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Union Steps Up Drive to Organize Starbucks

By ANTHONY RAMIREZ - New York Times, Published: November 26, 2005

The conflict between the Starbucks coffee chain and workers wanting to form a citywide union played out on two fronts yesterday: organizers formed a picket line in front of a local Starbucks, and a hearing was announced for next year before the National Labor Relations Board.

Chanting, "No latte, no peace," as a union organizer dressed as a giant latte rocked back and forth, about 20 demonstrators picketed a Starbucks at Union Square.

They urged a guarantee of a 30-hour work week, to ensure that workers would qualify for health benefits, and they demanded an end to what they called union busting by Starbucks.

So far, the union, the Industrial Workers of the World, has organized three Starbucks coffee shops in New York City. Starbucks has more than 200 outlets within 10 miles of downtown Manhattan, and nearly 6,900 in the United States.

The labor relations board, the agency that oversees workers' right to bargain collectively, said a hearing has been scheduled for Feb. 7 in Manhattan. At that session, union organizers and Starbucks officials will appear before an administrative law judge for a review of the union's allegations about the chain's practices.

In a complaint dated Nov. 18, the labor relations board summarized workers' allegations that Starbucks had illegally resisted organization of a union.

For example, according to the complaint, in one store, at 200 Madison Avenue, a regional director of operations is said to have posted a message in May 2004 threatening "employees with loss of wages and benefits if they voted for the union."

At the same store, in May and July 2004, a store manager and an assistant store manager are said to have given employees free baseball tickets and gym passes "in order to convince employees to withdraw their support from the union."

In Seattle, where Starbucks is based, Audrey Lincoff, a spokeswoman, said, "While we cannot speculate on why the National Labor Relations Board chose to consolidate the unfair labor practices charges, we believe that we have acted in a fair and lawful manner throughout every aspect of the I.W.W.'s campaign in summer 2004, and since that time."

At the rally yesterday, at the Starbucks at 14th Street and Fourth Avenue, demonstrators gathered on the sidewalk and urged passers-by not to enter the shop.

Many customers, most of whom appeared to be under 30, ignored the pickets, who chanted, sang and used air horns.

One middle-aged man was dissuaded from going in. He shouted encouragement to the demonstrators.

Daniel Gross, an organizer for the Industrial Workers of the World - a union founded a century ago to achieve "the abolition of wage slavery" - said at the rally that one of Starbucks's worst offenses had been to dismiss Sarah Bender, a worker at the store at 17th Street and First Avenue, and a union sympathizer. She is also named in the labor relations complaint.

Ms. Bender, 23, is now a full-time volunteer with the union and works for another coffee shop, in Brooklyn.

She said in an interview that she was fired in May because she attended union meetings after work. "I wasn't even an 'out' union supporter because I didn't want to get fired," she said.

Officially, Ms. Bender said, she had been cited for a third, and final, infraction for having a shortfall of $6 in her cash register. She said deficits or surpluses of $5 or less were routinely ignored. "So, it's weird," she said, "that it was exactly $6."

She said the union was urging a guaranteed 30 hours a week because workers often averaged as few as 16 hours a week, under the minimum needed to qualify for health care benefits.

The starting wage for Starbucks in New York City is $8.50 an hour.