On Friday Nov. 18, Starbucks workers at Union Square publicly declared their membership in the Starbucks Workers Union.
Throughout the weekend workers showed their strength by refusing to take off union pins in the face of management attempting to enforce a no-pin policy. Our key demands were for guaranteed hours, a group meeting with management, and an end to anti-union discrimination.
District manager Kim Vetrano informed us three days after we went public that we could not wear our pins; although pins have been worn in the past, the policy was suddenly being enforced. Vetrano also insisted there would be no group meeting. We could have one-on-one meetings with managers, but not as a group.
In response to the denial of our demands and constant harassment over our union membership, we formed a picket line on Friday Nov. 25. With over 50 IWW members and supporters picketing throughout the day, we brought one of the busiest days of the year to a standstill. Our presence had a severe economic effect on the store. Managers were forced to give out free samples in order to get rid of all the milk. Store manager Mike Quintero told me that we were directly affecting his bonus.
In the past two months we have had several leaflets and many confrontation on the floor. Management has attempted to break the union, but a solid core of IWW members at Union Square have shown that we are not afraid. We have shown that as a union the company listens and our working lives improve.
On Dec. 15 Starbucks targeted one of our strongest Wobblies. Suley Ayala was told to take off her pentagram necklace, a symbol of her being Wicca. An assistant manager said that religious items can not be worn at work. Meanwhile we were forced to wear Christmas hats and listen to non-stop Christmas music.
Workers were sick and tired of the illegal anti-union activity and religious discrimination. Three union members walked off the floor and confronted our manager in the back room. This was to no avail and managers threatened to send people home. Management did change their reasoning, though. The problem was no longer that the necklace was a pentagram, but rather that it was now too big.
In response workers took direct action. Union members wore their own necklaces and refused to tuck them in or take them off. Still Suley was the only one targeted, and was sent home for wearing her pentagram for violation of Starbucks dress code. Meanwhile other workers were violating the unenforceable dress code in numerous ways without any repercussions.
We began leafleting. A flyer was passed out to customers telling people about the injustice Suley was facing. Aside from the religious discrimination, Suley was not being paid the correct wage. A mother of four and a Starbucks worker for three years, she has received some of the most unjust treatment from the company. When rehired in the beginning of 2005 her wage was brought down from $8.54 to starting pay of $8.25. According to Starbucks policy, if rehired within a year’s time a worker should be rehired at their previous wage rate. There was a clear mistake, and for the past year Suley’s voice was not heard. Leaflets with a picture of Suley and her kids were given to customers to let them know the situation behind the counter. We were spreading the truth about Starbucks and they wanted it to stop.
Our direct action in support of one another forced the company to give Suley back pay for the past year and adjust her wage. A clear victory for the union! In addition, Suley continues to wear her pentagram without any reaction. At Union Square we have been able to secure a minimum amount of hours for members, get better equipment and management is finally addressing the rodent and insect problem at the shop. As a union we have a voice at work.
Overall the IWW drive has forced Starbucks to improve working conditions across NYC. Most recently we have seen a 25-cent across the board raise for all NYC Starbucks workers. Since the union campaign started 18 months ago there have been three separate raises, which have increased starting salary from $7.75 to $8.75. In addition, the union has pressured Starbucks to change its employment practices and move towards an option of guaranteeing hours for Starbucks workers.
By Tomer Malchi - Industrial Worker, February 2006