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IWW seeks to organize Starbucks workers

BY DEBORAH S. MORRIS, STAFF WRITER - New York Newsday, November 26, 2005, 6:55 PM EST

Russ Allen considers himself a Starbucks fan, buying a cup o' joe every day from the ubiquitous coffee haven. He also considers himself a smart businessman.

So, true to form, he wasn't taking sides Saturday on whether or not Starbucks workers should unionize. Instead, he looked at it as an opportunity to watch free enterprise in action.

"A unionized store would create competition. It would force the environment," reasoned Allen, 52, of Jamaica, after buying coffee at the Starbucks in Fresh Meadows. "Starbucks are everywhere. If workers are unhappy, another coffee chain could be created, and that would force Starbucks to either unionize or at least come up to industry standard."

On Friday, labor organizers picketed in front of a Starbucks in Union Square, charging that the Seattle-based chain has worked against citywide organization of its employees.

The union, the Philadelphia-based Industrial Workers of the World, wants the company to guarantee a 30-hour work week in order to stabilize workers' paychecks and ensure that employees are eligible for health benefits.

The union also charges the company has taken intimidating action against some employees who seem favorably inclined to the union.

"Currently Starbucks has zero full-time retail hourly workers in the United States," said Dan Gross, 26, a barista at a midtown Starbucks and an organizer for the union. Baristas are entry-level workers who make beverages, operate the cash register and clean the store.

"With fluctuating hours and a fluctuating paycheck, it makes it very difficult to make rent, pay utilities and get food on the table," he said.

Gross said some employees at three Manhattan stores consider themselves to be union members, but Starbucks does not recognize them as such.

On Feb. 7, the National Labor Relations Board has scheduled a hearing in Manhattan to review allegations leveled against the retail coffee chain by Industrial Workers of the World.

Repeated calls Saturday to a Starbucks corporation media hotline were not returned.

One barista who has worked at the Starbucks on Austin Street in Forest Hills for about eight months was diplomatic.

"I see both sides," said the man, who did not want to give his name. "I work in a very busy store, so I get my hours and benefits. But if you work in a slower store that may not happen. Sometimes I think it would be good to have a union; other times I think it's fine [the way it is]."

Anthony Ruiz has been working at his hometown Starbucks in Huntington Station on Route 110 for six months. While he said a union wouldn't be bad, he is OK with conditions at his store.

"The pay is decent and the benefits are OK, but I guess they could always do better," the Five Towns College student said. Ruiz, who said he recently got a 40-cent-an-hour raise, said that because he works at least 20 hours a week, he gets medical and dental benefits.

Mike Nunziata, 27, who was enjoying a $3 hot chocolate outside the busy Starbucks in Fresh Meadows, put his support squarely on the side of workers.

"If you can charge what they do for a cup of coffee," said the Greenpoint resident, who is unemployed, "they can afford to give somebody dental insurance."

Staff writer Collin Nash contributed to this story.