Celebrating six months of the IWW Starbucks Workers Union in the Twin Cities
On a freezing but bright Minnesota morning, on Jan. 8, baristas gathered on
the sidewalk in front of the Franklin and Nicollet Starbucks in Minneapolis.
Mittens clutched the splintery handles of picket signs. The baristas started
to chant, “Starbucks Union, here to stay; these lattes are union made!”
Almost six months prior, in the first public action of the IWW Starbucks Workers Union in Minnesota, baristas at the Mall of America Starbucks had stopped work to protest the closure of 600 stores. A week earlier, barista Erik Forman had been fired for discussing unionization with his peers. Despite the firing, the idea stuck, and baristas at the Franklin and Nicollet Starbucks soon joined their fellow workers at the Mall of America as public union members.
After six months the growth of the union was evident as workers from several Minneapolis locations came together to give Starbucks a “Big Review.” Standing almost 6 feet tall, the “Review” was indeed “Big.” Aside from the tongue-in-cheek wordplay, the action had special meaning for Starbucks workers.
One union barista ex-plained, “Normally, baristas are nervous about getting their reviews. Management always finds some way to devalue our hard work. The most you get for a raise is 30 cents. Most people aren’t so lucky, getting 20 cents or less. It doesn’t nearly keep up with the cost of living, but there’s not much you can docommunication is one way. We started a union in order to have a voice, and this action shows us talking back.”
Over the last two weeks, the Twin Cities Starbucks Workers Union gathered input from baristas locally and across the U.S. through an online survey, scoring the company on a scale of 1-3 (the same as Starbucks’ own review system). According to the union’s review, Starbucks scored a dismal 0.6, with baristas alleging illegal misconduct in many categories, including discriminatory hiring practices, contracting with sub-minimum wage plantations in the Third World and disrespecting labor law.
Two days earlier the IWW Starbucks Workers Union filed 11 charges encompassing 25 violations of federal labor law with the National Labor Relations Board. Union baristas alleged a pattern of abuses, ranging from interrogation of workers for suspected union sympathies, to instru-cting supervisors to spy on the union, and disciplining workers for participating in the union. The charges are similar to allegations brought against Starbucks by IWW baristas in New York City, where a federal ruling against Starbucks concluded a two-year legal battle between the coffee giant and union baristas.
Workers at the Franklin and Nicollet Starbucks have borne the brunt of much of management’s retaliation. Since they declared their union membership in protest of unsafe working conditions on Nov. 14, 2008, management fired back with a campaign to keep workers, particularly those in the union, compliant and fearful.
Just a day after the union’s press conference, the manager of the Franklin and Nicollet store was replaced by a known anti-union manager from a downtown Minneapolis store. Many of the workers feel the transfer was in response to union activity.
Also, just days after the press conference, one worker was unfairly written up for being late to a meeting, even though she arrived around the same time as nearly everyone else, and nobody (including her) was recorded as being late for payroll. Luckily, that worker saw through management’s attempts to create an atmosphere of fear in the store and immediately decided to join the union to fight back.
About a week and a half after the press conference, Starbucks management held a captive audience meeting with workers to discuss safety and security at the store. They scheduled nearly an hour of time to explain why Starbucks absolutely will not hire a security guard, even going so far as to bring six police officers to the meeting to take management’s side. The workers were originally scheduled only five minutes for questions and answers but were able to get in much more, they say, through their persistence.
During all this time, for about two weeks after the press conference, district manager Caroline Kaker greatly increased her number of visits to the Franklin and Nicollet location. While management again will not admit that this move was directly in response to the press conference and the union, the pattern is one that many workers believe indicated an attempt to intimidate workers and increase surveillance on the store due to its new union presence.
Despite these attempts by management to weaken the union, the union says it is still going strong at Franklin and Nicollet. They have a strong membership core, and are continuing to take action to improve everyday working conditions at the store.
To show their determination to increase safety in their store, and the area in general, they have been active in the community by attending Whittier and Stevens Square Community Organization meetings regularly.
“We just hope being involved will make us safer in the long run, since Starbucks won’t use its resources for a more effective immediate solution,” explains union member Aaron Kocher. “We go to these meetings because we care about our community. Starbucks hasn’t actually sent any representatives, though it proposed the idea.”
As the six-month anniversary of the union nears, the IWW Starbucks Workers Union plans to continue reaching out to workers at Starbucks locations across Minneapolis. Organizers app-arently plan to make good on the promise of their chant: “Starbucks Union, here to stay; these lattes are union made!”