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Pittsburgh Starbucks Union Challenges Corporate Anti Free Speech Zone

Members of the Pittsburgh IWW Starbucks Union and allied Friends of Labor took their most recent protest to a busy downtown shopping district on December 23. After holding demonstrations in Squirrel Hill, Bloomfield, and on the city’s Southside, the Wobblies targeted on Saturday a Starbucks store in popular Market Square.

Since Thanksgiving it was the union’s fourth mass demonstration against Starbucks union-busting practices, low wages, and poor working conditions.
However, this time the IWW mobilized its pickets and marched into nearby PPG Plaza, encircling a massive outdoor ice arena and Christmas tree with chants of, “Ho! Ho! Union Busting’s Got to Go!” Hundreds of Pittsburghers and tourists witnessed IWW banners, flags, and protest signs before PPG security guards rushed to stop the marchers. But the “pinkertons” couldn’t stop the Wobs as they continued their full walk around the plaza and headed back to Market Square. PPG Industries owns the plaza that serves as a pseudo public space for city residents. It is one of the area’s many corporately controlled spaces, along with shopping malls, sports stadiums, and college campuses, which increasingly guard against public expressions of free speech and demonstration.

PPG’s free speech crack down on the demonstrators only illustrated the union’s message that corporations are eager to stifle workers when they exercise an independent voice. The union’s theme for the day’s protest was that Starbucks continues to hush and intimidate its workers from talking up the union. In doing so, the company is trying to bust the union.

After the union filed unfair labor practices against Starbucks, the corporation agreed in March 2006 (NLRB 2-CA-36394) to four pages of prohibitions and corrective measures against union-busting practices in which Starbucks pledges, among other things, not to interrogate workers concerning union membership, not to promise workers anything as a way to dissuade union membership, not to threaten workers with loss of wages in retaliation for union participation, not to punish workers for wearing union buttons, and not to increase supervision of workers in order to discourage union activities. The IWW contends that despite the Agreement with the National Labor Relations Board, Starbucks is still intimidating and firing workers who stand up and assert their right to unionize. The NLRB is currently investigating the firing of five NYC baristas for what the IWW contends is lawful union participation and activity.

“Right here in Pittsburgh we’ve witnessed Starbucks’ dubious and heavy-handed measures to keep the union out of the workplace,” said IWW organizer Kevin Farkas. “When the union is around you can see the way managers hyper-supervise employees and vigilantly guard against conversations about the union. Believe it or not, a Starbucks manager once demanded that I—a paying customer—leave a store after I mentioned the union to another customer.”

Farkas went on to say that Starbucks is clearly trying to dissuade its so-called “partners” against the union. Like many corporations today, Starbucks uses “Big Brother” tactics--ever watchful and concerned about how its employees learn about and perceive the union. For example, an August 2006 public statement by Starbucks states:

While Starbucks respects the free choice of our partners, we firmly believe that our work environment, coupled with our outstanding compensation and benefits, make unions unnecessary at Starbucks. We respect our partners' right to organize, but we believe that they would not find it necessary given our pro-partner environment.

The union has long recognized such statements as perfunctory—a page right out of the union-avoidance playbook and product of corporate propaganda machines. But the real question is if employers did respect workers’ so-called “free-choice” to unionize, then why do they work so hard at trying to restrict their activities and convincing them that unions are unnecessary? Shouldn’t the workers be allowed to organize without employer interference and meddling?

With such corporate manipulation going on, do workers actually believe that they are really “partners” and “associates” of these multi-billion dollar corporations? From a critical perspective, stomping free-speech and manipulating perceptions about unions seems to be just an ugly business decision that has everything to do with keeping profits and power in the hands of the bosses. The IWW, on the other hand, has vowed to put people before profits and demands social and economic justice for those who operate the stores, make the coffee, clean the bathrooms, wash the dishes, and serve the customers. The union is about workers speaking up for themselves and standing in solidarity as real Starbucks partners.

The Pittsburgh Starbucks Union, along with its Friends of Labor supporters, has planned future protests. To learn more about the Starbucks Union and how you can join the IWW, make donations to the campaign, or become a Friend of Labor supporter, email [email protected] and visit