Starbucks Baristas Union Drive Comes at Key Time

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Starbucks baristas union drive comes at key time The effort to organize local latte-slingers could hurt the ailing chain By Matt Snyders Published on July 30, 2008
It was a typical, busy Thursday afternoon at the Mall of America's first-floor Starbucks, and Erik Forman was four hours into his shift. The slight, 23-year-old barista was soon approached by a vaguely familiar face: Caroline Kaker, the chain's Bloomington-based district manager.
She pulled him aside and led him to the adjacent Barnes & Noble. There, she broke the grim news: You're fired.
Forman was stunned. Sure, two weeks earlier, he had shown up a half-hour late and was issued a written warning. But that wasn't why Forman was getting the ax today. Management decided to deep-six him after learning that Forman had discussed the warning with co-workers.
"Erik violated terms of his June 2008 final written corrective action by discussing it with a peer," reads the notice of separation.
But there was another topic Forman had discussed with peers, one not explicitly mentioned in the write-up: unionizing.
A member of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), Forman had been in the process of organizing his co-workers under the IWW banner for nearly two years.
"It started with workers during their situations during cigarette breaks, during car rides to and from work," Forman recalls. "We first approached the IWW in September of '06. They helped us figure out how to build a strategy."
In 2004, the IWW took on a Starbucks in Midtown Manhattan, with modest success. In the following years, the list of IWW Starbucks Union affiliates grew to include five other shops in New York City; two in Chicago; one in Grand Rapids, Michigan; and one in Rockville, Maryland.
Shortly after the first union sprouted in New York, Starbucks higher-ups exchanged concerned emails, leaked to The Wall Street Journal, about how to handle the epidemic of unionizing. One, dated October 29, 2004, begins with a blunt introduction: "Below is a summary of the recent developments in New York City regarding our attempts to thwart a potential union situation," it reads.
In March 2006, the IWW accused the coffee giant of union-busting and filed a charge with the National Labor Relations Board. Starbucks settled, agreeing to display workers' rights posters in three of its stores and to allow two fired workers back on staff.
"The reasons they gave for firing me were identical to what they did in New York," says Forman, who's also filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board. "This is a pretty blatant example of union-busting. We've been planning on making our movement public for a while -- so even though it comes as a blow, it's kind of a galvanizing blow."
On July 11, one day after Forman got clipped, five workers walked off the floor and approached the floor manager, Jason Lyons, with a petition demanding Forman's reinstatement. Lyons told them it was out of his hands.
Now Forman and the IWW stand poised to organize baristas throughout the metro. On Monday, July 21, they went public. Their demands include a living wage, "respectful" scheduling, and an end to the company's alleged union-busting.
Asked about Forman's allegations, a Starbucks spokesperson had little to say.
"We just received the charge [from Forman] and we're reviewing it," says Stacey Krum, on the phone from Seattle. "There's nothing we can offer right now."
The charges clash with Starbucks' image as a corporate paragon of social responsibility. The Seattle-based chain has staked its reputation on progressive values that play well with its well-to-do clientele. Starbucks was listed as No. 7 in Fortune's "100 Best Companies to Work For" this year.
The most frequently extolled of Starbucks' labor practices is its healthcare program. It's one of the few major retailers to provide health insurance to part-time employees. But that comes with a couple of caveats.
First, in order to qualify, workers must log 240 hours per quarter. However, there are no guaranteed hours and many baristas complain of sporadic, unpredictable scheduling. As a result, only 65 percent of Starbucks workers, including management, meet the 240-hour minimum. Many of the remaining workers (particularly part-timers) decide not to buy into the plan; rent payments take priority over premiums.
Consequently, the company's health insurance plan covers less than half (40.9 percent) of employees. As organizers like to point out, that's less than the oft-demonized Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., which covers 47 percent of its workers.
"It's just incredible hypocrisy on this core identity issue," says IWW organizer Daniel Gross. "It's absolutely misleading. It's taken a sub-par program and turned it into a marketing advantage through spin and PR."
Last week, Starbucks released the full list of 600-odd stores expected to close in the coming months, including 27 in Minnesota. Sixteen of the doomed shops sit in the Twin Cities metro.The closings will affect some 12,000 workers nationwide. On Monday, Forman's former co-workers at the Mall of America's Starbucks walked off the floor and issued a letter to management demanding "just treatment of all employees affected by Starbucks' closure of stores nationwide." With an economy seemingly in free-fall and job security plummeting, unionization -- for good or ill -- enjoys more appeal than it did 10 years ago.
"This will be the biggest fire they've had to put out in a while," says Forman. "The economy is getting worse, people can't get by and are having to work 14-hour days. Management's biggest tool has always been the threat of firing. People are starting to think maybe that's a risk worth taking."
Reply to
Dan Clore

"Obama will strengthen the ability of workers to organize unions. He will fight for passage of the Employee Free Choice Act. Obama will ensure that his labor appointees support workers' rights and will work to ban the permanent replacement of striking workers. Obama will also increase the minimum wage and index it to inflation to ensure it rises every year. Ensure Freedom to Unionize: Obama believes that workers should have the freedom to choose whether to join a union without harassment or intimidation from their employers. Obama cosponsored and is strong advocate for the Employee Free Choice Act, a bipartisan effort to assure that workers can exercise their right to organize. He will continue to fight for EFCA's passage and sign it into law.....)"
Heh, the key time is in 5 months, and it will be extremely interesting times for the US.
Convert to Euros and Yen while you can.
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A ridiculous time! with 600 locations closing.
never fly. Plus Starbucks treats its employees very well.
and Jack / Izzy? the problem with GM etc. ain't the unions -- it is the idiotic management
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You're absolutely correct. And although any serious economic analysis comes to the same conclusion, don't expect Jack to allow himself to be confused by the facts . . .
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BMW reported on Friday their profits this Q down 33%. Nissan reported Friday their quarterly profits down 48%. Along with Toyota and Honda auto sector profits are glum.
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I find it hard to believe that all these companies have "idiotic management". Maybe the worst economy in about 50 years has something to do with it. Even if they were all producing hybrids at 100% plant capacity it wouldn't do any good if folks can't buy a new car. Bernie
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Certainly the "worst economy in about 50 years" has something (perhaps everything) to do with GM's current troubles. What I was referring to was what I perceived (perhaps mistakenly) to be Jacks' contention that the UAW was responsible for GM's big downturn in the 70's which turned Detroit into a ghost town. GM's inability to hold the market and subsequent inability to re-capture it had nothing to with unions. While GM was foundering, Japanese and German automakers were doing quite well --- with highly organized and very powerful labor unions. GM's troubles were management based. Now they're mangement-based and economy-based. alan
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Well "folks" can buy new cars, they just don't want 12 mpg SUVs and trucks -- VERY high profit margin vehicles! small cars, uh not so much.
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