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Frustrated by Low Wages, Starbucks Employees Sow Union Seeds

By John Davisson -  Columbia Spectator Staff Writer, February 08, 2006

As if ordering a cup of coffee wasn’t complicated enough these days, things could get even muckier if federal labor law weighs in.

Since 2004, a group of baristas known as the Starbucks Workers Union has sought collective bargaining rights for the chain’s employees citywide, citing a need for improved pay and healthier working conditions.

While SWU has been unable to gain recognition from Starbucks or the National Labor Relations Board, the federal body that mediates labor disputes in the private sector, members are hoping that a recent wave of unfair labor allegations against the company might reverse its fortunes.

“Never before has such a [fundamentally] anti-union and anti-worker company been so successful at creating a socially responsible image,” said [Daniel] Gross, an SWU organizer and Starbucks barista. “They’ve embraced the Wal-Mart style of union-busting.”

After petitioning the NLRB in Nov. 2005, the group won a hearing at the board’s New York Regional Office, during which an administrative law judge was to review charges of illegal labor practices at several of the chain’s outlets. Members allege that Starbucks supervisors have threatened or terminated baristas who took part in pro-union activities, both of which are illegal under the National Labor Relations Act. Originally scheduled for Tuesday, the hearing was pushed back to March 6, pending a review of several new accusations.

“The company’s scorched-earth anti-union campaign should be very troubling for anyone concerned with human rights and labor rights,” Gross said. Gross said that the entry-level salary for Starbucks baristas in the city, now $8.75 per hour, is below the cost of living in New York, and he added that the company subjects employees to ergonomically unsound working conditions.

Several calls placed to the Starbucks Public Affairs Department were not returned. According to the company’s official position on employee unions, available on its Web site, “We believe we do not need a third party to act on behalf of our partners [employees]. We prefer to deal directly with them in a fair and respectful manner, just as we have throughout our history.”

The policy also states that “Starbucks does not take action or retaliate against partners who might be interested or take part in union activity.”

Though it is affiliated with the Industrial Workers of the World, a historically radical labor organization, the SWU has not yet received the protection of the NLRB, as no shop’s employees have conducted an official certification election. Starbucks contends that the group would not have sufficient employee support to achieve this status, but union members argue that the certification process is flawed and that the union can function outside of federal protection.

The bulk of the publicly-identified SWU members come from three Starbucks outlets: 2nd Avenue and 9th Street, Madison Avenue and 36th Street, and Union Square East. Gross said that baristas from other locations had also joined but that they had not advertised their membership for fear of employer retribution. He would not comment on the exact size of the union other than to say that “it’s a modest-sized group with a winning concept.”

A bit farther north, it appears that SWU is just beginning to make its mark.

“When the union was making noise last year, some people just laughed,” said a barista at one of the chain’s Morningside Heights’ locations, speaking on conditions of anonymity. “People figure, ‘It’s a nice place to get coffee, so how bad can working there be?’ They don’t understand how unpleasant it is to brew hundreds of lattes for long hours and not a lot of money.”

But the employee, who claimed not to have participated in any SWU activities, noted that “it might still be a while before anyone up here goes union.”

There are over 200 Starbucks locations within 10 miles of downtown Manhattan and 6,900 nationwide.