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Originally published January 2, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified January 4, 2007 at 11:05 AM

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Union struggles to reach, recruit Starbucks workers

To hear the Industrial Workers of the World tell it, Starbucks baristas are fed up. They're underpaid, their hours stink, and many can't...

Seattle Times business reporter

To hear the Industrial Workers of the World tell it, Starbucks baristas are fed up.

They're underpaid, their hours stink, and many can't afford the company's health insurance, according to Daniel Gross, an IWW organizer who spent three years as a Starbucks barista in New York.

"Starbucks has falsely cashed in on a socially responsible image," said the energetic Fordham Law School student who became involved with the union around the time he left a job at Borders Books and Music.

"There's a tremendous amount of discontent among Starbucks workers," said Gross, 27.

The IWW holds protests and issues news releases on everything from the fat and sugar in Starbucks beverages to its treatment of Ethiopian coffee farmers. But, after a three-year effort, few workers have joined the fight.

While the IWW has had trouble gaining traction, other labor unions that have been successful with Starbucks workers say the company has fought them aggressively. In the past two years, Starbucks has agreed to pay more than $165,000 to settle unfair-labor-practices complaints, although it admitted no wrongdoing.

Like many corporate executives, Starbucks Chairman Howard Schultz believes his company treats employees so well that they should not want a union.

Industrial Workers of the World

Nickname: "Wobblies." The IWW embraces the term but doesn't know where it originated.

Founded: In 1905, partly in opposition to the craft unionism of the American Federation of Labor (AFL)

Current members: About 2,000 worldwide

Famous members and supporters: Mary Harris "Mother" Jones, Bill Haywood, Joe Hill, Helen Keller, Kenneth Rexroth, T-Bone Slim

Decline: Membership and influence fell sharply after the anti-radical purges of the World War I era.

Stance on anarchism: Many anarchists have been IWW members, but it is not a requirement of IWW membership.

From the preamble to the IWW Constitution: It is the historic mission of the working class to do away with capitalism. The army of production must be organized, not only for everyday struggle with capitalists, but also to carry on production when capitalism shall have been overthrown. By organizing industrially we are forming the structure of the new society within the shell of the old.


In his 1997 book about Starbucks, he writes about building trust with employees after buying the company a decade earlier.

"I was convinced that under my leadership, employees would come to realize that I would listen to their concerns," Schultz wrote. "If they had faith in me and my motives, they wouldn't need a union."

Labor experts doubt the IWW will have much success organizing the coffee-shop giant. The union, whose members are sometimes called "Wobblies," has not been a major player in the labor arena since its heyday in the first half of the 1900s.

"These are leftist anarchists who just love stirring up trouble," said Richard Hurd, professor of labor studies at Cornell University. "I don't see any lasting result from their efforts."

The IWW is not trying to organize Starbucks in a traditional way, by negotiating contracts between workers and the company.

It gave up on that tactic in 2004, after planning a union election at a single Manhattan store. Starbucks fought the effort, saying the vote should include 50 stores in that area.

The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) decided in the union's favor, but Starbucks appealed that decision shortly before the election. Faced with what it believed would be a long delay, the IWW withdrew its petition in favor of protests and other direct action. Now members pay $6 a month in dues to support those efforts.

Starbucks believes the IWW withdrew because it lacked enough employee support to win the vote, said Starbucks spokeswoman Valerie O'Neil.

"Modest-sized group"

The IWW, which claims about 2,000 members worldwide, refers to its Starbucks contingent as a "modest-sized group with positive membership growth." Gross won't say how many Starbucks workers are IWW members even at stores that the union trumpets as having declared membership. There are six such stores in New York City and one in Chicago.

"If I were an employee of Starbucks and I was interested in effectively challenging my working conditions," Cornell's Hurd said, "I would contact Unite Here, not the IWW."

A union like Unite Here, which represents hospitality, retail and other workers, would go beyond rallies and news releases, he said. "They have ways to affect delivery trucks and suppliers and publicly embarrass [Starbucks]."

Unite Here has not received enough inquiries from Starbucks workers to gain the attention of the union's international office, said press secretary Amanda Cooper. As a matter of policy, it does not disclose which companies it hopes to organize.

Other unions have made more headway with Starbucks workers. Still, only eight of the chain's 7,000 company-owned stores are unionized, all of them in Canada.

However, a lot of people who wear Starbucks aprons actually work for other companies, and some of them are unionized. Starbucks baristas at many airport locations, for example, receive their paychecks from HMS Host and belong to Unite Here.

One HMS Host employee at a Starbucks in Chicago's O'Hare International Airport spoke in a 2005 news release issued by the union: "I'm trying to save enough money to bring my 4-year-old son from Ecuador to live with me, but with the wages I make, I don't know when I will be able to see him again," said Ambar Vera.

After a year-and-a-half on the job, she made $6.55 an hour and paid $140 a month for health insurance.

Unions that have negotiated contracts with Starbucks say it is difficult.

"Despite all their rhetoric of being progressive, they're as anti-union as a McDonald's or Wal-Mart," said John Bowman, a national representative for the Canadian Auto Workers, which represents about 75 Starbucks employees in the Vancouver, B.C., area.

"They go on ad nauseum about how wonderful an employer they are because they're paying an extra $1.50 an hour," he said. "For what they make, they could pay an awful lot more, but they have a lot of employees convinced they aren't worth more."

The CAW and other unions have made a big push for better scheduling in Starbucks stores.

Some baristas cannot get the 20 hours a week necessary to qualify for health insurance, union reps say. Others have such sporadic hours that they can't have another part-time job to augment their income.

Starbucks does not guarantee baristas or other hourly workers that they will work 40 hours a week, although officials say many baristas do work full time.

"We are as accommodating as possible for many partners' requests for additional hours," O'Neil said.

The International Union of Operating Engineers Local 286 had trouble with Starbucks at its Kent roasting plant, where the union no longer represents workers.

In 2005, Starbucks settled charges the union had filed with the NLRB accusing the company of systematically screening out job applicants who had worked at unionized employers or had other perceived union sympathies.

The charges also alleged that Starbucks had fired an employee for refusing to continue such screening.

Charges settled

The company admitted no wrongdoing but agreed to pay the employee $125,000 and to offer jobs and make $5,000 payments to each of eight applicants who had earlier been turned down, allegedly because they had union backgrounds.

In dealing with the union, Schultz "fought tooth and nail and hired a union-busting lawyer from back East," said David Maxwell, the local's business manager.

"If he'd paid the guys what he paid the lawyer," Maxwell said, "there wouldn't have been any problem."

Organizing large fast-food chains is notoriously difficult.

Most have only a handful of employees at each location, a lot of part-time workers and high turnover — circumstances that make it difficult to rally even the most dissatisfied employees.

Still, it can be done.

Matt McCarten, a high-profile political figure in New Zealand, formed a union that began striking against Starbucks in 2005.

The result was a contract for about 450 people working at Starbucks stores who received an average pay raise of 12 percent and better work-hour options.

The new union, which is called Unite but is not related to Unite Here, negotiated the contract with a company that operates Starbucks locations in New Zealand. It subsequently organized workers at Kentucky Fried Chicken, Pizza Hut and McDonald's in that country.

"We organize at fast-food chains and multinational brands — the unorganizable," McCarten said.

They do it by appealing to customers and communities.

"That's the only way you're going to organize the working poor," he said. "You're not going to get a powerful multinational to say, 'Goodness me, you're right. Let's give workers a 20 percent pay raise.' "

Starbucks gave U.S. baristas a pay increase last fall, but it won't say how much they are paid.

The IWW estimates that baristas start at $6 to $8.75 an hour depending on the market. The minimum wage in Washington state went up to $7.93 an hour on Monday; the federally mandated minimum wage is $5.15 an hour.

Gross said many baristas can't afford health insurance, even when they are eligible for it.

Only 42 percent of Starbucks workers have health insurance. The company says the main reason that baristas decline coverage is that they have another health plan, often through their parents, a spouse or a full-time job elsewhere.

A history in the Northwest

Despite its modest numbers, the IWW has created some static.

Last year, Starbucks settled an NLRB complaint brought by the IWW that alleged unfair labor practices. The company admitted no wrongdoing but agreed to offer two workers their jobs back and to pay almost $2,000 altogether to three employees.

The IWW says five other union workers have been unjustly fired, including Gross. O'Neil, the Starbucks spokeswoman, said no employees have been disciplined or terminated as a result of union activity.

In August, the IWW filed a complaint with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration claiming rat and insect infestations at three Starbucks stores in Manhattan.

OSHA subsequently inspected the locations and found two serious hazards — blocked access to a fire extinguisher and narrowed access to an exit aisle — as well as more minor violations. It found no health hazards, vermin-related or otherwise.

The IWW's history in the Pacific Northwest includes violent incidents, most often directed at the union. Its members were considered radical back in the early 1900s because they supported a 40-hour workweek, worker ownership of factories and sanitary conditions in logging camps.

On Veteran's Day 1919, members of the American Legion marched to the IWW's union hall in Centralia intending to attack it. In the ensuing fight, four Legionnaires were shot and killed.

Citizens reacted strongly, arresting IWW and other union members in their halls and homes. One logger and IWW member was lynched.

The Wobblies "had their heyday 100 years ago," said Hurd, the Cornell professor of labor studies. "The IWW is pretty much an anachronism in the modern world."

Melissa Allison: 206-464-3312 or

Information in this article, originally published January 2, 2007, was corrected January 4, 2007. A previous version of this story appeared to put the blame on the Industrial Workers of the World for violent episodes that occurred in the Northwest. The IWW was more often a target of violence, and as the story said, four American Legionnaires were killed in 1919 when they marched on the IWW's union hall in Centralia planning to attack it.

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