IWW Starbucks Workers Union: A Year in Review and a LOOK Ahead
Despite the ferocious union-busting campaign waged by
Starbucks, 2006 was an incredible year for IWW
baristas and their supporters. Building on multiple
victories this past year, the IWW Starbucks Workers
Union [StarbucksUnion.org] is poised to continue
deploying innovative organizing strategies and
exerting shop-floor power in what will be an exciting
The most gratifying aspect of 2006's accomplishments
is the staggering number of Wobblies and supporters
from around the world who were active participants in
the campaign. For example, the May 17th Day of Action
for Starbucks Workers- commemorating the founding of
the SWU- saw IWW supporters at Starbucks stores in 20
cities and 4 countries reaching out to baristas and
protesting for the right to join a union.
This past Fall after protracted pressure from the IWW,
Starbucks issued yet another nationwide wage increase.
While the combination of precarious hours and a
still-low wage leaves many baristas in poverty, it's
gratifying that more money is ending up in workers'
pockets because of the IWW campaign. Indeed, many New
York City baristas have seen an unprecedented wage
gain of almost 25% in just over two and a half years
of Wobbly organizing.
2006 also saw a major legal victory for Starbucks
baristas around the United States. In the first case
ever filed at the National Labor Relations Board by
Starbucks baristas, the coffee giant entered a
settlement agreement with the government over massive
union-busting against the SWU. The coffee giant had
to reinstate two IWW baristas who had been illegally
discharged for union activity. Starbucks' blatantly
unlawful national policies against wearing union pins
and sharing written union information on company
property were struck down. The company further agreed
to refrain from spying on union activists, bribing
workers, and much more.
New York City baristas also saw management improve
sanitation and structural deficiencies in stores to
address rat and insect infestation. After Starbucks
failed to heed multiple demands from the Union to
prevent infestation, IWW baristas assembled video and
photographic evidence of the critters and made them
available to the public. Although do-nothing OSHA
predictably did nothing, the resulting media frenzy
from the SWU's press conference reverberated around
the world. Baristas were very gratified to see
District Managers on their hands and knees scrubbing
the floor. The power of workers articulating their
own independent voice on the job, in the community,
and in the wider public arena is tremendous.
One of the most meaningful victories of the year
involved religious discrimination. Suley Ayala, a
practicing Wiccan, worked for years at Starbucks
wearing a Pentagram without incident. Shortly after
she joined the union, management began to harass her
about wearing it even though she made it clear that
the symbol had deep religious significance to her.
Starbucks began sending Suley home without pay for
refusing to take off the necklace.
The IWW went to work protesting and filing legal
charges with the EEOC. But the victory blow came on
the shop floor. As Suley was in the process of being
kicked out of
work for wearing the Pentagram, fellow IWW barista
Tomer Malchi defiantly put the Pentagram on himself.
Though he was kicked out with Suley that day,
Starbucks' will on the issue had been broken. The
company paid Suley for the hours she missed and didn't
send her home again.
The SWU became concerned in 2006 as several members
began to complain about weight gain which they
suspected was a result of consuming Starbucks products
on the job. Along with the Center for Science in the
Public Interest (CSPI), the Union examined the
nutritional content of Stabucks products. Both groups
were shocked. A large number of Starbucks products
contained a extraordinary amount of calories, sugar,
and fat- including extremely harmful trans fats.
Trans fats are associated with obesity and related
ailments including heart disease, which is the leading
cause of death in the United States.
The union, in association with CSPI, embarked on a
strategic communications effort in an attempt to
improve Starbucks' nutrition practices. The result
was a global media phenomenon with outlets including
CNN and Reuters carrying damning information about the
artery clogging items on Starbucks' menu. Just over
six months after this effort, Starbucks announced that
it was removing all trans fats from half of its U.S.
stores and from the remaining half by the end of 2007.
While several forces have converged to move fast food
companies away from harmful trans fats, the SWU was
pleased to play a role at Starbucks.
2006 witnessed the advent of the Justice from Bean to
Cup! initiative. Bean to Cup seeks to link baristas
and coffee farmers across the Starbucks supply chain
to achieve dignity on the job. Coffee farmers in the
Global South are living in brutal poverty selling
their product to highly profitable Starbucks. The
glowing rhetoric Starbucks uses to describe its coffee
purchasing practices is nothing but a bunch of hot
air. By uniting across borders, workers increase
their ability to confront global Capital.
Solidarity poured in from around the world this year.
Working people gave up precious family time over the
Thanksgiving weekend to condemn the retaliatory
firings of IWW baristas. The list of groups who took
a stand in 2006 with the Wobbly baristas and called on
their members not to spend their hard-earned money at
Starbucks until the company stops union-busting is too
numerous to list here. Check out
www.StarbucksUnion.org for the moving and truly global
solidarity offered by these groups.
In my view, the most significant development for the
campaign in 2006 was the expansion of the union to a
second city, Chicago. The baristas there worked hard
building a strong shop-floor committee and despite
extensive surveillance from management they executed a
successful going public action. The expansion outside
of New York demonstrated the scalability of solidarity
Avoiding entanglements with the government
and union bureaucrats, a solidarity union depends
solely on the ingenuity and courage of workers
themselves. The Chicago baristas have already
received a wage increase and they executed a beautiful
Direct Action that won them the stepladder that eluded
them for so long as workers without a union. See
http://www.counterpunch.org/gross09092006.html for a
play-by-play of that action.
The SWU's gains in 2006 were achieved despite
Starbucks' escalation of its attack against the union
to an unprecedented level. Again and again the
company showed nothing but contempt for the right of
workers to free association in the form of a union,
ignoring the NLRB settlement with impunity. Starbucks
cynically fired five of the most outspoken Wobbly
baristas for protected union activity. Threats and
surveillance continued in earnest. The anti-IWW
propaganda is unrelenting especially the red-baiting.
The numerous anti-union firings were a significant
setback. It is a testament to the breathtaking
courage of my sister and fellow workers on this
campaign that Starbucks' union-busting in 2006 did not
break the union. It's a profound honor to work with
people possessing such steely determination. Their
thirst for liberty will not be extinguished by the
shameful acts of this employer. Armed with a deep
respect for the dignity of the working class and
workers as individuals, the Wobblies have never backed
down from a fight and we're not about to start now.
And fight in 2007 we will.
Through aggressive organizing and outreach, the SWU
will continue its expansion in 2007. Nothing is more
important to the campaign than increasing shop-floor
power. At the same time, our comprehensive corporate
campaign highlighting the hypocrisy of the Starbucks
brand will deliver heavy blows in the fight for a
living wage and secure work hours.
We are confident that the impressive participation
rate of the union at large in the campaign will
continue. If you haven't yet gotten involved in the
SWU, make it happen in 2007. It's a fight that goes
far beyond Starbucks. The struggle goes to the heart
of corporate power and the kind of society we want to
live in. Will Starbucks, Wal-Mart, ExxonMobil, and
Bechtel continue to lord over our communities, destroy
our environment, spark immoral wars, and distort our
democracy, or will we live free? By organizing the
multinationals with a rank and file union, we help
build a new society in the shell of the old.
If your local union or community group hasn't done so
yet, consider creating a solidarity committee for the
Starbucks Workers Union. That's the best way to
coordinate outreach, protests, coalition-building,
fundraising, and more. Also, please mark your
calendars for two important SWU dates in 2007. First,
baristas, coffee farmer advocates, community members,
unionists, human rights activists, and the religious
community are uniting for a spectacular protest at the
Starbucks Annual Meeting in Seattle on March 21. It
is the first time the SWU will have a presence at the
annual meeting and we're very excited about it. Next,
the SWU will once again rise up around the world on
May 17th in a Day of Action for Starbucks Workers.
May 17th is a critical day for the campaign and
Wobblies who participated last year had a very
Finally, the SWU is inspired by all the organizing
taking place around the world. We are eager to lend a
hand however we can. Don't hesitate to let us know
what we can do.
Together we win.
Daniel Gross is an organizer with the IWW Starbucks
Workers Union and a former barista at the company
fired for organizing activity. A version of this
article appeared in the February 2007 issue of the
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