Starbucks With a Smile, and a Shot of Politics

As an almost-duffer, I have the advantage of seeing quite clearly how things go to hell in a handbasket.

Consider the accepted wisdom of the ages that it behooves employed persons to behave helpfully and kindly to the customers. I learned this at age 16 in my first paid job as a fresh-faced helper to the village butcher and sausage-maker. The butcher, a saturnine man in private, was Mr. Glad To See You as his cash customers rolled in with their big Friday night orders. But there was no agenda apart from being helpful and making the transaction pleasant all around. 

Now, alas, wearing a friendly and helpful workplace face is not enough. Not nearly so. Now you must also robotically promote the boss man’s agenda, whether or not it reflects your own beliefs and values. I was reminded this in reading Josh Eidelson’s Nation piece about an effort by Starbucks’ CEO Howard Schultz to get his DC-area baristas to chat up the kind of deficit deal that in no way would be in their own best interest but that Howard himself quite fancies, presumably on behalf of his shareholders.

Eidelson cites Arlie Russell Hochschild’s helpful concept of emotional labor, which Hochschild defined as the “management of feeling to create a publicly observable facial and bodily display; emotional labor is sold for a wage.”  

Working for money has always involved emotional expression. But touting the boss man’s political agenda is a very different thing from touting the boss man’s product, a more reasonable expectation (although even that expectation can sometimes border on spiritual coercion). 

To be clear, Starbucks is far from the first company to try to get workers to carry its political agenda. The fear is that the 21st-century job drought makes it easier than ever before for employers wanting to do this to succeed. One can even imagine some workers sucking up to management by reporting on coworkers who fail to toe the line. 

People like me who grew up within one stream of religious thought feel strongly about this matter of coercion. The entire Dissenting tradition is all about resisting it. Although it may be somewhat hard to believe today, the people known as Baptists used to be especially keen on the matter of resisting coercion, no doubt because they had been so harshly persecuted, even by their fellow Dissenters. Prior to the 1979 Dallas putsch within the Southern Baptist Convention, almost all U.S. Baptists were strong on the need to resist coerced belief. They hated creeds and formulas. Their great paladin of “soul liberty” and “soul competency” was a Mississippian, Edgar Young Mullins, who presided for many years at the SBC’s flagship seminary. 

Here is the workplace parallel for self-respecting people: If having your church tell you what to believe and what to espouse in public is deeply offensive, imagine what an abomination it is to have your employer controlling you in this way. The church merely has the power to excommunicate, whereas the 21st-century employer holds the power of financial extermination. 

I’m already hearing people ask, “But aren’t trade unions the worst offenders? Don’t they tell their people what to think and how to vote?” Um, unions do try to influence their members’ political behavior, no question. They never try to turn members into political sock puppets during work hours, however. And they don’t have anything like the employer’s power to take away a non-cooperating worker’s livelihood. It’s a red herring.

I’m with Josh Eidelson on this. Like him, I think that absent union protection, employees will increasingly be screwed in respect to resisting boss-man sock puppetry in the brave new workplace. This issue here is not about the preservation of one’s private conscience. It is about the ability to behave conscientiously in public settings, whether the setting is outside a given street corner or inside the coffee bar on that same corner.