How Starbucks Grinds Its Workers

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Photo: Stefan Wermuth/Reuters/Corbis

The technology vs. human labor war is on, and technology is winning.

That’s one conclusion to draw from this blockbuster New York Times story on the worker-scheduling software used at Starbucks and other big retail firms. The technology helps to bolster corporate profits by optimizing workers’ hours to their employer's needs. But it often wreaks havoc on those workers’ home lives by introducing destructive uncertainty to their schedules.

The piece centers on Jannette Navarro, a single mother and Starbucks barista, who sometimes “clopens” her local store, both closing it up in the evening and reopening it a few hours later: 

Ms. Navarro’s fluctuating hours, combined with her limited resources, had also turned their lives into a chronic crisis over the clock. She rarely learned her schedule more than three days before the start of a workweek, plunging her into urgent logistical puzzles over who would watch [her son]. Months after starting the job she moved out of her aunt’s home, in part because of mounting friction over the erratic schedule, which the aunt felt was also holding her family captive. Ms. Navarro’s degree was on indefinite pause because her shifting hours left her unable to commit to classes. She needed to work all she could, sometimes counting on dimes from the tip jar to make the bus fare home. If she dared ask for more stable hours, she feared, she would get fewer work hours over all.

But there’s a word missing from the story — an important link in the chain that goes without mention. That word is union.

Sure, the technology facilitates Starbucks’s manipulation of Navarro’s schedule, allowing her bosses to figure out what hours they need her most and cut out the dead time. But Navarro’s utter and complete lack of bargaining power matters too: If Starbucks employees like Navarro could quit, or could refuse to work insane shifts on short notice, or could demand more accommodation of their needs, they would. They can’t. So they don’t. 

In part, workers’ lack of bargaining power is cyclical, due to the aftermath of the recession. There are currently 9.7 million Americans looking for work, meaning that there is little or no pressure on businesses to improve wages or working conditions. If Navarro protested, her managers would simply fire her and find someone else willing to work uneven, unpredictable shifts for $9 an hour. 

But workers’ lack of bargaining power is also structural, due in large part to the decline of labor unions. Nowadays, just 6.7 percent of private-sector workers belong to unions. As such, labor conditions have in many cases deteriorated: According to another Times story, about half of part-time workers aged 26 to 32 receive a week or less of advance notice for their schedule. “Frontline managers face pressure to keep costs down, but they really don’t have much control over wages or benefits,” Susan J. Lambert, a University of Chicago professor, told the Times. “What they have control over is employee hours.”

For Starbucks, the proportion of unionized workers is “not significant,” the company said in its most recent annual report. (It added: “We believe our current relations with our employees are good.”) That has helped the coffee giant boost its bottom line, a new union-authored report called “Low Wages and Grande Profits” shows. Since just before the recession, store revenue per worker has climbed more than 40 percent, to $68,900 from $49,000. And the company has bolstered both its revenue and its profit margin.

Since the Times story came out, Starbucks has promised to improve working conditions, and the company is known for having some progressive labor policies, like a retirement-savings plan and equity, even if it does have an anti-union history. But it still relies on part-time and low-wage workers, as the Times story shows, workers who often earn far less than a living wage. And there is no real economic pressure for it to quit putting such a grind on its baristas.