Heine Bros. And Starbucks Employees Are Unionizing. Why Not Create Coffee Militias?

Sep 14, 2022 at 10:47 am
Old Louisville Coffee Co-Op – Opening Day
Adobe Stock.

Heine Bros. workers are to be congratulated for their recent success in unionizing all seven area locations. They join in coffee camaraderie with the more than 200 Starbucks shops that have organized in the last year, along with a slew of other regional chains and a smattering of worker-owned cafes, including our own Old Louisville Coffee Co-op.

When so much seems so bleak, and those in power so apathetic, the rejuvenation of the American labor movement is one of the few events that could conceivably turn things around. There’s still a long way to go, though. Only a small fraction of Starbucks stores nationwide are unionized, and less than 2% of all food service workers belong to a union. What if we add a little accelerant to the roaster, an extra espresso shot to our solidarity latte, some caffeine to our extended metaphor, etc.? Progress-minded baristas can do just that in their upcoming contract negotiations by insisting on the right to form not just coffee unions, but coffee militias.

Hear me out. In addition to the increase in wages, retirement plans, health benefits and better working conditions that coffee unions will undoubtedly ask for, why not add a semiautomatic rifle and basic combat training for every new hire? Arming of drink artists should easily pass muster as a reasonable safety measure in 21st-century America. Coffee shops aren’t necessarily a top target of mass shooters, but they get hit every now and then, and you never know what the next mass-shooting fad will be. Besides, isn’t violent crime on the rise or something?

Anyway, crazed criminals are not the only danger facing our java slingers. A disciplined fighting force might make angry customers think twice about throwing their drink back through the drive-thru window (I am told this sort of thing occurs with some regularity). Hot coffee can cause third degree burns, so chucking it at someone sounds like deadly force to me, and under the ridiculously broad self-defense laws of Kentucky and Indiana a barista could be well within their rights to blast away in response. I’d go so far as to say a well armed coffee militia would greatly improve customer relations overall. If you’re the kind of dickhead who regularly berates service industry employees, you might lighten up a bit if you knew it was a decorated sharpshooter who fucked up your drink.

But the biggest reason to arm up is the rising threat of right-wing extremist coffee shops. You don’t want to get caught flat footed when fascist baristas storm your café, steal your beans, burn your pride flags and scald your milk.

If you’re having a chuckle or rolling your eyes at the idea of coffee militias, perhaps you are blissfully unaware of just how stupid everything has gotten. You are to be forgiven if so, because things are fantastically, unfathomably stupid. So stupid, in fact, that “coffee fascism” is a real thing that we should take somewhat seriously. I’m not talking about all those tattooed-and-pierced, abstinence only, hate-the-sin-type Christian coffee shops. I’m talking about the straight up, militant, far-right beanery.

Let’s start with Black Rifle Coffee. The company name is perplexing enough if you haven’t yet embraced the idea that caffeine and combat are a natural combo. The apparel section of their website features designs that don’t seem to have anything to do with coffee — hats with guns superimposed over flags; a shirt that says “Live Free or Die.” Their coffee names themselves are pretty much just bumper-sticker slogans — Thin Blue Line medium roast; Gunship light roast; AK-47 espresso. The whole vibe of the website is “own the libs for drinking frou-frou beverages.”

I mention Black Rifle by name only because they are the relative moderates in this scenario. “Denouncing extremism” seems like an odd move for a company whose brand is flag-humping ultranationalism, but Black Rifle did it anyway, in a New York Times article no less. This prompted backlash from the true patriots of the coffee biz, entities I will not mention by name here because I’d rather not have a Molotov cocktail through my office window. One of them requires you to click that you didn’t vote for Joe Biden before entering its website. When its Twitter account was suspended, fans took to shady message boards to proclaim that it was “way past the point of stacking bodies” and to celebrate Senator Joseph McCarthy as an “American hero” who was “right all along.” You can buy mugs that say “GOD’S ARMY” and “NUCLEAR MAGA” from one Georgia coffee seller. Another company from right here in Indiana has gained some notoriety for being outright Nazis who brag about not being kosher certified. Their logo is a swastika made of coffee beans.

These are scary people. A lot scarier than a heavily-caffeinated, well-trained 19-year old social justice warrior with a union card and an AR-15 (and maybe a surface-to-air missile or two, as it’s only a matter of time before some chud decides to drone-drop a live grenade into someone’s PSL).

Once you know what else is out there, fully girded coffee unions don’t sound so silly. In fact, there’s an argument to be made that they are a prudent, even necessary feature of our increasingly stupid sociopolitical universe. There is little doubt that brownshirt baristas are already armed to the gills and would happily take over a soft-target coffeehouse upon the boss’s say-so. Better to have a coffee militia and not need it than to need one and not have it.

Dan Canon is a civil rights lawyer and law professor. His book “Pleading Out: How Plea Bargaining Creates a Permanent Criminal Class” is available for preorder wherever you get your books.

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