Last month, on a Friday afternoon as the clock neared two, workers at the College Avenue Starbucks by Cornell University in Ithaca, NY, split duties between filling orders, spelling names on cups, and toting jugs of syrup to add to a growing pile of trash bags in the middle of a store that was growing more bare by the minute. The napkin and sweetener stations stood empty, and the walls were undecorated. It was this coffee shop’s last day before shutting down, the first unionized store closed by the $29 billion company. The employees, who had been given just one week’s notice of the closing, all wore T-shirts and buttons adorned with a fist gripping a shaker cup, circled by the words “STARBUCKS WORKERS UNITED.”
The logo has come to visualize a growing national movement: Since last December, when the first Starbucks branch unionized in Buffalo, 150 other stores have voted to do the same. (As of this writing, the chain has over 15,000 stores in America, though just this week they announced they are closing sixteen more, two of which had unionized.) The union logo is a mash-up of two opposite and very recognizable symbols: the green-lettered ring found on every Starbucks’ cup, but instead of surrounding the company’s trademark siren, it encircles that universal symbol for organized workers: a solidarity fist.
The fist’s affiliation with American labor goes back over a century, to a 1913 strike of Jersey silk workers, and a famed organizer named Bill Haywood, who would co-found the International Workers of the World. You know the fist: You’ve seen it used by countless groups and people as a symbol of their fight against oppression (as well as co-opted by brands and bands). Medal-winning Olympian sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos so memorably raised their fists from the victory podium in 1968, an act of bravery that Bey paid tribute to in her iconic 2018 Super Bowl halftime show. And it’s popped up on everything from from Rage Against the Machine’s tour merch to Hunter Thompson’s 1970 campaign for sheriff of Aspen.
Zachary Field, a 32-year-old grad student, created the Starbucks logo while working at a store last year in Buffalo; his original design has since been reworked and localized by unionizing branches all over the country. Field has been an activist and an adapter of leftist imagery since adolescence, and he talked to me about how he developed his quickly-spreading icon.
[This interview has been edited for length and clarity.]
How’d you come up with this logo?
We started to think about what images resonated with workers. Originally we had a derivation of the Starbucks siren with a solidarity fist. [This image ended up on picket signs.] But there was some concern whether that would expose us to legal liability. And so we needed something that was a little more evidently distinctive from the Starbucks brand.
The shaker cup!
It’s the implement we use to make our cold beverages at Starbucks. The tool of our trade.
What’s that blue bar alongside the cup?
Those are the fill lines. For ice, flavorings, fruit bases, things like that. I’d been toying with that graphic, inspired by this idea that when we’re making these beverages, we fill the flavor base to a line—and of all the actual subsequent ingredients, about 70 percent of it is ice. That struck me as a really powerful analogy for our experience as workers, right? The workers produce all of the value in the beverage, but we only get this little tiny slice of the profits. Like, 70 percent of all this filler ends up going to the bosses.
There’s a Colorado Workers United button with a mountain. A Maine workers logo with a lighthouse. A Mississippi one with a magnolia. Were these yours too?
No! And it’s a thing that I didn’t anticipate, and was overwhelmed by, but has been brilliant—the way local unions have made the logo their own. And there are now incredibly beautiful logos out there that absolutely exceed anything that I’ve done. And for workers to be able to express themselves through their art, to identify with their local store to really have a sense of ownership and engagement—that’s a kind of empowerment.
Hanging out in the Ithaca store on the last day, I talked to Bek MacLean, a young queer worker who wore a button that incorporated the pride rainbow into your logo.
That was collectively identified as a really important symbol to integrate, because of how essential queer and trans workers are to Starbucks as a workforce, and the necessity of expressing solidarity with marginalized and oppressed people all over.
The timing is interesting. Last month Bloomberg reported that trans workers who support the union can lose their benefits.
This is truly shameful. For the trans workers, access to the gender-affirming surgery and the healthcare—it’s so critical. To see Starbucks explicitly wield these benefits as a club, to intimidate and harass and terrorize their workforce, is egregious.
Corporate is obviously paying attention now. In Ithaca, it shut down its busiest location, and the one drive-thru now closes at 2pm. In Buffalo, seven organizers were fired, which brought an injunction by the National Labor Relations Board.
They’re tarnishing the progressive brand that they worked so long to develop. Starbucks is also trying to frame us as a third party that’s trying to get between the company and the partners. And it should be evident to anyone working with these people that there is no third party. The workers really are the union. It’s incredibly autonomous and it’s all about building worker empowerment and agency.
You’re now in grad school at Oregon State, studying Water Resources Policy and Management. Do you still work at Starbucks?
Not currently, but I’d love to go back. I stand by my company and my co-workers, and would love for there to be unionized shops on the West Coast. And they’re starting to form now.
When did you start becoming interested in leftist iconography?
As an edgy high-school student, I really loved this shirt that, what’s-his-name, from the Clash . . . Joe Strummer—that Joe Strummer wore at a Rock Against Racism concert [in 1978]. It was a shirt from the [far-left militant] Red Army Faction from Germany, which has a red star with a submachine gun on it… . And it says RAF. I wanted to demonstrate my solidarity with this armed urban movement that fought against resurgent Nazi-ism in West Germany [in the 1970s]. Of course that wasn’t a T-shirt you could easily acquire . . .
So you made it?
Well, the medium wasn’t there unless I made it. Back then there was a lot of Hot Topic band tees and stuff like that, but not many expressing solidarity with radical leftist politics. It was really just a desire to communicate and display my political affinities on my terms. So I had to create the art that I wanted.
Then you obviously kept going?
Yeah. The Syracuse Zoo had a Siberian tiger exhibit, and they had an anti-poaching sign in Russian, so I copied that. Woody Guthrie, one of my favorite folk musicians, [had written on his guitar] “THIS MACHINE KILLS FASCISTS,” we made a T-shirt with that. ….[We made] a shirt derived from a campaign button for Friends of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade [international volunteers who, like Ernest Hemingway, fought in the 1936 Spanish Civil War]. I made a Eugene Debs shirt. He was imprisoned under the Sedition Act, for his opposition to the WWI draft, and ran for president from prison.
You made these with high school friends in upstate New York. Were they political?
They were producing art that was not political at all, though I don’t think any art is apolitical. But we each came to it with a bit of our own interest and motivation at play. I think the commonality was that we really wanted to make art on our own terms, and wanted that direct relationship with the production and the capital to get it done.
Which celebrates the deeply intertwined DIY traditions of punk, hip-hop, rock-n-roll, streetwear, skateboarding, graffiti, and of course activism.
Yes. And it’s all very derivative because I don’t have any artistic ability and am more of a reproducer than an original graphic artist. But I think there is something to be said creatively for the way the attention and meaning behind an image is transformed through its reproduction, and the way we carry it and propagate it through society as a message. It infuses the art with new meaning, new impact.
Reproducing art can reappropriate it. It can take it from the gallery and bring it into public spaces. It can transform these things as a message, can broaden the audience the art engages with. And it can telegraph itself as a popular kind of ethos or movement when we see these images propagate. I think the proliferation of images and ideas itself is very powerful.
Cole Louison is a skateboarding and streetwear historian, and author of The Impossible, Burning Men, and the forthcoming House That Used To Be.