Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Starbucks Brews Challenge for Labor

September 29th, 2008 | Kim Fellner

Whassup with Starbucks and labor? My research for Wrestling With Starbucks: Conscience, Capital, Cappuccino plunged me below the foam and the fury to discover a company rife with contradictions, and nowhere more clearly than in its dealings with workers.

In contrast to Wal-Mart, Starbucks is considered a leader in socially responsible business practices. It was an early adopter of health care for domestic partners, pioneered benefits for part-timers, has a vividly multiracial workforce (including top officials), emphasizes training, and often promotes from within, although the opportunities are diminishing along with the company’s stock price. In other words, when it comes to how it treats its workers, Starbucks is far better than the miserable norm.

What Wal-Mart and Starbucks share, though is a baseline hourly wage that generally hovers between seven and ten dollars. They also share an antipathy to unions. “We’re not anti-union, we’re pro-partner,” is the official Starbucks mantra; but while there is some validity to the latter assertion, the first part stretches credibility. Over the years, Starbucks has vigorously fought union organizing drives, sometimes to the point of illegality. As Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz wrote in his book, Pour Your Heart Into It (Hyperion, 1997), he wanted Starbucks workers “to believe in their hearts that management trusted them and treated them with respect. I was convinced that under my leadership, employees would come to realize that I would listen to their concerns. If they had faith in me and my motives, they wouldn’t need a union.”

Indeed, it often seems that today’s unions are ill suited to meet the needs of younger workers or the challenges of organizing in the global economy. But as Andy Stern, president of the Service Employees International Union rightly observes, “You look at a guy like Howard Schultz and you say, ‘Okay, you’re a really good employer, but you’re a corporation.’ When does somebody come into Starbucks and say, ‘these 50,000 dollars for manager salaries are too high; and these health care costs are really getting out of control….’ What is it that institutionalizes the good practices so it’s not noblesse oblige?”

What complicates the problem is that workplace democracy—one of the most important values that unions add—is not a money-making proposition. Yet, alongside blunting economic disparity, it is perhaps the foremost reason for unions to exist. For authentic worker issues to be incorporated into the debates over the global economy, not to mention the outcome, workers must have a collective presence of their own, one that transcends the individual workplace and has the potential to encompass the global marketplace. No matter how benevolent Starbucks might be, it’s not going to explicitly argue on behalf of worker concerns. Some of what’s good for General Motors or Starbucks might also benefit employees. But some of what makes life sustainable for workers, be it living wages, or health and safety regulations, can easily be sacrificed to corporate bottom lines unless there is a countervailing demand.

Already, with the plummeting economy, efforts to make Starbucks leaner and meaner are affecting the workforce, as “partners” are feeling more like disposable workers. When I first started my research, an astonishing number of employees gave the company kudos despite its flaws. Today, not so much. Recently, I took copies of my Starbucks book to some of the baristas and store managers I had interviewed. “I don’t know,” one of them told me. “When I started six years ago, this was the best job of its kind. Now it’s all about the money. It’s like nobody cares about us any more.”

That’s a real problem for Starbucks, and for all of us. As long as we mandate the sustainability of capital and leave worker rights to paternalism, our conscience will be at risk.

About the Author: Kim Fellner is the author of Wrestling With Starbucks: Conscience, Capital, Cappuccino (Rutgers University Press, July). She works in the labor movement.

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