Starbucks War with Its (Unofficial) Union

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The War Between Starbucks and Its Unofficial Union
Starbucks has more to worry about than its recent third-quarter loss. A workers union is gaining momentum, asking the coffee company to give its staff fair pay, easier access to health insurance and safe working conditions. Will Starbucks give in?
Digital Journal — It’s been a bad year for Starbucks: this week, the Seattle-based chain posted its first loss in 16 years, posting a third-quarter drop of $6.7 million compared to a profit of $153 million in the year-age quarter; it is planning to shut down 600 “under-performing” Starbucks stores in the U.S.; and management turnover is causing painful headaches for Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz.
But if you think the corporation has its bad, look at what their employees face: Starbucks baristas (read: coffee slingers) are paid $7.60 an hour on average; only 40 per cent of Starbucks workers are covered by its health insurance program; and anecdotal evidence suggests baristas endure injuries when they pour hundreds of frappucinos every day.
Erik Forman is one of the most recent Starbucks ex-workers who want to fight for a barista’s rights in the workplace. He claims he was fired from the first-floor Starbucks in the Mall of America in Bloomington, because he had been talking with other staffers about joining the four-year-old Starbucks Workers Union run by the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW)
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]. He circulated some info. He explained the benefits. And he was promptly fired days later, and Starbucks management claimed Forman was dismissed for discussing a written warning he received for coming in late two weeks earlier.
“I’ve heard Starbucks has a history of firing union activists but I didn’t expect to be fired just for discussing things with co-workers,” says Forman, 23, in an interview with
Forman is part of a growing movement of Starbucks staffers and ex-baristas looking to pressure Starbucks into complying with their requests. Since their union isn’t recognized by any labour board or governmental body, they’ve teamed up with the IWW to organize efficiently. Forman says the union has 200 members across the country.
It’s the right time for Starbucks workers to get unionized, he notes. Earlier this month, Starbucks announced it would close 619 stores across the U.S., saying those soon-to-be-shuttered stores were “unprofitable.” Forman offers some insight into the closures: “Many stores are meeting their sales target but Starbucks is still shutting them down. It comes down to cannibalization. Starbucks stores are competing with other Starbucks on the same intersection, so they figure if they close one the other store across the street will see increased traffic. But guess what? The longer lines and more work won’t mean more money for the baristas.”
The Starbucks union claims baristas’ wages haven’t increased in sync with the rise of inflation. Forman estimates that a full-time barista working 40 hours a week will earn $12,000 a year.
He adds: “But in cities with a large union presence, like New York, baristas have pressured Starbucks to give them a $2 dollar wage increase.”
Forman is also critical of Starbucks’ highly lauded health insurance program. Although Starbucks is one of the few major retailers to provide health insurance to part-time employees, receiving the benefits comes with some conditions. Baristas must work 240 hours per quarter to be eligible for the program. “I know someone who was one hour short of the minimum and didn’t receive health coverage,” Forman remembers.
Forman also mentions “Starbucks’ dirty little secret.” Repetitive stress injuries can afflict bussers and baristas who have to make drinks for hours at a time, without resting or sitting. A frequent complaint in the workplace also concerns noise levels in stores. Forman says Mall of America baristas have frequently complained about hearing loss resulting from the irritating loud whirring of frappucino blenders. (Not to mention the constant recycling of Dave Matthews and Paul McCartney music).
What does Starbucks think of these allegations? repeatedly called Starbucks headquarters in Seattle but didn’t receive a statement at the time of publication.
Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz told the press after its disappointing quarter: “Until the economy significantly improves, we're just trying to do what we can to get through this storm.” And the Starbucks Union out of the IWW could be using the same statement to headline their goals. If the two sides don’t find a compromise soon, then expect the battle for workplace rights to only get more frenzied as the U.S. economy continues to worsen.
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