Starbucks baristas union drive comes at key time

The effort to organize local latte-slingers could hurt the ailing chain

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.

Starbucks employees protest at a press conference outside the Mall of America on July 22. Left to right: Erik Forman, Jeff K., Jake Bell, Sarah Bright.
Matt Snyders
Starbucks employees protest at a press conference outside the Mall of America on July 22. Left to right: Erik Forman, Jeff K., Jake Bell, Sarah Bright.

"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."

 
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