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The barnstorming barista

NI Special Feature - Starbucks

How were you fired?

A co-worker had been arbitrarily disciplined and we were holding an information picket outside the front of the store in his defence. The district manager came and I expressed my belief that my colleague shouldn’t be fired. I didn’t think anything of it, but that afternoon I was called to the back of the store with a guy I didn’t know who said I was under investigation. They interrogated me and the investigation concluded – without interviewing the barista union members who were actually there – that I threatened the manager. They also threw in this other ridiculous stuff about how I hadn’t worked enough – but I had glowing performance records until I became a union member!

How were you treated as a barista at the company?

At Starbucks, every single barista works part-time. What does that mean? No-one has a guaranteed number of working hours; one week you might have 35 hours, the next you might have 14. The times you work also shift, making it difficult to budget for necessities, look after families or have second jobs. In 2004, we were paid poverty wages of $6/7/8 an hour – it was a struggle. No [other] company has deceived the public so completely that it is a good place to work.

What about the company’s healthcare plans?

Only 40.9 per cent of Starbucks’ workers are covered by health insurance. Wall-Mart – the poster child of sub-par healthcare – has 47 per cent of its workers on healthcare plans.

So why do people keep working for Starbucks?

It’s the nature of the economy – good decent jobs go overseas and the retail and fast food industry is all that’s left for low-skilled workers.

When was the union formed?

In 2004 New York baristas started organizing with the International Workers of the World (IWW) and unionization has spread. New York baristas now get $8.75 per hour, managers have been held accountable and we’ve won improvements in the stability of hours and health and safety.

How did Starbucks react to the union?

It responded straight away by employing Akin Gump – a union-busting law firm – and Edelman, a public relations firm, to crush the union. There was surveillance, intelligence gathering, firing union activists – disparaging the IWW because of our long-term vision of democracy in the workplace.

What was one of your favourite actions?

In New York many union members were talking about rat and insect infestations. The workers asked Starbucks to improve sanitation practices but the company didn’t move. So the workers collected video evidence – cockroaches on Starbucks’ boxes, rats – and we blew the whistle at a press conference outside one of its main stores. TV, print and radio journalists were there, and guess what? Starbucks sprang into action.

What are your hopes for the future?

I hope to go back and be a union barista by the summer.

Don’t you feel like you’re part of the problem if you work for them?

You can’t blame the workers for Starbucks’ production decisions – they have no power. The long-term goal of the IWW is for the workers to have a great deal of power. You need workers on board if you’re going to change things.

Do you think the workers can change Starbucks?

I’m optimistic about a movement emerging. It may sound romantic, but we’re trying to create a global social movement, not just in Europe and the US but also with the people actually producing the product, the coffee farmers in Africa and Asia, the manufacturing workers in China making the mugs. A piecemeal movement doesn’t make sense in a global economy.

*Rowenna Davis* is a freelance journalist who specializes in political and social affairs.


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