Baristas of the World, Unite!

Daniel Gross standing in front of his employer—and nemesis—on May 15.Photo: Jake Chessum

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.

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.

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 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.”

Baristas of the World, Unite!