A Storied Union Takes On Starbucks

The Industrial Workers of the World is taking on the coffee giant and its much-praised workplace practices

Daniel Gross looks a lot like your average Starbucks (SBUX) barista. The 28-year-old is slim and clean-shaven, dressed in tan cargo pants and a T-shirt.

But Gross would rather talk about worker solidarity than lattes and soy milk these days. A volunteer organizer for the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), Gross claims his involvement with the union got him fired from a New York City Starbucks a year ago. Now he's preparing to go before a judge on Aug. 6 to make the case for himself and other baristas he says have been fired or intimidated for union activity. Seated in the one-room headquarters of the IWW's local in Queens (N.Y.), Gross says it's all part of a broader battle to change the way American companies treat their employees.

"This trial is putting corporate social responsibility itself on trial," says Gross. "Starbucks has been the paragon of socially responsible marketing, and if it's fake at Starbucks, it's very likely fake in general."

NLRB Gets Involved

Gross and the IWW contend that Starbucks not only discourages union activity, it also overstates the generosity of its benefits. Among other things, Gross points out that only 42% of Starbucks "partners," or employees, are covered by the company's health insurance, a figure the company confirms. That's below the 47% at Wal-Mart Stores (WMT), which has come under heavy fire for its pay and benefits (see BusinessWeek.com, 11/16/06, "Can Barack Wake Up Wal-Mart?").

Starbucks, which doesn't recognize the IWW in its stores, takes great exception to the charges. The company points out that it has worked hard over the years to treat its employees well, earning a reputation as one of the country's best employers. Tara Darrow, a company spokesperson, says that many of its employees have health insurance coverage through other means, say from a spouse or a parent. Overall, 91% have health insurance coverage of some sort, she says. The company also offers health-care coverage to employees who work as little as 20 hours a week, one of the few to do so. And Starbucks offers affordable insurance, including a routine care health plan for $5.45 a week.

While the IWW continues waging a battle to win public opinion, it

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