Starbucks vs. IWW: 21st Century Java meets Turn of the Century Union

June 6th, 2005 by

When I read that the IWW (Industrial Workers of the World) was trying to organize workers at a Manhattan Starbucks, I thought for a moment that I was stuck in a time machine. The IWW still exists? Indeed, the “wobblies” are still with us. They have a website, resplendent in red and full of interesting information. This year marks the union’s 100th anniversary, which, I think it is safe to say, is a little past its peak in terms of interest and participation. They still have articles from two of their most famous supporters, writers Jack London and Helen Keller. A quick review of the archives shows that the truly famous drop off sometime around 1920, but the mission over the next 80 years does not change: the IWW will be satisfied with nothing less than an end to capitalism.
The IWW press release raises some classic issues of poor working conditions, some of which will ring true with those who study the ergonomics of fast food. Starbuck workers serve an enormous volume of beverages, many of them extremely hot. The union claims that in order to save money, management refuses to schedule enough workers to do the required work safely. Instead, workers are forced to perform their duties at unsafe speeds with an undue level of physical exertion.
“A Starbucks coffee shop is an ergonomic minefield. The stores are supposed to mimic an Italian cafe without considering the uncomfortable bending and reaching we have to do, ” explained Barista Anthony Polanco. “This is not your mom and pop coffee shop. We are talking McDonalds busy every day. Starbucks talks about “Creating Warmth” but the only warmth I feel is the heat pad at the end of the day.”
Coffee, Coffee Everywhere
Starbucks is a $15 billion company with over 7,500 locations around the world. According to the union, in New York City Starbucks workers start at $7.75 an hour and eventually receive paltry raises. The union accuses Starbucks of developing a scheme whereby all Baristas work on a part-time basis and are not guaranteed a set number of hours per week, thus making it exceedingly difficult for workers to budget for necessities like rent, utilities, and food.
The union doesn’t address the issue of benefits directly, but it appears that half time (20 hours per week) workers qualify for a fairly robust benefits package, including health, dental and retirement. These benefits certainly have the potential to separate Starbucks employees from those in other fast food industries. However, there may be an issue with scheduling — a few disgruntled employees claimed that managers deliberately scheduled them for just shy of the required 20 hour average, so they were unable to participate in the benefits plan.
Walmart and Starbucks
There may well be some important similarities in all companies seeking to carve out humongous market shares across the globe. Rapid growth is fueled by aggressive pricing (well, I would not say that Starbucks sells a discounted product!), anticipation of consumer demand and, I’m sorry to say, ferociously contained labor costs. One Starbuck employee wonders why it has become fashionable to boycott Walmart for its labor practices, all the while stopping by the local Starbucks for the stimulant of choice. Interesting question, one which cuts into the very heart of the culture wars. Perhaps the privileged classes can survive without Walmart, but not without their Java.
Still, I like to imagine a couple of wobblies huddled for several hours in overstuffed armchairs at their neighborhood Starbucks, nursing a frappachino latte whatever and plotting the end of capitalism. That is still and ever will be the American way.