"They're as bad as Walmart":
Starbucks Workers get Organized!
- by Derek Seidman
Two days after workers at the 36th and Madison Starbucks in New York City turned in their union cards to the NLRB for a certification election, Howard Schultz, the CEO of Starbucks, sent them a little voice message. In this dispatch from the corporate tower, Schultz-who personally brought in 17 million dollars last year-tried to appeal to the $7.75-per-hour upstarts in words that would impress George Orwell.
The multi-millionaire CEO began his message by referring to his poverty-wage employees as "partners", and stressed how Starbucks and its workers "have built great trust in one another." He went on to explain that he viewed "treating everyone with dignity and respect as our highest priority", and stressed the "caring and supportive culture" of the company. He ended with this note of pure authenticity: "I want to conclude by simply thanking you for everything you do each day, and for being the real heart and soul of Starbucks."
Not surprisingly, the workers saw right through this corporate textbook mumbo-jumbo. Their experience had taught them better. Their story and their ongoing struggle for the first unionized Starbucks locale of the more than 4,000 Starbucks in the United States is vitally important and in need of our support.
It started when one worker, a young man in his twenties named Daniel Gross, was getting fed up with the work situation of him and his fellow workers. The cost of living in New York City is extremely high, and Starbucks pays a starting wage of $7.75 (Gross had worked there long enough to get a raise up to $8.09, hardly a significant change.) Furthermore, work hours are inconsistent from week-to-week, and a forty-hour workweek is not at all guaranteed. The long hours of working behind an understaffed counter, standing up, bending down, and handling extremely hot liquids, was also a pressing concern.
When these grievances went unheeded by management, Gross turned to organizing his fellow baristas into a union. Though he earned the anger of the management, he won over his workmates. On May 17th, the Starbucks Workers Union, IWW IU/660, filed for a union certification election.
If you go to the union's website www.starbucksunion.org, they prominently display their three main demands: "Increased Pay and Wages", "Guaranteed Hours with the Option of Fulltime status", and "An End to Understaffing". As mentioned above, the starting pay at a Starbucks in ultra-expensive New York City is a measly $7.75 per hour, with only the prospect of insignificant raises in sight. As 23-year-old Maureen Medianero (who has worked at Starbucks for almost 2 years) says: "I come to work and I work hard… But I'm still hanging on by a shoe string not knowing if I can make ends meet to support my daughter. It's frightening."
The demand for a guarantee of sufficient hours is also crucial for the day-to-day livelihoods of the workers. With such low pay (and $7.75 is significantly less after taxes), things like rent, food, and childcare are put into great jeopardy if they don't receive enough hours. Though Starbucks offers some forms of employee medical coverage, this is pointless if workers are not able to have enough money left over to take advantage of it. Same with a 401(k). Moreover, hours are often not consistent from week to week, making workers' lives more difficult (especially those with children). As Daniel Gross has stated, "They've taken this concept of flexibility and turned it on its head."
The last demand, concerning understaffing and the accompanying repetitive strain injuries, is one the workers take very seriously. As Starbucks worker Anthony Polanco: "A Starbucks coffee shop is an ergonomic minefield. The stores are supposed to mimic an Italian café without considering the uncomfortable bending and reaching we have to do… This isn't your mom and pop coffee shop, we're talking McDonald's busy every day. Starbucks talks about 'Creating Warmth' but the only warmth I feel is the heat pad at the end of the day."
(Incidentally, the union effort has also demanded that Starbucks purchase at least 5% of its coffee from Fair Trade Certified sources (currently less than one percent of their coffee is Fair Trade)).
Though Starbucks tries to posture as a socially conscious corporation that cares for its employees, the NYC workers' union struggle is exposing this as mostly lip service. "Behind the green aprons and smiles are individuals living in serious poverty," says Gross. "Starbucks cashes in on a community friendly image but it certainly doesn't extend to their workers or coffee farmers. That's why we went Union".
Thus, the struggle has taken on significance greater than its concrete demands. It is also about exposing a multi-billion dollar corporation which pays its workers poverty wages, and yet publicly operates under a veil of benevolence. As Polanco has said, "Starbucks has done a superb job misleading the public about the way the corporation treats their employees… We felt customers ought to know how Starbucks really treats the folks who take pride in serving them their coffee". Gross comments further: "All of this breaks the myth that Starbucks is a different kind of corporation, a company that supposedly cares about their employees."
After the workers applied for a union election on May 17th, Starbucks went and hired anti-union lawyers Daniel Nash and Gregory Knopp of the Akin Gump corporate law. They argued that it was illegal for the workers to just organize in one branch, that it had to be all 50-plus Starbucks in the lower Manhattan district or none at all. Of course, this is absurd. Stuart Lichten, the union's attorney, wrote of Starbucks' legal maneuvers: "This employer apparently inhabits some parallel universe, in which $7-an-hour at-will employees are 'partners,'… and 36th Street is 'downtown… The employer, in keeping with its up-is-down worldview, now asks the Board to overturn more than 40 years of precedent".
Despite all the efforts by Starbucks to deny their poverty-wage workers the right to a union, the NLRB issued a decision in favor of the union on July 2nd. They were to be allowed their right to vote in a union certification election.
The shady backhand maneuvers of Starbucks and its lawyer goons, however, took much of the sweetness out of the victory. Various scare tactics have been deployed to intimidate the workers into submission: the threat of wage cuts and loss of benefits, bribes and promotions offered to those who betray the union cause, and a general hostile work atmosphere along with a dissemination of misinformation. The Starbucks workers, rightly seeing all this as a broader drive to crush their unionization effort, filed an unfair practice charge against the company on July 22nd, accusing them of breaking the law and trying to impede the certification election.
On their website the workers ask: "If Starbucks really is a bastion of worker benefits, what is Chairman Howard Schultz, who raked in over $17 million last year, so scared of?… Mr. Shultz is fond of saying the Starbucks Mission Statement requires respect and dignity for employees but apparently that does not include exercising the right to form a union… The company admits that Baristas add tremendous value to the enterprise yet refuses to pay them a wage that would bring them out of poverty."
On July 28th, things got harder for the workers with a new NLRB decision to hear an appeal from Starbucks. Quoting from the union's website: "The Bush Administration-controlled National Labor Relations Board accepted for review yesterday an appeal by Starbucks of the IWW IU/660 victory that allowed workers at a single store in the chain to vote in a union certification election. The decision effectively disenfranchises workers because regardless of the outcome of the appeal the result of the election is suspended for several years while the case is being decided."
Daniel Gross, in response to the decision, had this to say: "Starbucks and its union-busting law firm have succeeded in obliterating our right to a vote… The company has established beyond a shadow of a doubt that it follows an extreme anti-worker union avoidance policy."
Unfortunately for the company, the Starbucks Workers Union is based on the solidarity unionism model, also known as minority unionism, where government certification is unnecessary and demands are won through direct action.
The union's website also ties the July 28th NLRB decision into a broader picture of the ongoing class war being waged against workers: "The decision by the Republican-majority NLRB is the latest in a series of rulings that have rolled back the right of workers to organize a union. A July 13th decision held that graduate student instructors are not employees and thus not entitled to form a union. Prior to that, the Board rescinded the right of employees outside of a union setting to have a co-worker present at disciplinary meetings."
With all this, the Starbucks workers are still fighting hard to trailblaze the way towards the first unionized Starbucks in the United States. In this struggle, they need our solidarity now more than ever. It will take a mass solidarity campaign from below to force Starbucks to cave in.
The Philadelphia Inquirer reported the potential significance of this struggle in a July 2nd article: "If it succeeds, the group could score a notable public-relations victory for the labor movement. It might even encourage more organizing in the hard-to-unionize service industry."
This should be doubly stressed: we are always talking about how workers in the service industry, from fast food to Walmart, need to get organized, and that if they did, it would not only make them a force to be reckoned with, but generally revive the labor movement with an infusion of energy from some of the most exploited. These Starbucks workers are going ahead and actually trying to do it. In fact, the effort in New York City has sparked a national campaign to organize Starbucks. IWW members and supporters all over the country are reaching out to workers with an offer of support to improve wages and working conditions. Simultaneously, a student movement is fast emerging on college campuses to support the creation of the Starbucks Workers Union.
Says Daniel Gross, "We are hopeful the campaign will spread like wildfire". Indeed, this fight could potentially be an inroad into a more widespread unionization effort in sectors of the service industry like Starbucks.
The New York Times ran a June 11th article on Daniel Gross and the union effort. They quote him as saying, "There's something wrong when the chairman is taking in $17 million in 2003, but baristas, who are the foundation of the company, are living in grinding poverty and serving very hot drinks at unsafe speeds under ergonomically incorrect conditions." Ultimately, this struggle is about a few, poor, courageous workers taking on a multi-billion dollar corporate behemoth that has deployed all the PR that money can buy to portray themselves as a caring, just employer (but who seem to think "treating everyone with dignity and respect" means keeping them in poverty and denying them their right to organize).
The odds might seem to be against the Starbucks workers, but Anthony Polanco assures us, "We remain steadfast in our belief that Starbucks workers deserve better… A poverty wage is not sufficient to live a decent life. The Union is here to stay."
These workers are risking their livelihoods to wage this important struggle. The least we can do is show our solidarity. So…
What can you do to help the Starbucks workers?
As said above, this is the type of fight we are always saying needs to be waged. Now that it is, there are some little things you can do that would be of great help to the workers who are taking on this more-than-4 billion-dollar corporation:
1. Contact Starbuck's CEO Howard Schultz at email@example.com and call Starbucks at 800-235-2883 to express your support for the Union.
2. Go visit the union's website at www.starbucksunion.org, or contact them at firstname.lastname@example.org.
3. If you have a website, blog, paper, or radio show, run something about this struggle. Spread the word far and wide.
4. Give a piece of your mind to the corporate lawyers of the Akin Gump firm that Starbucks hired to deny the workers their right to form a union as they choose. Contact DANIEL L. NASH, Partner, Robert S. Strauss Building, 1333 New Hampshire Avenue, N.W. Washington, DC 20036, Telephone: 202-887-4067, Fax: 202-955-779, Email: email@example.com. And contact GREGORY W. KNOPP, Counsel, Mail - 590 Madison Avenue, New York, NY 10022, Telephone: 212-872-1052, Fax: 212-872-1002, Email:
5. Tell the managers at your local store that you support the right of Baristas to organize. Print out the flyer on the union's website here and pass it out at your local Starbucks. Let the workers know about the union effort.
6. Organize a rally outside of a Starbucks in support of the NYC workers. You can print out a fact sheet here to pass out to customers.
7. Go to the website and donate money to the effort.
8. Lastly, if you are planning to be in New York City for the Republic National
Convention, attend the protest condemning the Bush Administration's
intervention on behalf of Starbucks against the IWW. It'll be on Saturday, August 28, at
2 pm at the Starbucks on 36th and Madison in Manhattan.
Derek Seidman is a co-editor of the youth journal Left Hook (www.lefthook.org). He lives in New York City and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. He once applied for a job at Starbucks.
All information and quotes in this article were taken from www.starbucksunion.org, unless stated otherwise.