Monday, March 27, 2006

Not to be taken latte

To catch the full wallop of recent news developments, you’ll have to engage in some scary what-ifs. Imagine, for instance, that you woke up tomorrow and your business life had been reset, all the way back to zero. You had no career, no references, no reputation, no nest egg, no credit, no awards—nothing. All you could do is start over, in the sort of hourly positions you’ve struggled as a restaurateur to fill.

So where would you go? The Gap? McDonald’s? Wal-Mart? A Mobile station? Even if you started at any of those places, you’d likely find yourself focusing before long on landing a job at Starbucks, a place to which you’ve likely lost a worker or two (or 12) over the years. Who, if you’re in a minimum-wage strata, wouldn’t head over for an application? You can get health care insurance, even if you only work part-time, and all sorts of benefits that even the managers in other systems can’t land. It’s also cool to work there, so your friends and family won’t view the job as a stigma. You don’t even have to wear a dorky uniform.

Now consider the recent news stories about what’s happening in Starbucks units, particularly in New York City. A labor organization that we all studied in history class, the 100-year-old Industrial Workers of the World, also known as the Wobblies, is trying to unionize the chain. Among the stated goals of the drive is wresting more benefits and better wages from the coffee giant.

The union’s penetration is negligible to date, but it keeps plucking away. Recently it secured an agreement brokered by the National Labor Relations Board, obliging Starbucks to forego such anti-organization tactics as buying pizza for employees, or providing gym memberships, or tickets to a baseball game, and thereby currying favor with the employees. It can’t even bar the staffers from wearing pro-union buttons or pins. The list of Starbucks don’ts goes on and on, as you can read for yourself at And while you’re web-surfing, swoop on over to, to get a full picture of the organization effort.

Which brings us back to the really scary round of what-if: If the union is finding a modicum of success with Starbucks, imagine what it could do with some of the other companies out there. Like yours.

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