In the cozy corporate lingo of Starbucks, the java-servers in company baseball caps and green aprons are so far evolved from folks who, in quainter, less caffeinated and less linguistically sensitive times, were dubbed soda jerks, that the coffee chain graces them with a special name: baristas. The moniker conveys a Euro-cachet, implies a certain skill set and is the entry-level niche at a US$15 billion behemoth with a hot -- in more ways than one -- product and a rung on the Fortune 100 best-places-to-work list.
Baristas like Daniel Gross who pour enough coffee fast enough, and with affable competence, can command US$8.09 per hour after a year on the job, up from a starting wage of US$7.75. Scalding stuff, according to Gross, with or without meager tips. And without a defined workload: No barista is guaranteed a 40-hour week.
Good luck trying to save enough to buy company-sponsored health care or incubate a nest egg, he says. Not with rents on bare-bones railroad flats like his in Bushwick, Brooklyn, pushing US$1,000 a month.
PHOTO: NY TIMES
"Starbucks also refers to its employees as partners, which really is sort of Orwellian," says Gross, who is not just a terminally disgruntled barista, but a relentlessly on-message mouthpiece for insurgent baristas at the Starbucks on New York's Madison Avenue at 36th Street who have, to the company's dismay, formed a single-shop union.
Here he is, on his day off, on the sidewalk looking askance at the Starbucks that hired him last year. He'd heard it was a "decent" place to work. Not so, he says now.
"Those who have power over us workers have abused it so egregiously: We feel the company should be held to the standard that it preaches," he declares. "There's something wrong when the chairman is taking in US$17 million in 2003, but baristas, who are the foundation of the company, are living in grinding poverty and serving very hot drinks at unsafe speeds under ergonomically incorrect conditions."
He says complaints to superiors went unheeded, hence his decision to play hardball and unionize; more than half of the store's 13 baristas are on his team, he says.
Two days after Gross announced his group's intentions on May 17, the chairman of Starbucks, Howard Schultz, sent a voice-mail message to employees reminding them of the company's social conscience and commitment to a supportive workplace. Starbucks hired a Manhattan law firm to counter Gross's request that the National Labor Relations Board administer a union election for the store he works in. The would-be local is being represented, free of charge, by Kennedy, Schwartz & Cure. Gross, 25, earnest, articulate and dogmatic to a flaw, can't think of a better way to flex his magna cum laude degree in economics from the University of California, Santa Barbara -- he grew up in Los Angeles, where his parents are "in sales" -- than to organize the first unionized Starbucks in the US.
He sees the move as historic, even if none of the baristas from some 50 other downtown Starbucks have publicly expressed solidarity, and envisions the union as a precedent-setter. He hasn't been this inspired since he read the Dalai Lama's Art of Happiness during college and helped found Students for a Free Tibet at UCSB, then volunteered at the Khana Nirvana Community Cafe in Dharamsala, India, after graduation.
This time his cause celebre is closer to home. "I know I could probably do better financially than this job, because unlike most baristas, I was blessed with a great education," he says. "But the way I was raised and what I believe is that if something is not right, you don't just walk away from it and leave it for the next person to fix." Besides, Grandpa was a truck-driving Teamster; it's in the genes.
Gross's group of baristas is affiliated with IU/660, a division of the International Workers of the World; the union, which represents retail workers, appeals to his anti-authoritarian side. "It blends the social movement aspect with unionism, but it lets us make our own decisions. We didn't want to go from having corporate bosses to having corporate and union bosses. This way we sort of feel in control."
Tough to get a cup of coffee, though, when one hangs out with Gross, a sylph of a labor agitator who stands 1.72m and figures he tips the scales (doesn't own one, can't afford it) at 63kg. Though he doesn't mind posing outside his workplace on a sweltering afternoon, he is loath to pop inside for a drink. He still has a job, but the work environment tends, he says, to be hostile since "the union thing." When he handed out informative fliers to customers two weeks ago outlining the baristas' gripes, a store manager called in the police, he says. "They're probably itching to fire me," he speculates.
So Gross leads the way to another, cheaper coffee shop, only to discover it shuttered. More walking leads to, what else, another Starbucks. The store at Fifth Avenue is jammed, and Gross, carrying a briefcase and out of uniform, decides he can risk an incognito appearance as a paying customer. He buses a table and gets in line for iced passion tea lemonade. At the cashier, he uses his employee discount, 30 percent. Such a perk! Has he no misgivings about badmouthing Starbucks while sitting inside one sipping its wares at a tidy discount?
"Come on," he says with a grin. "You've got to take what meager crumbs they throw out at you." He leaves a nice tip for his non-union brethren. He's convinced they'll see the light.
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