Direct Action Gets the Goods: An Interview with the Starbucks Worker’s Union (IWW)

swuBaristas are putting up pressure on Starbucks Corporation to come to terms with 200 unionized workers in Chile who have been on strike for more than two weeks. Employees who belong to the IWW Starbucks Workers Union kicked off a “global week of action” on Monday in solidarity with their Chilean colleagues by picketing in front of a Starbucks in New York City. The following is a short interview with one IWW organiser (IU-660).
Q: Could you tell us abit about yourself and how you came to be involved with the IWW?

I became a Starbucks barista in 2007 because my other retail job didn’t pay me enough money to live. I looked at other companies and remembered that Starbucks had a great reputation for being good to its workers. Once I started working there, I found this not to be the reality in my case.

I was verbally abused by shift supervisors while my pay was abysmal at $7.60 an hour. We also were an extremely busy store at the Mall of America and were frequently understaffed during brutal rush periods and many times we were sent home when the sales didn’t meet the projections, making us short on hours. When a fellow worker asked to meet with me outside of work, I was hesitant, but I attended a meeting to find out what he had to say.

As it turned out, I was not alone with my misery, other baristas were unhappy too. Many of us were so poor, we were living off of day old sandwiches (mark outs) because we didn’t make enough money and our tips were abysmal at the mall. In addition, one of my fellow workers was being targeted for firing. I was initially on the fence about becoming involved and was initially turned off by the use of the “U” word, but when they fired my fellow worker, I became angry. They used an excuse that he “discussed disciplinary action with a co-worker” as a reason to terminate him, a blatant violation of our right to organize.

It was a clear injustice, so I hopped off the fence and, very quickly, we went public as the first union store in Minnesota.

Q: Starbucks has gained a reputation for its aggressive tactics, for example in union busting and saturating areas with their stores – (this is something that backfired here in 2008). Could you give us a overview of the events and disputes that led to the organising and formation of the IWW starbucks workers union?

The Starbucks Workers Union began in New York City and spread to other cities Like Chicago and Grand Rapids, Michigan. New York baristas have special problems involving life in a busy, crowded and extremely expensive city, so one of their demands was a living wage. While they did not achieve a living wage by NYC standards, their demands caused Starbucks to raise wages in the city by one dollar an hour. There are so many issues to organize around so I won’t mention all of them here, but I will tell you why we organized at our particular store:

1-Illegal firings such as FW Erik Forman’s dismissal for “Discussing disciplinary action with another employee.” Other employees that were on the fence about joining the union would get fired sometimes for minor lateness infractions and there was not much we could do to help them as they didn’t have the few legal protections that union members enjoy.

2- Unsafe working conditions. At the mall we did not have an operational air conditioning system. Our manager claimed that he couldn’t get a fan that complied with some law, so we suffered in those conditions for a year and a half until we took direct action and left the store to buy a fan on our own. (The next day, the bosses bought an industrial $300+ dollar fan for us, possibly to avoid further direct action.)

3- Inadequate pay. We calculated that in the Twin Cities, a living wage is approximately $13 an hour. At $7.60 an hour we were basically having to work all of our waking hours just to afford the basics.

Anything you’d like to add for readers or struggling baristas?

Starbucks has a highly organised union busting force in place. That said, they have never understood anarcho-syndicalist tactics and solidarity unionism– and the fact that there is no one leader that they could fire or intimidate out of the picture that would cause the union to capitulate.

We are all potential leaders. Another huge challenge is the fact that retail jobs are very low wage jobs and have a high turnover. That can make it hard because there is a constant rebuilding process going on as workers rotate to new jobs or back to university.

Don’t stay on the fence! Joining the union has been one of the best decisions I have ever made. Though I personally am not at Starbucks anymore, I am still involved with the campaign and carry IWW membership anywhere I go. Remember when you are struggling, you have solidarity not just in your local chapter, but around the world.

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