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Baristas of the World, Unite!


Gross never got inspired. The company calls employees “partners,” he says, but it’s misleading. You’re graded for greeting a guest within twelve seconds of arrival, he charges, and for mixing a macchiato at the precise temperature and weight in grams. As the Siren’s Eye—a company newsletter whose title refers to Starbucks’ mermaid logo—puts it, all this adds up to “Legendary Service.”

But some employees think of the Siren more as a Big Brother. Cecilia (not her real name) is 20 and has been working at Starbucks for two years. “The first I heard about the union was when my senior manager sat us down in groups of five and told us we’d have to pay obscene dues, that it would be a third party making decisions for us.” She signed up anyway.

She pulls her sleeves over her hands and glares. “I have a sarcastic sense of humor, and I’ve gotten write-ups for it, been told to be more perky. You can get fired for not smiling. We have a ‘yes’ policy. No matter what the customers ask, no matter how rude they are, you have to say yes.” In recognition of her efforts to put on a happier face, she once received an award in the form of a button that reads, I ONLY SAY YES.

It sounds very Brave New World, but Gross prefers an Old South analogy. “We’re talking about wage slavery here,” he says, slamming his hand on the table in a non-multinational East Village café so hard that a water glass jumps. “We are very aware of the implications of that term. We wouldn’t use it if we didn’t think there were inherent similarities to plantation slavery.”

Unlike an antebellum cotton farm, however, Starbucks does offer comprehensive health-care benefits to two thirds of its workforce, those clocking twenty hours or more a week. And Fortune magazine just rated it the second-best large employer in the nation.

Gross scoffs. “Their dirty little secret is the repetitive strain injuries,” he says. “Starbucks is not some old-world European coffeehouse. We face an extraordinary demand every day, while an epidemic of understaffing requires us to work at lightning speed.” There’s the bending and stooping, the risk of steam burns, the carpal tunnel syndrome from pulling hundreds of espressos. By the time Gross pauses for breath, Starbucks, which prides itself on being a comforting “Third Place”—welcoming customers into a sphere that is neither work nor home—sounds more like a Dickensian workshop.

By June 2004, Starbucks’ lawyers at Akin Gump, perhaps in an effort to forestall the union election, were challenging the size of the bargaining unit. But according to the IWW’s lawyers, Starbucks also pursued illegal forms of anti-union persuasion—this is the crux of the complaint currently before the National Labor Relations Board. District managers and the regional director of operations cornered Madison Avenue employees at work to ask about their union views. “Senior managers were floating around every single day,” Gross says. “You never see these people. They’re usually in the office running the empire.”

Fabian Vera, who manages a Starbucks at 60th and Broadway, started hanging out at store No. 7356, sometimes yelling at Gross and Polanco. He and another assistant manager would also show up with pizza, gym passes, and Mets tickets for staffers. Audrey Lincoff, a Starbucks spokesperson, has called these actions “random acts of kindness”—part of the company’s regular policy. This was the first that the Madison Avenue employees had heard of it.

The IWW claims that Starbucks also sent a letter to employees that read, in part, “Did you know that: The IWW advocates the overthrow of capitalism, the system that forms the economic foundation of the US?”

Lincoff’s never heard of the letter. And in response to the other charges, she says that “Starbucks believes that it acted in a fair and lawful manner throughout every aspect of the IWW’s campaign.”

At work, the union members were becoming more and more defiant. They stood outside the store on their days off, passing out fliers. “Most of the customers were really wonderful,” Gross says, “but then you had a minority from the managerial and capitalist class” who stopped to say, “You should be happy you have a job.” Once, the workers took a trip to Vera’s store, handing out fliers with his photo.

Within store No. 7356, Starbucks “partners” were divided. “The assistant managers tried to buddy up with people, gathering intelligence,” Gross says. “When people start ratting to the boss, then you’re really on opposite sides.” Polanco believes he was passed over for a promotion in favor of a more loyal colleague.

On July 28, two days before the scheduled union election, Starbucks called a meeting for all Madison Avenue employees. There, according to the IWW’s complaint, a senior vice-president, Martin Annesse, said voting in the union would mean losing the right to pick up shifts at other stores.

Before the vote could take place, however, the NLRB agreed to impound the ballots, pending review of a Starbucks appeal. Recognizing that the process could stall indefinitely, the IWW withdrew its petition.

Besides, playing by the NLRB’s rules had never really been in the IWW’s interest. “We always recommended to [organizers], don’t bother with an election, don’t bother with contracts, but instead fight on the job,” says IWW strategist Benjamin Ferguson.

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