Coffee Break

Lisa Johnson and picket signs outside a tiny protest at Dupont Circle yesterday. One union issue is the use of part-time workers.
Lisa Johnson and picket signs outside a tiny protest at Dupont Circle yesterday. One union issue is the use of part-time workers. (By Melina Mara -- The Washington Post)
By David Segal
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 12, 2007


Four years ago, when he first donned a green apron at the Starbucks at Madison Avenue and 36th Street, Daniel Gross must have looked like any other scruffy college grad in need of a paycheck and a shave. Within a few months, though, it was clear that this Los Angeles native with the perpetual stubble was something very different: the Norma Rae of the Caramel Macchiato.

Soon after he started, Gross and some fellow baristas began to meet at each other's homes to gripe about their jobs. The pace was exhausting, the store chronically understaffed and, under Starbucks's "flexible" scheduling rules, the number of hours they worked could change week to week, leaving them unsure of how much they would earn.

Gross didn't look for a different employer. He climbed on the espresso bar waving a placard that read "UNION" -- metaphorically speaking.

Today, the Starbucks Workers Union, such as it is, is affiliated with the Industrial Workers of the World and claims a "critical mass" of members at nine stores in four states, including a store in Rockville, Md. The group won't release membership numbers, but given that Starbucks has 9,401 stores in the United States and more than 128,000 "partners," as employees are known, we're not exactly talking about a massive groundswell. And to the extent that any union campaign is also a public relations battle, the fight has yet to put even a ding in Starbucks's corporate halo.

Sure, consumers chafe at the prices and the annoying argot of "venti," "grande" and "tall." Yes, others lament the way these drearily standardized outlets have become our national cafe. (Check out the variety and style of coffee culture in Europe and have a good cry.) We cut the company some slack, though, because we're addicted to the coffee and because the Seattle-based giant appears to take a reasoned, benevolent approach to everything from its staff to its Fair Trade-certified beans. Even the bottled water -- it's called Ethos -- seems enlightened.

But Gross, now a 28-year-old, third-year law student at Fordham, says that Starbucks's retail-megachain-with-a-soul image is largely a sham.

"Apparently it's true that if you repeat a lie enough times, it will resonate," he says one recent afternoon in a cafeteria at Fordham. "In my opinion, when it comes to its message about its employees, this company has the greatest PR machine in the business."

That PR machine, at least as it was represented on the phone, is a very polite and patient woman named Valerie O'Neil. "We respect the right of our partners to organize," she explains, adding that 86 percent of Starbucks workers described themselves in a survey as "very satisfied" with their jobs. If the idea of a union has failed to catch on, in her account, it's because few people at Starbucks are interested in joining.

Gross has a different theory about why his team has not yet achieved its goals, described on its Web site as better pay, guaranteed hours, an end to understaffing and a safer workplace. It's because, he says, Starbucks is actively -- and at times illegally -- thwarting them.

He cites the National Labor Relations Board, which has accused Starbucks of fighting dirty against the SWU by using bribery, interrogations and threats of retaliation. Most recently, it ruled on March 30 that Starbucks broke the law 30 times as it tried to push back against Gross and his fellow travelers. The company was accused of threatening to fire baristas who support the cause.

CONTINUED     1           >

© 2007 The Washington Post Company