orleans the latest exhibit in a national media crime panic narrative. I'm sure we'll hear more about that this weekend.

Just as I'm sure we'll be subjected to another round of dishonest and deranged reactionary filth from the Advocate editorial page.  But that's what we've come to expect there.  As readers who still rely on the paper to cover the public affairs of our city, we are most injured when that hostility infects and diminishes the quality of the reporting as well.  

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