Thursday, November 13, 2008

Set phasers on stun

Depending on which side you believe, a Starbucks in Minneapolis either was or wasn’t unionized this week. Either way, it may be a preview of a disconcerting future for chain restaurants nationwide.

First, the dueling realities: According to the Industrial Workers of the World, better known to our grandparents as the Wobblies, employees of the downtown coffeehouse voted yesterday to be represented by an affiliate called the Starbucks Workers Union. A statement on the Wobblies’ website said management of the store had been presented with a 500-signature petition demanding that a security guard be hired. The posting also asserted the unit’s baristas walked off the job and declared an affiliation with the SWU, though the connections between those developments was not explained.

The statement convinced the Minneapolis St. Paul Business Journal and other media to report that the store had unionized and thereby become the second Starbucks in the state to organize. But as that coverage noted, Starbucks' corporate office experienced a much different reality. No baristas walked off the job, no other Starbucks in Minnesota has been unionized, no employees had so much as asked for a union vote, and the Starbucks Workers Union isn’t even really a union.

Apparently the company’s spokeswoman had a point. The paper posted a correction under the story to acknowledge that no unionization vote had actually taken place at the store.

This is hardly a “Roshamon” kind of thing, where an event witnessed by several advisers is perceived and recounted as totally unique experiences. It sounds more like one of those “Star Trek” episodes where a character is stretched between separate and conflicting universes and facing certain oblivion unless a brilliant solution is hatched.

And guess who's playing that character in this potential pilot for the seasons ahead? That'd be you, bunkie.

Even before Barack Obama was elected last week, business groups were bracing for doom because the Illinois senator was sympathetic to unions—and, by extension, presumably their new organization tactics. Much has been written in Nation’s Restaurant News and elsewhere about card check legislation, a measure that could force employees to vote publicly on proposals by their peers to unionize. It’s hard to cast a ‘nay’ when everyone, including the zealots, can see how you balloted.

But that’s just one of the tactics that unions might use to foster the organization of restaurants, the new frontier for the labor movement. Presenting alternative realities may be another. The situation in Minneapolis underscores just how far organizers will go to push their cause. Clearly it may be a matter of going where no man has gone before.

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