Blast from the past: IWW comes to MOA [TC Daily Planet]

Thu, 07/24/2008 - 3:05pm -- SWU

By Anthony Nadler , TC Daily Planet
July 23, 2008

This week the Mall of America (MOA) became an unusual site for the return of a group once thought to be a relic of Minnesota’s radical union past – the Industrial Workers of the World. Yesterday a group of workers at a MOA Starbucks delivered a letter to their management announcing their affiliation with the I.W.W. union and making a number of demands about working conditions and compensation.

The Starbucks Workers Union, part of the Industrial Workers of the World, has been organizing Starbucks workers for more than four years in cities across the U.S. including New York, Chicago, Grand Rapids, MI, and Minneapolis. The union claims to have over 200 current and former Starbucks employees as members nationally. This is their first public union action in Minnesota. The demands of the MOA Starbucks workers include calls for a living wage, automatic cost-of-living pay increases, and an expanded tuition reimbursement program. One of the benefits often advertised in Starbucks’s employment promotions is tuition benefits. A detailed explanation of the benefits packages on Starbucks website says this benefit will be considered only for “accredited courses relating to Starbucks business.” Union members say the tuition benefit is given only for study in areas relevant to future Starbucks employment.

The union action comes at a sensitive time for Starbucks, just after the company announced they would be closing over 600 stores nationwide and 27 in Minnesota. While neither of the two Starbucks locations at the Mall of America is slated for closure, the workers letter of demands also asks for fair severance packages for workers at closing stores.

Yesterday’s letter of demands comes on the heels of another controversial incident at the Mall of America I Starbucks. On July 11, Erik Forman, a former employee, filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board (N.L.R.B) claiming he had been fired the previous day as retaliation for union activity. After Forman’s firing, five workers attempted to get management to reverse the decision through a petition and a short work stoppage. Supporters collected just over 50 signatures from Starbucks workers around the Twin Cities in a petition of support for Forman. Speaking for concerned employees, Jake Bell, a current MOA Starbucks worker, said, “We’re afraid that if Starbucks is willing to break the law to fire Erik, they might fire any of us.” [Editor’s note: Full disclosure—Jake Bell also works with the TC Daily Planet.]

In New York City, where the Starbucks Workers Union has also been active, the N.L.R.B. has accused Starbucks of at least 30 violations. In one settlement, Starbucks agreed to rehire two fired workers. Starbucks Workers Union sources also say their organizing has been instrumental to significant pay increases for New York City workers.

Five Starbucks workers participating at a press conference today at the Mall of America said that they were first attracted to employment with the company because of its reputation for generous benefits and social responsibility. However, they felt that reputation had proved illusionary. Workers participating in today’s press conference said Starbucks baristas are all making much less than a living wage (with salaries starting at $7.60/hour), facing hurdles to get enough hours needed to maintain eligibility for their health benefits and many are not in the position to be able to pay for the premiums and co-pays of company health packages if available. Starbucks requires employees work 160 hours every two months to qualify for healthcare packages in which the company covers a portion of insurance costs. Workers at the press conference today said it is not always possible for employees to secure enough hours on regular basis to qualify for these benefits.

The I.W.W. is a unique union in many respects. Since the early 1900s, the I.W.W. has tried to organize all workers regardless of race, gender and level of skill. They have tended to favor direct action by workers rather than working through governmental mediation or electoral politics. According to Macalester College labor historian Peter Rachleff, the I.W.W. was very active in the 1920s and went into a slump in following decades due to government repression and the success of more powerful unions. Rachleff says the public re-emergence of the I.W.W. now is partially “in response to globalization, economic neoliberalism, and the inability of official unions to develop strategies to resist corporate onslaught.” The Starbucks Workers Union is open to all Starbucks employees and does not require members pay dues.

Local union members would not say if they had plans for any further public actions. Starbucks has not returned phone and email requests for comments and specific information about this story.