Thursday, May 11, 2006

Starbucks: Union busters leave a bitter taste

From Socialist Worker 12.04.2005 - 25.04.2005 #240
Starbucks to open in Dublin:

By Joe Carolan

THE recent closure of Bewleys saw workers treated like disposable plastic cups, given their notice days before Christmas. So much for ‘traditional’ Dublin. It begs the question; what would Jim Larkin have done? Now, what marketers call the ‘empty emotional space’ is to be filled by the infamous Starbucks chain, who had their windows smashed during the Battle of Seattle. Why all the froth about what some call ‘the McDonalds of Coffee’?

Coffee is coffee, no matter where it is drunk. Starbucks, however, try to brand an experience of drinking it as a cosmopolitan, broad minded, urbane experience, a ‘Friends’ Central Perk culture. A contemptuous commercialisation of new age backpacker chic sees young Urbz sip their Costa Rican Venti Latte in comfy sofas whilst listening to World Music from Burundi or Bahia. Starbucks presents the world as a sensual feast for narcissistic Western consumers to experience, but behind this de-contextualised globalisation lies a reality of ruthless competition, exploitation and union busting.

Globalisation has led to huge drops in commodity prices for cash crops, with coffee growing farmers in East Timor losing 35% of their income since Seattle 1999. In Mexico, it has halved. Reacting to the anger of the anti capitalist movement, and to save money on the glazier bills, Starbucks now attempt a ‘greenwash’ by having a Fair Trade coffee morning once a month. That would mean, logically, that the other 30 days are unfair trade morning, evening and nights.

In the Global North, Starbucks workers call themselves Baristas, a name that echos solidarity with their Southern Zapatista and Sandinista comrades. Baristas are permatemps, workers who suffer from the twin evils of flexploitation- low pay coupled with long, unscheduled hours.

McJobs that do not give you enough hours to have the rights of a full time worker, yet rely on you applying for more shifts because you cannot make ends meet on 5 cents above the minimum wage.

Danny Gross and Anthony Polanco were two baristas who stood up to Starbucks in New York last October, organising a union in the 36th and Madison branch of Starbucks as half a million protested Bush and the Republican Congress outside on the streets. Following a complaint from Starbucks management, they were arrested by cops at a union rally outside, and were sent through the New York courts. Now they have emerged victorious, with Starbucks being found guilty by the NY Labour Board of bullying, harassment and attempting to intimidate union organisers. The IWW (James Connolly’s Wobblies) is now organising baristas nationwide. Irish workers should log into for inspiration.

Bewleys may be gone, but Globalisation wants to colonise what it sees as an emotional vacumn in public urban meeting space. Before we succumb to the ‘Friends’ brand identity, we should remember the baristas and the coffee campensinos fighting back. Boycott politics is well and good but organising a union there would make millionaire owner (and Zionist) Howard Schultz really smell the coffee.