In New York City at the end of last year Starbucks baristas and supporters wearing union pins and hats surrounded the store manager at the Union Square location in Manhattan tonight to announce their membership in the IWW Starbucks Workers Union.
The workers, joined by union baristas from two other New York Starbucks stores, demanded a guaranteed minimum of 30 hours of work per week and an end to Starbucks' unlawful anti-union campaign. The Union will assail Starbucks with a wide array of actions until the demands are met.
One of the workers, 23 year-old Tomer Malchi, served the store manager with a document detailing the demands and several other workers directed comments at the boss to be relayed to more senior management. Suley Ayala, a mother of four who has worked at Starbucks for three years, was one of the workers who spoke. She explained after the event: "it should go without saying that we can't live on ten, eleven, or twelve hours of work some weeks. The 30 hour guarantee is absolutely necessary to make ends meet and Starbucks knows it."
The workers were motivated to organise in part because of Starbucks' status as one of the few companies in the world with no full-time employment for non-managerial employees. An initiative of Starbucks Chairman Howard Schultz, the part-time scheme forces workers to contend with a constantly fluctuating number of work hours, and therefore, constantly fluctuating income. For example, a Starbucks barista could receive 35 hours of work one week, 18 hours the week after, and as low as single-digits in the following week. The world's largest coffee chain sacrifices employees' financial security in the name of cost-control and "flexibility." This comes from a company whose mission statements talks of, "provid[ing] a great work environment."
Starbucks barista Mike Velasquez spoke of the personal reason is underlying his decision to join the Starbucks Workers Union. "My daughter is my first priority period," he said. Anything that comes in the way of that is going to have a problem. Starbucks falls into that category."
Myth v. Reality
Given the reality of working at Starbucks, the company's creation of a socially responsible image is testament to its public relations prowess. The company boasts of providing health care eligibility even for its part-time workers (never mentioning that all of its retail hourly workers are part-time). The fact is that an employee must work 240 hours each quarter to become eligible for health insurance. Because of the lack of guaranteed hours, meeting the quarterly hour requirement is far from assured. For workers who do qualify there are still the premiums, co-pays, and deductibles, and these are costs extremely difficult to manage for employees making six, seven, or eight dollars an hour. Incredibly, Starbucks, the self-proclaimed leader on the issue of employee health care, will not release the number of retail hourly workers that actually receive company health benefits. Even Wal-Mart releases that number. In fact, the recently leaked memo from Wal-Mart that advocated increasing part-time employment to cut health insurance costs is ancient history at Starbucks. Howard Schultz made that move years ago- but he degraded all jobs to part-time.
The workers demanded respect for the right to organise in the face of a relentless anti-union campaign launched by the company in 2004 after the formation of the Starbucks Workers Union. The company has already been hit with a complaint from the National Labor Relations Board for threats, bribes, and surveillance in their attempt to defeat the union.
"I am so pleased to welcome the Union Square East baristas to the Starbucks Workers Union," said Pete Montalbano, a union barista at an East Village Starbucks and himself a recipient of anti-union discrimination. "Given the widespread discontent at the company, it comes as no surprise that more and more workers are making the decision to go union."
Starbucks, known for inundating neighbourhoods with its stores, is an extremely profitable company. On November 17, the company announced that quarterly earnings had jumped 21% to $124 million. Chairman Howard Schultz who also owns the Seattle Supersonics is doing well too with an estimated net worth of $700 million.
The IWW's unique solidarity union structure allows any Starbucks worker to join at anytime and begin the fight for a better life at work. Since its founding, the Starbucks Workers Union has pressured the company into a .50 cent an hour wage increase, an unprecedented holiday bonus, and steps toward alleviating the rampant repetitive strain injuries among baristas.
"Companies like Starbucks, Borders, Wal-Mart, the Gap, and McDonald's have gotten a free pass from the labour movement for far too long. Retail workers at some of the world's most profitable companies deserve better than a poverty existence for our hard work," remarked Daniel Gross, an IWW member and Starbucks barista. "The only solution is a fighting union."