The billionaires peddling austerity have always insisted that they’re in it for the common man. A recent TV ad for Fix the Debt—the well-heeled group demanding that we cut tax rates and Social Security benefits—stars a teacher and a farmer. But Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz did his peers one better: conscripting countless low-wage workers into the austerity army.
The day after Christmas, Schultz announced an unconventional effort to “use our company’s scale for good by sending a respectful and optimistic message to our elected officials.” The occasion: “the tremendously important, time-sensitive issue to fix the national debt.” The medium: for a couple of days, DC-area Starbucks “partners” (meaning workers) would write “Come Together” on customers’ cups. “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. He also plugged the Fix the Debt website and, for good measure, name-checked the massacre at Sandy Hook elementary.
Days before the so-called New Year’s “fiscal cliff” deadline, the Starbucks stunt seized a decent chunk of media attention. Some celebrated its spunk; others slammed its seeming naïveté. A smaller number noted the moral bankruptcy of its premise: that the national debt is a crisis, and one the working class should sacrifice to fix. But in mainstream circles, there was little outrage over what was most outrageous about the Come Together campaign: Starbucks’ decision to draft its employees as a delivery system for austerity.
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.