Labor Pains: Because Being in a Union can be Painful

Mother Jones Orders Labor-Heavy Latte

Those wascally wobblies have one heck of a PR machine, landing another feature piece on their campaign to unionize your morning cup of coffee. The Industrial Workers of the World — those anarchists whose famous members have included Mother Jones and Eugene Debs — have seen their numbers dwindle from a height of 100,000 to 2,000 (putting them on the avant-garde of union-membership decline). But they’re brewing up one heck of an anti-corporate campaign against Starbucks, the allegedly big bad coffee King crushing employees. Right.

BusinessWeek takes an interesting angle on the story, noting that this organizing battle really isn’t about how one company relates to its employees. Focusing on IWW organizer and former Starbucks employee Daniel Gross, the publication reports:

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.”

Gross has some interesting data points to consider, as the paper notes:

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, 11/16/06, “Can Barack Wake Up Wal-Mart?”).

The point really isn’t that Starbucks has bad policies — it’s that employers like Wal-Mart really aren’t as bad as their publicity suggests. The only real difference between public perception of Starbucks and Wal-Mart is the budget size of the unions attacking them. Starbucks better hope UFCW bosses don’t look up from their host of other shady campaigns and realize there’s mocha money to be made.

Meanwhile, “the IWW continues waging a battle to win public opinion.”