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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)

Starbucks denies all the accusations and plans to challenge them in court, including a claim that Starbucks illegally fired two workers -- one of them Daniel Gross. A picket to protest those firings, and raise the profile of the cause, took place last night at Dupont Circle, at the store at 1501 Connecticut Ave. NW.

"They said I threatened a district manager," says Gross, guffawing at the memory. This was in July of last year. "We were on a picket line, outside of a store, for a guy named Evan, whom they'd threatened to fire. And this manager came by and I said, 'Don't fire Evan, that would be a mistake, that would be a mistaken decision.' " A few weeks later, after what was described as an internal investigation, a Starbucks manager showed Gross the door. He took his sweet time walking through it, Gross recalls, shaking hands with co-workers and formally saying goodbye.

"I think they correctly perceived," he says of Starbucks executives, "that they hadn't seen the last of me."

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The home of the cinnamon dolce latte seems an improbable hothouse for a workers' revolution. So it is with any fast-food shop. Workers in that sector don't generally expect a career there. Who cares what your third-year wage increase will be if you plan to stick around for only six months?

Still, Starbucks, of all places -- it regularly shows up in Fortune's list of "100 Top Employers to Work For" issue, and it claims to spend more on health care for employees than on coffee. Chairman Howard Schultz trumpets the company's values whenever he turns up on TV, which is often.

"We want to lead with our heart, we want to do the right thing," he told Charlie Rose in a recent interview.

In Gross's opinion, this is Starbucks at its self-mythologizing worst. He offered his considerably dimmer view of the company last week during a sort of insider's tour of a store. He hadn't set foot in a Starbucks in a while, largely because the IWW is boycotting the place. But he didn't buy anything. He just watched and critiqued. At one point, "Mambo Italiano" by Rosemary Clooney played in the store.

"Oh my God, that song," Gross moaned, like a man who'd heard it 7,000 times. "I thought they'd gotten rid of it."

Gross has the intensity of a true believer, leavened by an almost nonstop, toothy smile. He was uneasy enough being the focus of this story to refuse to be photographed without other union members in the shot, and he declined to say much about his upbringing, except that his grandfather drove a liquor truck in the Bronx and was in the Teamsters union.

"His pension allowed him to live his final years with dignity," Gross says. "Look at my generation. Millions of people in the service industry, a part of the economy untouched by the labor movement."

He leaned against the wall with all the espresso machines. "The key in retail is absolute control over the employee," he went on. "They've got rules for everything. The iced teas get 10 shakes. Not nine. Not eight. Before you hand it to the customer, 10 shakes. They're terrified a union will come in and say 'Nine shakes is enough.' "

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