Work to rule

An account by a Starbucks Workers Union organizer of a successful work-to-rule.

Submitted by Recomposition on May 12, 2014

This week’s piece comes to us from a Starbucks worker and member of the IWW. She describes what happened when an incompetent bosses crossed the line, and the workers came together to assert themselves. The author describes the tactic of working-to-rule, or following all of managements often incoherent rules that inevitably slows work to a crawl without disobeying any directives. Key to this experience was not only the grievances or tactics which are worth discussing in their own right, but also the perception of power and inspiration that the workers expressed. This is a common theme in worker organizing and often passed over when it remains at the center of the hearts and minds of people standing up against perceived injustices.

Part 1: the match that started the fire

Weekends are notoriously crazy for a Starbucks barista. These are the days when people have time to vent their frustrations from the previous workweek on some unsuspecting worker. Customers come in with their screaming children, busloads of tourists struggle to understand why a small drink would be called “tall”, and the stores themselves are almost always understaffed to handle the demand. It is therefore fitting that it was Sunday when an event triggered Starbucks baristas to engage in a clever power play to make work conditions better.

Anna, also lovingly known as Momma Bear for her fiercely protective attitude, is originally from Florida. She told me her story once as we walked around the neighborhood where we work; the abuse she endured at home, the rape that resulted in the birth of her son, bullying at the hands of other girls at school, and the death of her best friend. Anna has been a Starbucks barista for the last three years. She likes the job because her coworkers are nice and show her respect. She knows almost every customer who comes into our high volume store and sometimes even decorates his or her cup with hand drawn pictures. Anna’s ability to work often suffers from chronic health issues. I have worked shifts where she leaves the floor to cough-up blood. The intensity of the work we do when we are understaffed amplified by other environmental factors that come from being poor and living in the projects, causes her to fall ill and catch every cold and virus that she comes into contact with.

This particular Sunday, Anna needed to leave early due to illness. She had already worked shifts sick that week, but today she just couldn’t do it. She knew that she wouldn’t be paid for the hours she took off and risked losing her health care benefits by falling short of the hours required to qualify. Anna walked into the back room where our Store Manager was sitting to make a much-needed request.

Our Store Manager, Dan, transfer to our store four months before. We all gave him a chance to pull things together. As previously mentioned, our store is very high volume. It is common for us to serve 100 customers in a half hour and pull in $10,000 in coffee sales before 10am. Dan was in over his head, he struggled to make a single drink and if he was on the floor for more than 30 minutes he would be covered in sweat. He was scattered, barking orders that caused confusion, and refused to take advice from the many baristas who had worked in our store for over five years. The result was mass confusion, low moral and being subjected to humiliating comments from frustrated customers. Dan played favorites and if you questioned his decisions you had your hours cut or were transferred to another store. Anna knew that she jeopardized more than just that day’s pay when she made her way to the back room to ask to go home ill. But she never expected what would happen next. Anna timidly approached Dan while he was sitting at his desk pretending to check the product order forms that will nonetheless be incorrect. Not even turning to acknowledge Anna while she is explaining how she almost fainted, Anna finally made her request. The words “I need to go home” triggered Dan. For a man who never moves fast, Dan spun around at the speed of light and in his frustration flung a 3” metal ringed binder full of paper at Anna while barking “are you really that sick?” Anna was speechless, so stunned at this childish aggression, she backed away. Retreating to the backline where the rest of us continued to work, we all agreed that she should just clock out and go home. Dan was completely out of line.

Part 2: the bat cave

Word of our Starbucks Store Manager, Dan, throwing a binder at an employee spread through the store like wild fire. Everyone was furious. We have tolerated inconsistent scheduling, low wages, on going verbal abuse and much more, this, however, was the last straw. We decided it was time to meet up. Enrico- a 61 year old Puerto Rican busser, Anna-a 25 year old Puerto Rican woman, Gabrielle-a 19 year old Jamaican nursing student, Alejandro- a 22 year old Dominican, Sam-a 23 year old Columbian, Thomas-a 27 year old Texan and I, a 28 year old woman from Kansas decided to meet up Tuesday after our morning shift and figure out a way to fix the problems in the store. We met at a bar down the street from work. The spot has dozens of empty pool tables and cheap drinks before 7pm, which is perfect for a group of people who are all up at 3 or 4am for work. We started frequenting this spot as a place to go and vent about work. The bartenders are all very nice and often look the other way if we don’t order any drinks and just hang out on the overstuffed couch for an hour or two after a rough shift. We started calling our spot “the Bat Cave” as we secretly spoke about ways we could take back power at work and make our jobs better. Today at the Bat Cave we pulled two tables together and Gabrielle took notes. We all decided we had had enough and it was time to take action. The group came to the conclusion to use two tactics at the same time to pressure Starbucks to fire or transfer Dan but also to immediately resolve the issue of being understaffed.

To implement the first tactic, we came up with a list of issues we had with Dan (See appendix for complete list). We decided to call Partner Resources, a third party phone line that is supposed to resolve issues that affect baristas. We thought, somewhat naively, that if everyone in the store called over the next week they would have to listen to our issues and investigate. Gabrielle diligently wrote up our grievances and offered to email them out to everyone who was at the meeting. We gathered email addresses, but most importantly we came up with a list of other people in the store who would likely be interested in contacting Partner Resources with us. We divided up the list of people, so everyone at the meeting was responsible for telling a coworker about our plan. Gabrielle also drove home the fact that we should keep this secret and not talk about anything while at work. In addition, we decided to make our calls anonymously, no matter how much we were pressured to reveal our identities. We all knew that if word of our plan were to leak out we would be subjected to cut hours or write-ups, which would affect our already small raises.

Our second tactic was designed to address immediately the issue of under-staffing. We were working ourselves to death under Dan’s reign. Our store is so big that we should always have 7-9 people scheduled to work the morning rush. Lately we have had as few as 3 and an average of only 5 people working. The result of this cost cutting measure was that the customer line reached out the door, customers were mad that service was taking so long, baristas were getting cussed at and verbally abused, we were constantly burning and cutting themselves because we were moving so fast, we often put ourselves in dangerous situations to save time, for example climbing on counters to reach supplies because it takes too long to grab the ladder, and new untrained baristas who due to the lack of training messed up orders. It was during our meeting at the Bat Cave that we decided as a group to not kill ourselves anymore for a company that did not have our best interest at heart. We decided if we were going to be arbitrarily yelled at for taking shortcuts to speed up service, we would stop. From this point on we would follow every single rule. This meant getting customer names and spelling them correctly, making each drink using the method Starbucks created-rather than the short cuts every good barista learns, we brewed coffee in a particular order according to a beeper rather than keeping an eye on things so we don’t run out of fresh coffee. We would leave the floor to change rags every two hours instead of when there is a lull in the rush and every 10 minutes someone would leave the floor to clean the lobby.

We adjourned the meeting feeling empowered and optimistic. We would no longer be working for a low-wage; instead we were working to rule.

Part 3: behind the line

The day after Starbucks workers met at the Bat Cave we found ourselves working an understaffed morning shift but this time it was different. Instead of feeling the normal frustration, those of us who were at the meeting exchanged knowing glances and began implementing our plan of following every rule, thereby slowing down service. We also whispered to partners who were not in the know to slow down, don’t kill yourself. It was as if everyone took a deep breath and began working at a safe and thorough pace. The effects were instant. The speed of service dropped immediately. We ran out of brewed coffee because we were only brewing when the beeper signaled it was time. Everyone stayed in the positions they were assigned and acted only at the directions of the Store Manager. Every 10 minutes when someone was assigned to clean the lobby, we did a thorough job, ensuring everything was clean and properly stocked. Every drink and food order was perfect.

Dan, the Store Manager, lost his mind. He was running around like a crazed man. It was the most any of us had ever seen him work. The best part was he couldn’t get mad at us, not only were we doing our jobs but we were doing them exactly as we should. Each drink was made perfectly, every pastry was cooked one at a time on the correct oven setting, and each cleaning task was done exactly as it should be.

We continued to do this all week. We found ourselves giggling and sharing secret exchanges of encouragement. It was common to hear “wow, look Dan is working today! Now he knows what we go through every day”. We were working as a team instead of blaming each other for a situation that none of us could control.

Meanwhile, partners were calling Partner Resources. Everyone called the hotline number, with the exception of two baristas and two supervisors. We all stuck to the issues we came up with in the initial meeting, with the hope that our calls would tell a consistent story.

Nothing seemed to be happening but at least we felt in control. We felt like we were doing something to make our jobs and our lives better rather than hoping things would change. These were our jobs, our store and our customers, without us there would be no Starbucks. Our ability to slow down the rate of business reinforced this fact.

A week after we started our work to rule and coordinated contacts to Partner Resources we saw the results. An investigation was launched into our store. Dan’s bosses were in our store every day. Interestingly enough the investigation was not the result of our phone calls and complaints but because we had cut business in the store by over $10,000 that week by slowing down. Dan’s bosses were furious at the loss of business. They watched as every 5th customer left the store because the line was too long and slow moving. When baristas were asked why this was happening we all replied, “we are understaffed. We need between 7 to 9 people to do our jobs well and keep customers happy”. The next weeks schedule had already been printed but suddenly Dan was asking everyone if they want more hours. He added at least two people to every shift. After that we always had enough people scheduled to do our jobs right. Dan now knew what would happen if we were understaffed and he knew the loss of business we could cause him would likely affect his future at the company.

Sadly, we were not able to get Dan removed as a Store Manager, he continues to make our lives a living hell. However, the power we felt that week will not be forgotten. The ties of solidarity amongst those involved in the planning and implementation will be long lasting. We all tasted what it would be like to have control over our jobs and that can never be taken away.


FW Sarah

Starbucks Workers Union

Addendum: Almost exactly a year from his first day at our store, Dan was removed from his position as Store Manager. Of the 21 people who participated in actions to remove him, 7 baristas had transferred, 4 were fired, and 8 quit.

Starbucks Jargon

Barista: someone who makes drinks, cleans bathrooms and the store, cashier, and stocks supplies.

Busser: someone who cleans and restocks items. Starbucks has almost entirely removed this position from the company, forcing baristas to take turns cleaning and stocking while they are serving the customers.

Shift Supervisor or Shift: often called a barista who counts money. They run the floor and let baristas know when they can take a break and where they should be working. They also order more supplies, count money for the registers, and handle “situations” or rowdy customers as needed.

Assistant Store Manager: Does many of the same tasks as the Store Manager and acts as their assistant in running the store. They also do the job of a barista during their shifts.

Store Manager: Is in charge of scheduling, ordering, implementing new promotions. They should also be on the floor helping baristas when we are busy.

Floor or back line: the area where we make drinks and serve the customers.

Back room: where extra products are stored and we take our breaks.

Issues we have with Dan

-Won’t allow switching of shifts. Plays favorites and lets his favorites switch shifts
-Schedules himself on the floor but isn’t on the floor.
-Says that we have to leave before our scheduled end time, resulting in lost pay.
-Consistently under staffs our store, Sunday’s in particular. No pre-closer, no mid-shift supervisor.
-Disrespectful to partners. Threw the schedule binder. Partner was ill and was going to call out but came into work. Was feeling so dizzy had to step off the floor and fell forward. Dan told her to sit down and got another partner to get her water. She went back on the floor and said she would stay on the floor as long as possible. Was on register for another two hours. Then she went to the back to asks to go home because she isn’t feeling better. Threw the binder towards her after she asked. Anna was so upset she picked up the binder and clocked out and walked off the floor.
-When partners request days off they are scheduled anyways and then pressures into working.
-Holding back tips from employees.
-Dan leaves early, takes extra breaks, and stays on break longer than allotted.
-Threatened to cut partner hours unless she did unscheduled overtime.
-Had a supervisor create a false statement about a partner being insubordinate. Resulted in a write up.
-He said he has the authority to check bags and lockers while partners are working.
-A partner found a deposit slip in the trash. Which is against Store Manager protocol
-A partner called out and was written up for a no call no show. Falsifying reports.
-Targeting partners on tattoos when others have visible tattoos and dyed hair.
-Targeting some partners for being out of uniform.
-Condoning malicious treatment by a supervisor toward partners
-Allowing repeated break violations by a supervisor.
-Planting non-purchased items in employees bags to endanger items.
-Asking partners to quit
-Manager says he has the authority over our availability sheet. Letting us know when we can and cannot work.
-Refused to give a partner a schedule change request form.
-Starting rumors that threaten partner’s security.
-Partners feel that their jobs are constantly in jeopardy.
-Partners are being unfairly monitored to be written up.
-Store manager mark outs food and eats it then yells at partners for throwing the food away when it is damaged as we are required to do.



10 years 2 months ago

In reply to by

Submitted by Steven. on May 12, 2014

Great stuff! Thanks to whoever wrote it up (although I hope the names have been changed from real names…)

sub editing note: added tags - workplace activity and Starbucks

Werner Harding

10 years 2 months ago

In reply to by

Submitted by Werner Harding on May 12, 2014

Out of all the jobs I've ever had sbx had by far the most ridiculous employee hand book. One of the more notorious points of micro managing was the "shake exactly 10 times" when making iced t. I remember thinking a work to rule would be (short of a full on strike) the ideal action for Starbucks. To pull one off at a $10k before 10am shop must have been a real good time. Solidarity.

Chilli Sauce

10 years ago

In reply to by

Submitted by Chilli Sauce on July 7, 2014

Yeah, this is great. Those paragraphs about Dan running around like a mad mad actually made me chuckle.

Just out of curiosity , when did this occur, roughly?

Zweiter Mai

9 years 4 months ago

In reply to by

Submitted by Zweiter Mai on March 13, 2015

Great piece! We translated it into German: