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Last week Starbucks faced legal and political trouble from its own workers. On the third anniversary of the founding of the IWW Starbucks Union, baristas in Chicago marched into a shop and told the manager they were signing up. (Starbucks workers have chosen to organize without government-mediated elections, through an interesting model called "solidarity unionism.")
Meanwhile, baristas in Grand Rapids, Michigan announced that they were filing a legal complaint against the company for violating their organizing rights through unlawful surveillance and other questionable tactics. All over the world -- Austria, England, Spain and Australia, as well as the United States -- Starbucks workers demonstrated in front of stores to protest the company's union-busting practices.
When you pay $4 for a cup of coffee-flavored foamy milk at Starbucks, part of what you're buying is an illusion of corporate social responsibility. The store exudes a warm glow of righteousness, from the recycled paper napkins to the empathetic messages about sustainable trade and ecological practices (Our farmers are happy! Buy a better lightbulb! Have some more foamy milk!).
The workers behind the counter are hoping the public will look beyond all the greenwashing and support their campaign, which has succeeded in raising wages and improving conditions for some workers.
The baristas are asking for better wages (some make as little as $8.75 an hour even in costly Manhattan), guaranteed hours with the option to work full-time and more affordable health insurance. (Despite widely-believed corporate spin to the contrary, Starbucks insures a smaller percentage of its workforce than Wal-Mart.)
In New York, the National Labor Relations Board (that bastion of radical left-wingers) has accusedStarbucks of violating workers' freedom of association in about thirty different ways, including illegally firing, threatening and disciplining workers for supporting the union. Managers forbade workers from talking about the union -- even when off-duty -- or wearing union buttons. The trial is in June. I'll be attending, and covering it, so stay tuned.
Liza Featherstone is a New York City-based journalist. She is the author, most recently, of "Selling Women Short: The Landmark Battle for Workers' Rights At Wal-Mart" (Basic).