Over the summer anti-sweatshop group No Sweat will be running a campaign highlighting the highly exploitative conditions for workers at Starbucks, the world’s largest coffee chain, particularly their anti-union record. On Saturday 18 August there will be a national day of action — get in touch with email@example.com for details of how to get involved. Here, Harriet Parker gives some background.
Starbucks was founded in the early 1970s. Last year its annual global turnover was $7.8bn (£3.9bn). Starbucks announced in October 2006 its long-term expansion target of 40,000 outlets around the world, more than triple the existing number. At the time it had 12,000 global outlets.
In 1998, Starbucks bought the Seattle Coffee Company to establish itself in the UK. It opened its first store in London in September 1998, on the King’s Road, Chelsea. Starbucks opened its 500th outlet in the UK in July 2006. The company announced in January this year that it would aim to open a new store in London every fortnight for the next decade. Its highest paid director got paid £452,000 in 2005.
Over 100,000 people world-wide work for Starbucks, 5,000 of them in the UK.
Starbucks workers in the United States earn as little as $6, $7, or $8 per hour depending on the location. Every single barista (server) in the United States is part-time and not guaranteed any work hours per week. For example, a Starbucks worker can get 35 hours of work one week, 22 hours the week after, and 10 hours the following week.
Starbucks baristas work at a relentless pace to meet extraordinary customer demand. The Starbucks work environment is also full of ergonomic dangers, resulting in repetitive strain injuries for many workers.
Workers report that the managers are disrespectful. Schedules are often made without consideration for a worker’s need to a healthy sleep schedule. Starbucks requires workers to call around the city to get a shift covered when ill or in bereavement.
In 2004, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) began an organising campaign in Starbucks in the US, forming the Starbucks Workers Union (SWU). In 2006 the union took the company to the National Labor Relations Board for anti-union activity and victimising union members. Yet within months, it sacked another union organiser Daniel Gross.
The SWU alleges that the coffee giant: unlawfully fired two IWW baristas in retaliation for union activity; illegally disciplined workers for discussing the union during and after work; threatened, issued negative performance reviews, and suspended workers for supporting the union.
According to the Guardian, coffee growers receive little more than $1.10 (50p) for a pound of coffee, which is then sold for $160 (£80).
Oxfam launched a campaign against Starbucks in October 2006 after it effectively blocked Ethiopia’s attempts to trademark its coffee beans in the United States. Around 90,000 people wrote to chief executive Jim Donald to complain. Starbucks put out a video on the website YouTube, which said it would be illegal for the Ethiopians to trademark their beans Sidamo and Harar in the US since they are geographical regions which cannot be trademarked there.
Starbucks and the Ethiopian farmers signed a marketing, licensing and distribution deal in early May 2007. It quit its campaign against the African country’s farmers being allowed to trademark the names of their highest quality beans in the US.
By April 2007, the SWU had a public organised presence at nine Starbucks stores spanning four states and Starbucks baristas in several other states.
In New York City, SWU members have won important victories:
• Four city-wide wage increases from $7.75 to $8.75 per hour and $9.63 for many workers after six months on the job
• More consistent scheduling of hours
• The right to wear union pins
• Significantly reducing unsafe rat and insect infestation in stores
• Safety improvement in the area of repetitive strain injuries
In Chicago, SWU members have also won important victories:
• A city-wide wage increase from $7.50 to $7.80 per hour and $8.58 for many workers after six months on the job
• More work hours and more secure scheduling
• Health and safety improvements
In November 2005, Starbucks workers in Auckland, New Zealand staged a one-hour protest about New Zealand’s minimum wage for staff working in the fast-food sector. This was the first ever strike by Starbucks workers.
The strike was part of the SuperSizeMyPay campaign. It included more than 30 Starbucks workers from 10 different Auckland stores, joined by about 150 supporters and staff from KFC, Pizza Hut and McDonalds.
In March 2007, activists from an anarchist group called the Space Hijackers organised an “East End knees up” outside the new Starbucks on Whitechapel High Street, giving out free tea and coffee to passers-by.
Justice from Bean to Cup
Starbucks: exposing the reality
Dan Katz reviews Coffee Sirens, directed by Diane Krautamer (35 minutes)
This is one of two short films made by US activists to explain the reality of Starbucks’ corporate practice and to promote workers’ rights (the second is Together we will win which comes with Coffee Sirens).
Starbucks is careful to maintain a relaxed, “human” image. It has paid for full page adverts in US papers to explain the benefits to its workforce of its healthcare plan. It gives small amounts to good causes.
This film exposes the reality. Using interviews with US baristas and Ethiopian farmers who grow coffee for Starbucks, this film shows Starbucks to be a union-busting company which exploits farmers and workers while serving expensive coffee.
The basic problem faced by US baristas is that Starbucks scheduling means that 100% of ordinary workers are part time and that there is no guarantee of a stable, minimum number of hours work. That, coupled with very low hourly wage rates ($7.75/£3.85 per hour is the lowest figure mentioned), mean that baristas live in poverty.
Because wages are so low, and hours are “precarious”, very few of the workers can afford the company’s much publicised employee health scheme. Starbucks has a lower proportion of workers covered under their health scheme than even the notorious WalMart.
Because pay is so bad at Starbucks workers have begun to organise unions. In New York the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) have taken a lead. In response, the company has victimised union activists, sacking and harassing those suspected of helping the union.
To its credit the IWW has stuck to the task of organising and has responded by filing a series of claims against the company. So victimised workers have got their jobs back as a result.
And the union activists have raised other concerns about Starbucks which should be of concern to all those who drink their coffee. The film details infestations of cockroaches, rats and mice.
The IWW is now attempting to repeat the New York/US organising drive in the UK. No Sweat will be helping their work.
You can get a copy of Coffee Sirens from No Sweat. Why not organise a local screening and ask for an IWW or No Sweat speaker — contact firstname.lastname@example.org