Standing up to Starbucks
by Adam Turl
April 18th, 2009
When Bank of America hosted a conference call to discuss how to defeat
the Employee Free Choice Act, one executive used a new formulation: the
His worry: workers might follow the example of Starbucks baristas and
form their own unions without waiting for bigger traditional unions to
In the past five years, the Starbucks Workers Union (SWU) -- a part of
the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) -- has spread from one
Manhattan store to win hundreds of members in New York City,
Minneapolis-St. Paul, Grand Rapids, Chicago and beyond.
The SWU has made inroads among a section of the workforce -- low-wage
retail workers -- that many unions have written off as too difficult to
organize. Indeed, organized labor represents just 5 percent of workers
Since its formation, the SWU has won a series of important National
Labor Relations Board (NLRB) rulings and achieved gains for baristas on
the job. Given the dire straits workers face today, if Corporate America
is worried about the Starbucks problem, then union members and
supporters should take a close look at the SWU.
Starbucks likes to present itself as a socially responsible
corporation. In reality, Starbucks workers face the same problems that
other retail workers face: unpredictable hours, inaccessible health
care, low wages and lack of job security.
The core of the problem boils down to this: Starbucks orders labor
the same way it orders coffee beans or paper cups, said Erik Forman,
who works in the Mall of America outside Minneapolis-St. Paul.
A major issue for Starbucks workers is the way the company organizes
hours. If baristas want a full-time workweek of more than 32 hours,
they must make themselves available for up to 70 hours a week.
Starbucks uses something known as automated labor scheduling software
to determine how workers will be scheduled, Forman said. If the system
projects a slight downturn in business on a particular day or week,
baristas lose work hours.
The problems extend to wages and benefits. In the Minneapolis area,
starting pay hovers just above Minnesotas state minimum hourly wage of
$6.15, ranging from $6.50 to $7.50 an hour. Raises generally lag behind
increases in the cost of living. And while Starbucks widely promotes the
fact that it offers health insurance, the company spends far less energy
making sure employees are actually covered. Less than 42 percent of
Starbucks employees are on the companys health care plan -- a lower
rate than Wal-Mart.
You have to work a minimum of 20 hours each week in order to qualify,
Forman said. With wild fluctuations in the number of hours you are
scheduled, workers and their families often lose their health care for
six months at a time.
Workers discontent over Starbucks pay and conditions set the stage for
organizing. In May 2004, workers at a midtown Manhattan Starbucks
launched the SWU.
From the beginning, the company went all out to bust the union. We
wanted to negotiate with Starbucks over our serious concerns, Forman
recalled. But rather than sit down at a table with us, the bosses began
writing checks to the union-busting consultants of Akin Gump and the PR
flacks at Edelman, the worlds largest public relations firm. They
contracted Edelman to craft a facade of social responsibility.
At first, workers filed for a NLRB election to vote on union
recognition. Starbucks responded by using its political clout to
gerrymander the bargaining unit from one pro-union store to every store
in midtown and downtown Manhattan, Foreman recalled.
The workers realized they couldnt win, so they tried a different tack.
Unable to go the traditional route to unionization via an NLRB election,
they drew on more radical traditions -- fighting back around wages,
benefits and working conditions and recruiting baristas to the union
without official NLRB recognition. As Forman says:
Weve decided to go back to the basics of the labor movement. Workers
organized unions before 1935, before we had a right to organize ... In
developing an organizing model that works in the service industry, weve
gone back to the roots of unionism, opting for a strategy that puts
direct action at the center. Weve been able to spread because weve
done something that business unions would consider unthinkable -- weve
put our organization entirely in the hands of rank-and-file baristas.
Forman said that the SWU emphasizes what it calls solidarity unionism
-- that is, the idea that workers are most powerful where the bosses
need us most: on the shop floor. Our power as workers comes from our
ability to withhold our labor, or interfere with the production process
in other ways.
At the Mall of America last summer, workers confronted management about
unbearable temperatures in the store. As Forman described it:
We had been complaining about how hot it was for years, but management
refused to buy a fan or install air conditioning because it was too
expensive. At the same time, our store was pulling in $30,000 a week.
One morning, four of my co-workers walked into the back room of our
store and gave the boss an ultimatum: Will you buy the store a fan? Yes
or no? He stalled ... so my four coworkers walked off the job, got in a
car and drove to Target, leaving the boss to cover the floor. He was livid.
About 20 minutes later, my coworkers walked back in with a $14 box fan.
They plugged it in, wrote courtesy of the IWW, drew a small black
Sabotage cat [the IWW logo] on it, and enjoyed the breeze.
This left management with a choice. They could either remove the fan,
in which case they would look like jerks. Or they could leave it there,
as a monument to their own negligence.
To their credit, they did the right thing. Two days later, the district
manager arrived with a $150 industrial floor fan. Two weeks later, they
began installing air conditioning. This is the power of direct action.
One week, $40 is too much to spend to bring the temperature in the store
to within OSHA standards. The next week, management is spending $10,000
to keep the workers happy.
Similarly, in August 2008, a union member and single mother from the
Bronx, Anna Hurst, suffered heat stroke on the job at a New York
Starbucks and was forced off the work schedule for two weeks. In
response, a dozen baristas marched into the store during rush hours and
demanded she be compensated.
Forman recalled another situation at the Mall of America where workers
action on the job resulted in a quick victory:
One of our coworkers had not been paid by Starbucks for almost a month
because of a bureaucratic mistake ... When we found out about this, the
four of us who were working decided to stop work and demand that our
coworker get her paycheck. For about 10 minutes, we told customers we
were on strike, sending them elsewhere for their coffee. We called the
district manager to complain. He came to the store later that afternoon
and cut our coworker a check. We won.
In addition to confronting managements abuse of workers on the job, the
SWU has organized pickets and rallies to draw attention to the union and
workers fights against management.
Since 2004, we have made real progress. Forman said. After months of
pressure from the union, Starbucks conceded a wage increase for baristas
in the New York City metro area in 2006. We have fought numerous battles
over health and safety issues, discrimination, and unfair treatment by
management in the workplace. Despite Starbucks nationally-coordinated
anti-union campaign, the union continues to pick up steam.
Government documents show that Starbucks has spied on union members
(including after work hours) and transferred workers to keep down the
ratio of pro-union workers. In New York City, the company was found
guilty of nearly 30 violations of labor law -- including interrogating
employees and firing union members.
As Forman explained, the Starbucks Workers Union has had to fight tooth
and nail for our right to exist as a union at Starbucks. Starbucks
management has already been forced to agree to four settlements with the
NLRB over the companys violations of the workers right to organize.
As a result, Starbucks has been forced to reinstate employees, pay
damages and make agreements with the union -- for example, to allow
baristas to wear union pins at work. The company also faces outstanding
NLRB cases in New York, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Chicago, and Grand Rapids,
Erik Forman himself was terminated for union activity in July last year.
The day after he was fired, workers at his store walked out in protest,
and more than 50 baristas in the Twin Cities area signed a petition for
his reinstatement. Within a month, he was rehired and paid back wages.
Nevertheless, management continues to target SWU activists. Recently,
Chicago IWW barista Joe Tessone attempted to confront CEO Howard Schultz
about this treatment of baristas, Forman said. Two weeks later, he was
fired on specious grounds.
Faced with this level of harassment, Starbucks workers have put
international solidarity at the center of their campaign, including a
global day of action against Starbucks last July 5. That day, French
workers staged a sit-in at a Paris Starbucks in solidarity with fired
American baristas. As Forman said:
Starbucks is a global company, so we have to be a global union. In
addition to labor solidarity, we have made efforts to build ties to
coffee farmers through our Justice from Bean to Cup initiative. We
sent Sarah Bender, a New York City barista, to Ethiopia to a meeting
with coffee farmers there who were demanding a decent price for their
beans from Starbucks.
Even nthough Starbucks remains profitable, the company is using the
economic crisis as a pretext to squeeze more out of workers. Management
tactics include cutting hours and closing stores, without cutting back
on workloads. In response, Starbucks workers have organized pickets
against layoffs and store closings, the lack of severance pay and a
speed-up in the pace of work.
Naomi Kleins recent book, The Shock Doctrine, comes to mind, Forman
said. While Starbucks profits have dipped, its still an immensely
profitable company, bringing in over $300 million in pure profit last
year alone. And yet, Starbucks has used the language of crisis to push
through a string of anti-worker cutbacks.
Forman says the company is squeezing workers hard:
First, they havent increased the base wage in almost three years.
Second, theyre making new demands on workers schedules through what
management calls optimal scheduling, laying off thousands of baristas
while forcing the remaining skeleton crew to be available for up to 80
hours out of the week.
On top of this, they have been running the stores at even lower levels
of staffing than in the past, leaving us scrambling to get work done.
And of course, since last summer, theyve been shuttering stores,
kicking workers to the curb who made the record profits of the last
Liberte Locke, a New York barista, made a similar point to The Epoch
Times newspaper. In my store, the layoffs have been targeted at workers
who have been there the longest, she said. Employees were given no
warning: they didnt even let them finish their shifts, and they were
given no severance pay.
The company has the money to avoid these cuts. Thus, when Starbucks
recently purchased a corporate jet for $45 million, the SWU pointed out
that the money could provide over 5 million additional work hours to
employees in need or maintain its gutted 401k program for three years.
Given the scale of Starbucks attacks, the SWUs gains are all the more
impressive. They point to how the sparks for a revitalized labor
movement could come from outside traditional unions, just as employers
fear. Other recent examples include the two-week strike by nonunion
workers at the Cygnus soap factory in 2007 in Chicago and the Republic
Windows and Doors factory occupation in the same city in December 2008,
led by the independent United Electrical workers union.
For their part, SWU activists see themselves as part of the militant
tradition of unionism that the IWW championed at its founding in 1905.
There is a direct link between the revolutionary vision of the IWW and
the day-to-day dynamics of solidarity unionism in the Starbucks
campaign, Forman said. Our message for workers is that if we can do it
at Starbucks, we can do it anywhere. It is possible to organize, even at
Starbucks, even in the Mall of America.
What you can do
If you work at Starbucks and youre interested in joining the union,
find out more at the Starbucks Workers Union
[http://www.starbucksunion.org/ ] and the Industrial Workers of the
World [http://www.iww.org/ ] Web sites. You can e-mail the union at:
Union baristas in Minneapolis-St. Paul write for the Twin Cities
Starbucks Workers Union Blog [http://tcsbuxunion.com/ ].
Adam Turl writes for the Socialist Worker [http://socialistworker.org/
]. Read other articles by Adam
My collected fiction: _The Unspeakable and Others_
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"From the point of view of the defense of our society,
there only exists one danger -- that workers succeed in
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aspirations _without intermediaries_."
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the Last Chance to Save Capitalism in Italy_