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Baristas of the World, Unite!

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So the Madison Avenue workers took to the streets. With the GOP coming to town, it was already a summer of heightened media interest in activism. On Saturday, August 28, the eve of the convention, Wobblies and supporters staged a small march from the Madison Avenue store to Starbucks’ regional office a few blocks away. A line of cops in riot gear guarded the window at store No. 7356, while customers sipped Tazoberry lemonades within.

“The march was going great,” Gross recalls. “Then, boom, I get whisked off the sidewalk.” He and Polanco were arrested. As officers pinned the young men’s arms behind their backs, Gross shouted to the cameras, “Arrest Howard Schultz!”

For his trial, Gross hired the ultimate in activist attorneys, 71-year-old Leonard Weinglass, known for his work on the Chicago Eight trial and, more recently, for defending Mumia Abu-Jamal. Weinglass got the charges of disorderly conduct and resisting arrest dismissed. He gives his young client his blessing: “Daniel reminds me a lot of Abbie Hoffman.”

Gross certainly sounds the Yippie part, as he gears up for the next stage of the battle. “Starbucks managers are in a war room right now. Your picture is on the wall,” he says, pointing at me. “They’re trying to form a message for you,” for this story. “They have posters of stores where they think organizing is going on. They’re modern-day Pinkertons using sophisticated socio-psychological techniques to scare people.”

Is the Siren Eye, in fact, working overtime? “I was told to look for red flags, like if employees hang out too much,” says a shift supervisor in the East Village who, unbeknownst to her managers, had already joined the movement.

Store No. 7356, however, is no longer the center of the action. Gross says union-sympathetic workers have moved on to other locations. Asked if rumors of a union were true, a barista there smiled and said, “No, not here.” Another employee added, “Starbucks is a great place to work. The pay’s not incredible, but the benefits are wonderful.” What about all the union talk? “That was just a few people, and they’re gone now.”

But Gross is still at Madison Avenue, though these days his shifts pass without incident. He’s working just ten or twelve hours a week; some weeks he gets no hours at all. He’s busy with school and the organizing effort, but he’s determined not to leave the job, no doubt to Starbucks’ chagrin. Last year, he was served with a two-page memo that supervisors called a “final warning before termination.” A district manager told him he displayed “personal animosity toward Starbucks.”

While the memo includes the disclaimer “Starbucks continues to respect the right of you or any other partner to engage in lawful activities with respect to unionizing,” it presents a case that Gross is, frankly, a pain to work with.

“I have a sarcastic sense of humor,” says one barista, “and I’ve gotten write-ups for it, been told to be more perky. You can get fired for not smiling.”

“When the shift supervisor asked you to ‘please move a little faster,’ you intentionally proceeded to move at a slower pace than before. You also challenged [him] by saying, ‘Julian needs a whip to beat the partners so they can go faster, like a horse.’ ”

Gross says he was just joking, and that the rest of the charges are false. They haven’t fired him yet, he adds, because of the outpouring of support he’s received from “courageous working people”—letters, petitions, even an IWW rally in Scotland.

Stuart Lichten, the lawyer representing the IWW, says the reason may be simpler: “I think they know that he’d probably sue.”

The NLRB’s ruling is expected sometime this summer. A finding that Starbucks has engaged in unfair labor practices would be good PR for the workers, but that’s about it. “Starbucks is not facing any punitive damages,” says Lichten. “Usually, the worst that can happen is they’re forced to post a notice that they’ve been found in violation of the National Labor Relations Act.”

If the NLRB allows an election at Madison Avenue or any other location—and the union wins—Starbucks could always do what Wal-Mart did in February with a newly unionized shop in Quebec and simply shut the place down. “They have another one down the block,” Lichten notes. (Actually, the closest is on 33rd and Fifth Avenue.)

Gross and his comrades say they’re more focused on the national effort, aided by the Website starbucksunion.org. He hints that job actions and even wildcat strikes may be in the works: “When people push you against the wall, you have to fight back.”

At a recent fund-raiser, held at a Brooklyn warehouse, an old Wobbly banner, ABOLISH THE WAGE SYSTEM!, hung outside. Inside, a young woman billed as “an award-winning slam poet” read a work called “Bomb Starbucks,” which drew an appreciative yell from a woman in the crowd: “I eat out of the garbage because I work for them!” Another Starbucks foot soldier explained that one of his workmates was fired from an East Village store for trying to organize, but the tactic backfired. The pro-union camp now has a majority of the store’s staff. “The IWW is basically a fan club for anarchists and labor geeks,” the barista admitted. “But we’re making it into something real.”

It remains to be seen just how real things get. The IWW is a distinctly ragtag operation, with fewer than a thousand members worldwide (Starbucks has 80,000 workers in the U.S. alone). In a way, the baristas’ campaign offers the union more hope than the IWW can provide them.

However, old-style labor tactics—or numbers—may be irrelevant here. What the Starbucks insurgents have going for them is something that Wal-Mart workers do not: the brand itself. Thus far, the chain’s fair-trade reputation remains almost entirely intact. A perfect opportunity, in other words, for even a small gang of pesky PR-savvy revolutionaries. “Starbucks is selling an image more than coffee,” says the fired-up East Village barista. “That’s a very vulnerable point for them.”


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