As the world’s largest coffee company announced plans to close 27 stores statewide, several baristas in the Twin Cities announced plans of their own to fight back. Those plans begin with forming a union.
“We are not the first Starbucks workers to take this step, and we will not be the last,” said Erik Forman, a former barista at the first-floor Mall of America Starbucks and member of the Starbucks Workers Union (SWU). “Even at Starbucks workers can come together and make the kind of changes we need to see in this country.”
Forman joined four other Mall of America Starbucks workers in a press conference outside the mall July 22. The baristas shared with reporters their reasons for joining the SWU and the steps they have taken to change working conditions for themselves and their co-workers nationwide.
A day earlier, the baristas said, they briefly walked off the café floor to deliver a letter to their manager. In it, they demanded a fair severance package for workers at closing stores, a living wage, automatic cost-of-living pay increases, guaranteed hours, an end to understaffing and tuition reimbursement.
So far workers’ efforts to unionize have been met with stern resistance from the company. That resistance has surprised some employees and consumers, who listened to Starbucks tout itself as a socially responsible company.
But Starbucks’ response to their organizing efforts didn’t surprise the baristas outside the Mall of America.
Forman, fired in early July, believes he was targeted for promoting the fledging union to his co-workers. At the press conference, he called out the company for waging a “vicious anti-union campaign.”
“I’m a hard worker,” Forman said. “I’d been a half hour late to one shift after being on time for a year. Then I was fired because I talked about my final warning with another worker.”
Forman’s union filed charges against Starbucks with the National Labor Relations Board, and he expects to be reinstated within the coming months. More than 50 baristas at Starbucks stores throughout the Twin Cities have signed a petition calling on the company to reinstate Forman.
“For every person I talked to about my firing, I heard another story about someone they work with,” Forman said. “It’s inspiring to see co-workers break the silence about their treatment at Starbucks.”
Ted Dewberry, meanwhile, gave reporters a firsthand account of how he lost his employer-provided health insurance after failing to maintain a 20-hour-per-week average over the course of the last financial quarter. After Dewberry took his family on a week-long vacation, he came up short of that threshold.
Sarah Bright and Jake Bell, Dewberry’s co-workers, added that the high cost of enrolling in the company’s benefit plan puts coverage out of reach for most part-time baristas, who start off earning just $7.60 per hour. And the seasonal nature of retail work – particularly in the Mall of America – means hours oftentimes grow scarce.
Michael Moore edits The Union Advocate, the official publication of the St. Paul Regional Labor Federation. Visit the federation’s website, www.stpaulunions.org