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Baristas of the World, Unite!

You have nothing to lose but your company-mandated cheerfulness.

Daniel Gross standing in front of his employer—and nemesis—on May 15.  

Nothing seems amiss at Starbucks Coffee Store No. 7356, on the southwest corner of Madison Avenue and 36th Street. It has a nice view of a nineteenth-century Gothic Revival church. The familiar aroma of dark-roasted Sumatra curls through the air. Most of the staffers are no older than teenagers, but none betrays the slightest hint of sullenness—or simmering political rage. “Here you go, sweetie,” says a barista in blonde pigtails as she hands a grande iced chai over the counter. You’d never suspect that this little island of repose in the crush of midtown is a revolutionary cell. Unbeknownst to its customers (or “guests,” as they’re called), store No. 7356 birthed the first-ever campaign to unionize a Starbucks—a movement that renegade baristas hope will spread through the chain’s 6,668 other U.S. outlets.

The battle has been heated (in fact, steamed-milk injuries are one of the sticking points). Two workers were hauled off to jail. Others have been warned that union sympathies could cost them their jobs. And now Starbucks—used to PR snags no greater than public furor over $3.95 lattes—must go before the National Labor Relations Board next month on charges of bribery, threats, and other illegal attempts to prevent employees from organizing.

The trouble started back in May 2003, when Daniel Gross began work as a barista at store No. 7356. Gross is a 26-year-old from L.A. who’s now at Fordham Law School. He has piercing blue eyes, persistent stubble, and an easy laugh. He’s also a “Wobbly,” a member of the Industrial Workers of the World, the once-storied “one big union,” which was largely stamped out after World War I and only partially revived by campus-activist types in the seventies.

A revolution is brewing at Starbucks store No. 7356.

The grandson of a truck-driving Teamster, Gross may have a predisposition toward rabble-rousing. He was even fired from a Green Corps gig for what he claims was pro-union activity. “I’ve had every bad job,” he says. “I’ve been a delivery person, worked in tree care. Borders Books was my first introduction into the reality of multinational corporate employment.” And soon after his arrival in New York, he decided to infiltrate Starbucks.

When Gross walked into the store for his first morning shift, he was dismayed—and encouraged—by what he saw. Just three workers were completely slammed with businesspeople for the A.M. rush. “In this kind of job,” he says, “you expect to work hard, but you don’t necessarily expect to go home feeling like you just ran a marathon.”

Gross spotted a likely fellow traveler in Anthony Polanco, 23, another new hire with a bad-job résumé similar to Gross’s and a union-man father. A few months into the job, he and Gross were closing the store together. As they walked to the subway, Gross told him about the IWW’s “solidarity unionism” model—any worker could join at any time. When they reached the station, Polanco stuck out his hand. “I’m with you, Dan,” he said. “I’m with you all the way.”

Polanco became Gross’s wingman, helping recruit workers and eventually becoming the only other Madison Avenue employee to go on record as a union supporter. Polanco sums up their rallying cry: “Starbucks pays peanuts, and they treat the workers like elephants.” Most of the workers they approached responded eagerly to their idea that the New York–area starting salary of $7.75 an hour is a “poverty wage.” Furthermore, says Gross, hours—and therefore income—are unpredictable. “The hook for their employment message is that hours are flexible. But they’re flexible for the boss, not you!” Gross complains that managers post schedules no more than one week in advance, and that workers’ hours can vary from 8 to 37 a week.

Soon, co-workers were meeting covertly in each other’s apartments. “Some folks were very scared of retaliation,” explains Gross. These were part strategy talks, part epic bitch sessions—someone had been reprimanded for wearing the wrong color shoes, someone else for a $5 shortfall in a $1,000 till.

At work, Gross kept earning high marks—“extraordinary”—on his employee evaluations. Yet by May 17, 2004, he and Polanco had signed up over half of their thirteen fellow baristas, enough to submit a petition for a vote to form a local of IU660, the IWW’s nascent Retail Workers Union.

Starbucks sprang into action. Within days of the IWW’s official petition to represent the Madison Avenue workers, chairman Howard Schultz left a voice-mail message to be played at stores nationwide. News of a union was “very disturbing and upsetting,” he said. “Please, if you have any concerns about our company, reach out to your local leadership . . . I want to conclude by simply thanking you for . . . being the real heart and soul of Starbucks.”

In his 1997 memoir, Pour Your Heart Into It, Schultz, who grew up in Brooklyn’s Bayview Projects, recalls that when he took over the small Seattle coffee-roasting company in 1987, it was partly unionized. Soon after, workers voted to decertify. He took this as a vote of confidence. “If [workers] had faith in me and my motives,” he wrote, “they wouldn’t need a union.”

In many ways, Starbucks does seem like an unlikely starting place for a workers’ revolution. It may have attracted the odd brick-tossing “black bloc” protester during a WTO summit, but it’s no Wal-Mart. There are bags of fair-trade-certified beans for sale and brochures touting Starbucks’ “beneficial relationships” with Third World coffee growers. The unbleached napkins read, MADE FROM 100% RECYCLED FIBERS. Joni Mitchell plays on Satellite Radio Channel XM 75, “The Voice of Starbucks.” And would-be employees are welcomed by a placard on the door that says, DREAM VENTI. OUR CAREERS WILL INSPIRE YOU. CREATE THE EXPERIENCE.