Monday, August 20, 2007

Workers worked over

Via Yahoo! News comes a story in Business Week about a hearing before the National Labor Relations Board regarding charges that Starbucks
violat[ed] labor law 32 times in an effort to prevent unionization at some of its stores. The trial pits a group of young baristas against one of the best known and fastest-growing corporations in the world.
The baristas are represented by the "storied" Industrial Workers of the World, traditionally nicknamed the Wobblies.
Starbucks has a markedly better reputation for employee relations than Wal-Mart. But that is precisely why the IWW is taking on the coffee chain: [Former Starbucks barista Joe] Agins and other workers say Starbucks' employee-friendly image is wholly undeserved. The chain, they say, has a systematic problem with low wages, irregular working hours, and a lack of reliable health care. One statistic the union likes to point to is that only 42% of Starbucks workers use its health-care plan - even lower than the rate at Wal-Mart.
Starbucks claims its wages are "competitive," but that means nothing beyond the implicit admission that other workers in similar situations are equally underpaid. It also brags that it is among the first large employers to offer health insurance to part-time employees - which may well be true, but again it means very little if the health plan is either so bad or so expensive that less than half of those employees can take advantage of it. And considering that all of Starbucks' employees are part-time, the only alternative would be to not offer a health plan at all, which wouldn't be good PR for a company that consciously tries for a "responsible" image.

The company, of course, denies that anyone was unfairly fired or intimidated for union activity; rather, it claims through the high-powered international law firm representing it at the hearing that it's all about a bunch of damned radicals out to destroy all that is good and holy.
"Starbucks is a multibillion-dollar corporation. So I guess that must mean we're bad," said Starbucks attorney John Nash in his opening statement July 9. "I know that the IWW, apparently in their zeal against capitalism or corporations, they don't like that. They don't like any big companies." ...

"This is a campaign that almost from the beginning has tried to do everything possible to disrupt the operations of Starbucks to harm the company," added Nash....
Yes, of course, we understand. The peasants on the plantation were quite happy until those outside agitators came in with their leaflets and signs and other such devices threatening to the company's survival. The fact that something over a year ago, facing similar allegations, the company was forced into a settlement that reinstated two workers and paid $2,000 in damages (I assume, but I do not know, that represented lost wages) means nothing, has no significance.

Some months ago, my wife and I became aware that Starbucks was refusing to negotiate with its workers to recognize a union. From that day on, we have refused to patronize any Starbucks store or purchase any Starbucks product. We'd like to see others do that as well.

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