PHILADELPHIA — Starbucks Coffee, a corporate icon of success and style since the 1990s, is confronting a legendary warrior for labor rights from the 1920s.
The Wobblies, otherwise known as the Industrial Workers of the World, a leftist labor organization founded in 1905 and now based in Philadelphia, has taken initial steps toward unionizing a Starbucks coffee shop in New York City — the first in the United States.
If it succeeds, the group could score a notable public-relations victory for the labor movement. It might even encourage more organizing in the hard-to-unionize service industry.
“This isn’t a quaint neighborhood coffee shop,” said Daniel Gross, 25, an organizer of the effort at Starbucks’ Madison Avenue and 36th Street location in Manhattan. “They really do invest a lot of money in their image, but it has no basis in reality.”
The company and a group calling itself the Starbucks Baristas Union — “barista” being both the coffee machine and the people who operate it — each presented its arguments in June to the New York office of the National Labor Relations Board.
A labor board assistant regional director, Elbert Tellem, said the board will decide which workers, if any, are eligible to vote: just workers at the Madison Avenue shop as the union wants, or all workers and shift supervisors in the company’s 50-shop lower Manhattan district, as Starbucks counters.
The union wants to have a smaller number of workers to win over.
Unionizing just one location of a multinational corporation would buck the current trend in labor strategy, which calls for organizing across whole companies and locations, not single sites.
The union also might test Starbucks’ scheduling system, in which workers change their shifts day by day — either by choice or by assignment. Workers also are allowed to change stores. For example, a Philadelphia employee might work 18 hours of night shifts one week on South Street, then 30 hours of morning shifts another week on Broad Street.
“Partners,” as Starbucks calls its workers, “like it because they can go to school, they can do different things,” spokeswoman Audrey Lincoff said.
But few if any of the hourly workers have regular schedules or are allowed to amass more than 40 hours a week, according to the IWW. That effectively limits pay and locks workers into part-time status, all designed to save the company overtime costs, Gross said.
Organizers also cite hazards: 200-degree steaming milk, wrist-wrenching movements on the coffee machine and pressure to work ever faster.
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