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Sunday, May 19, 2024
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Can a signature spark change? Why activist groups use online petitions

When Starbucks workers in Madison pushed for better working conditions and contract negotiations with their multibillion-dollar employer, University of Wisconsin-Madison student organizers looked for ways to bring the fight to campus. 

With the support of local Starbucks union organizers, student activists with the Young Democratic Socialists of America (YDSA) introduced an online petition urging University Housing to terminate its contract with a Starbucks location housed in Smith Residence Hall by May 3. 

The campus location allows Starbucks to make money without having to deal with unionization from the university employees that staff the store, according to Nathan Schilling, who serves as YDSA treasurer and works at the Starbucks location on Capitol Square.

“Starbucks gets the advantage of receiving money from this location for franchising costs, but they don't have to worry about this location unionizing, which takes away power from other unionizing workers,” Schilling said.

The petition is one of many student activists have circulated on UW-Madison’s campus in order to push for changes to university policy surrounding labor, clean energy and paid leave for graduate student workers. Students behind online petitions said the virtual tool builds on-campus support networks and elevates student voices to university decision makers. 

Similarly, experts said online petitions can be effective at swaying public opinion when part of a broader organized push for change.

“Part of it can be about creating community, part of it can be about mobilizing people into action, part of it can be fundraising, part of it can also be the petition itself getting publicity and making people aware,” said Dhavan Shah, a communications research professor at UW-Madison.

“That's why petitions are so effective,” he added. “They work in really complex ways even though they're a very simple act.”

YSDA, workers put pressure on campus Starbucks

YDSA’s petition, addressed to UW-Madison Chancellor Jennifer Mnookin, cited Starbucks’ history of labor law violations and “anti-worker actions” as the reason behind its push. 

Another fact was the company’s trademark infringement lawsuit against Starbucks Workers United, the largest union representing Starbucks workers. The coffee giant sued Workers United in October 2023 for using its logo on a statement in support for Palestine is another factor, Schilling said. 

“Although the University of Wisconsin-Madison claims to be driven by the Wisconsin Idea, especially through its commitment to the community, the university’s contracts with companies like Starbucks do not reflect this sentiment,” the petition read.

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As of March 12, the petition has collected nearly 300 of its 400 desired signatures. 

YDSA and Starbucks workers put the petition effort on hold after the company announced it would begin negotiations with Starbucks Workers United. Schilling said they believe the petition and similar efforts on more than 20 other campuses played a role in Starbucks’ decision to negotiate. 

“I do think that in part is because of organizations on campus that were trying to get Starbucks off campus,” Schilling said.

The petition effort also helped raise awareness of workers’ concerns among students and put pressure on Starbucks to negotiate, according to Starbucks shift supervisor and union organizer Matthew Cartwright. 

“The vast majority of students on UW’s campus probably don't support union busting and probably support labor,” Cartwright told the Cardinal. “But I also think for many students, especially when you're consumed with studies [and] going about your day-to day-life, [are] not necessarily thinking about the workers you see every day.”

Student petitions take aim at UW’s climate, paid leave policies

Campus Leaders for Energy Action Now (CLEAN), a student organization dedicated to promoting a transition to clean energy on campus, has used petitions to pressure the university to take greater action on climate change and build student support for green energy policies. 

CLEAN’s website features a petition demanding UW-Madison commit to using 100% clean and renewable energy by 2035 and commit to sourcing all of its electricity from renewable sources by 2030. The petition also pushed Mnookin to add its signature to the Second Nature Climate Commitment, a statement signed by university chancellors and presidents across the U.S. pledging to create a plan to move toward renewable energy. 

More than 2,000 students signed the petition as of March 14. 

CLEAN social media executive Anna Englebert said the group gives university leaders the petition every semester to pressure administrators to change energy policies.

“This petition was made and is used with the intention to remind the university and its system of the widespread importance of renewable energy amongst students,” Engelbert said in an email.

The Teaching Assistants’ Association (TAA), the UW-Madison graduate student union, published a petition in spring 2023 demanding the university expand paid medical and parental leave for graduate students. The petition urged UW-Madison to offer 12 weeks of paid leave, in line with a proposal Gov. Tony Evers included in Wisconsin’s 2023-25 biennial state budget.

As of March 14, the petition has more than 720 signatures, according to the TAA’s website

The petition represents the power of “a high number of graduate students standing together,” according to TAA Co-President Madeline Topf.

“When we stand together, we can strongly demand necessary change,” Topf said in an email. “And it is only through standing together, as a union, that we will be able to improve our working conditions.”

How online petitions fuel activism

Online petitions can serve as an effective tool for communities to voice their concerns or aspirations to more powerful local decision makers, according to research conducted by the American Institute of Physics. They also raise awareness of an issue and provide an easy way for people to express their support for change. 

What’s more, online petitions are an accessible gateway to other forms of activism, according to Shah, the communications professor. 

“Signing a petition is pretty light work. It doesn't take us a lot, especially in the digital age, to add our signature or something,” Shah said. “But then there's what we call expression effects — when we express ourselves and we attach our name to something when we post about it, we become more likely to behaviorally follow up on it.”

Online petitions are most effective when part of a broader, sustained campaign, Shah said.  Petitions spread messages to new supporters with lower barriers to entry, and signing is often a first step toward more involved forms of activism like protests or boycotts. 

But petitions run into problems competing against other news stories and topics for the public’s attention, Shah said. When causes can’t sustain attention and support, they run the risk of fading from headlines and from public consciousness. 

Still, he said online petitions can sway public opinion if they garner widespread support. 

“All that publicity helps in a way, and I think it can shape public opinion,” Shah said. “Even just seeing those petition signers might reassure us, and seeing other people posting about it says, ‘Oh, other people think this way. Oh, I can join them.’”

Schilling echoed this sentiment. Although petitions on their own are easy to ignore or disregard without pressure to respond, they’re one of many tools activists use to extend networks between activist organizations and reach new supporters.

“They’re a tool that you can use to show to the organization that you're petitioning [that] we have popular support, but you're also going to have to put pressure on these people outside of that,” Schilling added.

And if Starbucks pulls back from negotiations with workers, Schilling and Cartwright said the petition effort will resume until workers, with the help of student signatories, successfully pressure the company to return to the table. 

“As long as Starbucks continues to come to the negotiating table, and they do so in good faith, then there shouldn't be any further problems,” Cartwright said. “But if they continue to break their promise of being pro-customer and pro-worker, their workers and their customers aren't going to tolerate that.”

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Francesca Pica

Francesca Pica is the city news editor emeritus for The Daily Cardinal. She has covered multiple municipal elections and is a leading reporter on Madison labor issues. Additionally, she served as a summer intern for The Capital Times and currently serves as a WisPolitics intern. 

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