Standing up to Starbucks

April 17, 2009

Adam Turl talks to barista and union organizer Erik Forman about the campaign to organize Starbucks.

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 Starbucks problem."

His worry: workers might follow the example of Starbucks baristas and form their own unions without waiting for bigger "traditional" unions to organize them.

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 in retail.

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 workers and their supporters protest outside a New York City store
Starbucks workers and their supporters protest outside a New York City store (Richard B. Levine | LR Photos)

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 Minnesota's 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 company's 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."

WORKER 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 world's 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 said.

The workers realized they couldn't 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:

We've 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, we've gone back to the roots of unionism, opting for a strategy that puts "direct action" at the center. We've been able to spread because we've done something that business unions would consider unthinkable--we've 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 coworkers 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 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 management's 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 company's 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, Mich.

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 THOUGH 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 Klein's recent book, The Shock Doctrine, comes to mind," Forman said. "While Starbucks profits have dipped, it's 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 haven't increased the base wage in almost three years. Second, they're 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, they've been shuttering stores, kicking workers to the curb who made the record profits of the last decade possible."

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 didn't 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 SWU's 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."

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