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(en) US, Chicago, Media, Starbucks Gets Wobbly

Date Thu, 05 Oct 2006 15:48:12 +0200

Embattled baristas at the coffee giant turn to the Industrial Workers of the World
When Joe Tessone and his fellow Starbucks baristas walked into a
pep rally with management at their store in Chicago’s Logan
Square neighborhood in August, the bosses were ready.
A trio of higher-ups passed around copies of the preamble to the
constitution of the Industrial Workers of the World and warned the
hourlies against the radicalism of the old anarchist-socialist One Big Union.
The managers told the “partners”—the company’s sobriquet for a workforce that
baristas say is entirely part-time—that the CEO and chairman carry the same
benefits package as the baristas.

That argument didn’t hold much water for Tessone.
“It’s the illusion of equality,” he says. “Do they
struggle to pay rent at the end of the month? Do they struggle to buy
groceries at the end of the week?”

Sick of waiting for modest demands to be met, the baristas
weren’t buying the packaged spiel. Instead, they announced they
were joining the IWW, intent on returning some meaning to the
National Labor Relation Act’s call for “mutual aid or

The nation’s 71-year-old foundational labor document applies to
all workers, not only those who can arduously prove a majority of
their colleagues want a union. The baristas don’t want an
election with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) or a
certified bargaining unit. They’re using a tactic popular before
the Depression, solidarity unionism, in which a minority of workers
act in concert and issue demands even if management doesn’t
recognize their union—which Starbucks does not.

But the Chicago baristas aren’t alone: Six New York City
Starbucks have affiliated with the IWW in two years of campaigning,
and the Wobblies take credit for three city-wide pay increases there.
Already in Chicago, where the starting wage is usually $7.50 an
hour, the baristas have won safety improvements and scheduling

“We’re able to act quickly and we’re able to make
decisions within our stores, and we don’t have to wait for court
decisions,” Tessone says. “In the retail and service industry,
there’s a high turnover rate. There’s just not time to wait.
We have to organize ourselves and act on the job to get our demands

Starbucks exacts a price for shop actions. Daniel Gross, an IWW
Starbucks Union organizer, says four New York baristas have been
fired in the past year for union activity, including himself in August.
The company settled unfair labor practice charges with three
workers in March, leading to about $2,000 in back pay and promises
not to bribe or threaten baristas. Tessone says Starbucks is using
one-on-one meetings to pressure his coworkers. Starbucks’
settlement admitted no guilt. A Starbucks spokesman told In These
Times, “We firmly believe that our work environment, coupled
with our outstanding compensation and benefits, make unions
unnecessary at Starbucks. Starbucks takes very seriously its legal
obligations and does not take action or retaliate against employees
who express support for unions or take part in union activity.”

Aggressive anti-union tactics have become the norm in the United
States, from no-holds-barred outlets like Wal-Mart to
image-obsessed corporations like Whole Foods. Labor law is
permissive of abuse, so much so that a landmark 2000 Human
Rights Watch report found 24,000 workers fired for organizing in a
year, just one symptom of what it called the “culture of
near-impunity” governing management’s attacks on union

The Bush administration has helped tip the scales further against
novel efforts like the Starbucks union. The NLRB ruled in 2004 that
nonunion workers can no longer accompany each other into
investigatory meetings with bosses. Commonly known as
“Weingarten rights,” they have been extended to and
stripped from nonunion workers four times in the last 30 years.
Solidarity unions often invoke them to document management’s
browbeating and witness disciplinary investigations.

Joel Rogers, a professor of law, political science and sociology at the
University of Wisconsin, Madison, who has examined flexible forms
of organization, says workers and unions shouldn’t focus on the
NLRB but on finding ways to defuse intense employer opposition.
For example, unions might invite workers who want changes in their
work place but who haven’t won (or have lost) formal union
representation to join the union and become involved.

Another example retail workers can draw from is the Restaurant
Opportunities Center of New York (ROC-NY), which has won six
campaigns in five years against restaurant conglomerates in the city
through a combination of direct action and lawsuits. The
group—which is friendly with the hospitality union
UNITE-HERE—brings together restaurant workers, many of who
are undocumented immigrants, to resolve concerns about working
conditions as well as to file class-action lawsuits. The Center has
secured more than $300,000 in back wages and discrimination
complaints, brokered managerial agreements to respect wage, hour
and benefit laws, and opened a collectively managed restaurant of its

“Before even thinking about unionization, the standards of the
industry have to come up, so that it’s not acceptable anymore to
discriminate or break the law,” says Saru Jayaraman,
ROC-NY’s executive director. “If we want to see any kind of
power built for workers in this industry in our lifetime, we have to
think about alternative models.”

Old labor is starting to listen. In August, the AFL-CIO signed an
agreement with the National Day Labor Organizing Network,
signaling new intentions to partner with a group labor embraced only
six years ago. Although the estimated 118,000 day laborers
won’t join or pay dues, the worker centers marshalling
increasing numbers of the laborers can access some services, like
the AFL’s pro-bono labor lawyers.

The Wobblies, of course, have big plans of their own.

“What corporate retail wants is complete tyrannical control,”
Gross says. “It’s something previous generations of workers
didn’t stand for—and neither should we.”

Mischa Gaus is a freelance writer based in Chicago.

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