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IWW Starbucks Workers Union: A Year in Review and a Look Ahead

By Daniel Gross

Despite the ferocious union-busting campaign waged by Starbucks, 2006 was an incredible year for IWW baristas and their supporters. Building on multiple victories this past year, the IWW Starbucks Workers Union (SWU) is poised to continue deploying innovative organizing strategies and exerting shop-floor power in what will be an exciting 2007.

The most gratifying aspect of 2006's accomplishments is the staggering number of Wobblies and supporters from around the world who were active participants in the campaign. For example, the May 17th Day of Action for Starbucks Workers- commemorating the founding of the SWU- saw IWW supporters at Starbucks stores in 20 cities and 4 countries reaching out to baristas and protesting for the right to join a union.

2006 Victories

This past Fall after protracted pressure from the IWW, Starbucks issued yet another nationwide wage increase. While the combination of precarious hours and a still-low wage leaves many baristas in poverty, it's gratifying that more money is ending up in workers' pockets because of the IWW campaign. Indeed, many New York City baristas have seen an unprecedented wage gain of almost 25% in just over two and a half years of Wobbly organizing.

2006 also saw a major legal victory for Starbucks baristas around the United States. In the first case ever filed at the National Labor Relations Board by Starbucks baristas, the coffee giant entered a settlement agreement with the government over massive union-busting against the SWU. The coffee giant had to reinstate two IWW baristas who had been illegally discharged for union activity. Starbucks' blatantly unlawful national policies against wearing union pins and sharing written union information on company property were struck down. The company further agreed to refrain from spying on union activists, bribing workers, and much more.

New York City baristas also saw management improve sanitation and structural deficiencies in stores to address rat and insect infestation. After Starbucks failed to heed multiple demands from the Union to prevent infestation, IWW baristas assembled video and photographic evidence of the critters and made them available to the public. Although do-nothing OSHA predictably did nothing, the resulting media frenzy from the SWU's press conference reverberated around the world. Baristas were very gratified to see District Managers on their hands and knees scrubbing the floor. The power of workers articulating their own independent voice on the job, in the community, and in the wider public arena is tremendous.

One of the most meaningful victories of the year involved religious discrimination. Suley Ayala, a practicing Wiccan, worked for years at Starbucks wearing a Pentagram without incident. Shortly after she joined the union, management began to harass her about wearing it even though she made it clear that the symbol had deep religious significance to her. Starbucks began sending Suley home without pay for refusing to take off the necklace. The IWW went to work protesting and filing legal charges with the EEOC. But the victory blow came on the shop floor. As Suley was in the process of being kicked out of work for wearing the Pentagram, fellow IWW barista Tomer Malchi defiantly put the Pentagram on himself. Though he was kicked out with Suley that day, Starbucks' will on the issue had been broken. The company paid Suley for the hours she missed and didn't send her home again.

The SWU became concerned in 2006 as several members began to complain about weight gain which they suspected was a result of consuming Starbucks products on the job. Along with the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), the Union examined the nutritional content of Stabucks products. Both groups were shocked. A large number of Starbucks products contained a extraordinary amount of calories, sugar, and fat- including extremely harmful trans fats. Trans fats are associated with obesity and related ailments including heart disease, which is the leading cause of death in the United States.

The union, in association with CSPI, embarked on a strategic communications effort in an attempt to improve Starbucks' nutrition practices. The result was a global media phenomenon with outlets including CNN and Reuters carrying damning information about the artery clogging items on Starbucks' menu. Just over six months after this effort, Starbucks announced that it was removing all trans fats from half of its U.S. stores and from the remaining half by the end of 2007. While several forces have converged to move fast food companies away from harmful trans fats, the SWU was pleased to play a role at Starbucks.

2006 witnessed the advent of the Justice from Bean to Cup! initiative. Bean to Cup seeks to link baristas and coffee farmers across the Starbucks supply chain to achieve dignity on the job. Coffee farmers in the Global South are living in brutal poverty selling their product to highly profitable Starbucks. The glowing rhetoric Starbucks uses to describe its coffee purchasing practices is nothing but a bunch of hot air. By uniting across borders, workers increase their ability to confront global Capital.

Solidarity poured in from around the world this year. Working people gave up precious family time over the Thanksgiving weekend to condemn the retaliatory firings of IWW baristas. The list of groups who took a stand in 2006 with the Wobbly baristas and called on their members not to spend their hard-earned money at Starbucks until the company stops union-busting is too numerous to list here. Check out for the moving and truly global solidarity offered by these groups.

In my view, the most significant development for the campaign in 2006 was the expansion of the union to a second city, Chicago. The baristas there worked hard building a strong shop-floor committee and despite extensive surveillance from management they executed a successful going public action. The expansion outside of New York demonstrated the scalability of solidarity unionism. Avoiding entanglements with the government and union bureaucrats, a solidarity union depends solely on the ingenuity and courage of workers themselves. The Chicago baristas have already received a wage increase and they executed a beautiful Direct Action that won them the stepladder that eluded them for so long as workers without a union. See for a play-by-play of that action.


The SWU's gains in 2006 were achieved despite Starbucks' escalation of its attack against the union to an unprecedented level. Again and again the company showed nothing but contempt for the right of workers to free association in the form of a union, ignoring the NLRB settlement with impunity. Starbucks cynically fired five of the most outspoken Wobbly baristas for protected union activity. Threats and surveillance continued in earnest. The anti-IWW propaganda is unrelenting especially the red-baiting.

The numerous anti-union firings were a significant setback. It is a testament to the breathtaking courage of my sister and fellow workers on this campaign that Starbucks' union-busting in 2006 did not break the union. It's a profound honor to work with people possessing such steely determination. Their thirst for liberty will not be extinguished by the shameful acts of this employer. Armed with a deep respect for the dignity of the working class and workers as individuals, the Wobblies have never backed down from a fight and we're not about to start now. And fight in 2007 we will.

Looking Ahead

Through aggressive organizing and outreach, the SWU will continue its expansion in 2007. Nothing is more important to the campaign than increasing shop-floor power. At the same time, our comprehensive corporate campaign highlighting the hypocrisy of the Starbucks brand will deliver heavy blows in the fight for a living wage and secure work hours.

We are confident that the impressive participation rate of the union at large in the campaign will continue. If you haven't yet gotten involved in the SWU, make it happen in 2007. It's a fight that goes far beyond Starbucks. The struggle goes to the heart of corporate power and the kind of society we want to live in. Will Starbucks, Wal-Mart, ExxonMobil, and Bechtel continue to lord over our communities, destroy our environment, spark immoral wars, and distort our democracy, or will we live free? By organizing the multinationals with a rank and file union, we help build a new society in the shell of the old.

If your local union or community group hasn't done so yet, consider creating a solidarity committee for the Starbucks Workers Union. That's the best way to coordinate outreach, protests, coalition-building, fundraising, and more. Also, please mark your calendars for two important SWU dates in 2007. First, baristas, coffee farmer advocates, community members, unionists, human rights activists, and the religious community are uniting for a spectacular protest at the Starbucks Annual Meeting in Seattle on March 21. It is the first time the SWU will have a presence at the annual meeting and we're very excited about it. Next, the SWU will once again rise up around the world on May 17th in a Day of Action for Starbucks Workers. May 17th is a critical day for the campaign and Wobblies who participated last year had a very rewarding experience.

Finally, the SWU is inspired by all the organizing taking place around the world. We are eager to lend a hand however we can. Don't hesitate to let us know what we can do.

Together we win.

Daniel Gross is an organizer with the IWW Starbucks Workers Union and a former barista at the company fired for organizing activity. A version of this article appeared in the February 2007 issue of the Industrial Worker.