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Corporate Social Responsibility on Trial

Starbucks Behind the Brand


A multi-billion dollar corporation facing extensive allegations of illegal and relentless union-busting. Eight outspoken union employees fired on pretexts ranging from the absurd to the offensive. Human and video surveillance tracking the every move of union members or those suspected of union sympathies. Non-stop anti-union propaganda. Threats, bribes, interrogations, and discriminatory disciplinary actions.

Workers complaining about a wage leaving them in poverty and fluctuating work schedules interfering with family obligations. Employees relying on Medicaid for health care or just doing without insurance. Workers afflicted by repetitive stress injuries driven by understaffing and ergonomic neglect.

In some ways, you wish the multinational corporation described was Wal-Mart. At least with Wal-Mart, you know what you’re dealing with. A cold heartless corporation running roughshod over the workers it employs and the communities in which it operates. Wal-Mart succeeded in squeezing more profits out of its employees and suppliers than anyone else but it failed in creating a socially responsible brand.

Those who believed corporate social responsibility (CSR) represented an important and positive change within capitalism will be disappointed that the corporation described is Starbucks. Because Starbucks, unlike Wal-Mart, has succeeded in the social responsibility game. In fact, no corporation plays the game better than Starbucks.

On Monday, when opening statements are set to begin in the trial over Starbucks’ anti-union operation, in some ways corporate social responsibility itself will be on trial with broad implications for society in general as well as workers and activists in particular.

Joe Agins, Jr. will be in the front row. Maybe, Joe Sr. will make it down to New York from New Hampshire like he did during the preliminary hearing to support the son he raised alone after Joe’s mother passed. The son he is so proud of because he chose to fight back on the job and never stopped fighting back after a crude anti-union termination right before the holiday season almost two years ago.

Joe Sr. is proud because like his son, he’s a union person, quick to point out that his coffin will be draped in the flag of the longshoreman’s union in which he was a member.

Joe Jr. is a barista and he marches under the flag of the Industrial Workers of the World. He learned a few days ago that he will soon be a father.

Joe Jr. is one of three fired baristas at issue in the large trial against Starbucks currently taking place at the National Labor Relations Board in New York. A talented young organizer named Isis Saenz and I are the other two. The company will have to defend itself against these unlawful discharge allegations as well as a host of coercion and interference counts committed against other workers.

What’s remarkable is that socially responsible Starbucks faced an eerily similar complaint from the Labor Board less than a year and a half ago. To avoid the spotlight of a public trial, Starbucks settled the entirety of the charges against it. Among other things, the company was forced to reinstate two IWW baristas it discharged for union activity.

This “progressive employer” also had to rescind policies prohibiting the wearing of union buttons and sharing written union information on company property

Rather than retreating from at least the unlawful aspects of its union-busting effort (much union-busting is legal), the company went for the jugular. Once again, Starbucks’ conduct has landed it into hot water with the Labor Board. Only this time, the company has not settled and has pledged to defend itself vigorously.

Union baristas could not be happier that Starbucks has chosen to go to trial as we now have an opportunity to shine the light of day on its shadowy union-busting effort.

A union-busting effort that started when Starbucks Chairman Howard Schultz sent a company-wide message, within days of the founding of the union, expressing how disturbed and disappointed he was that workers would choose to organize.

However, we don’t need to wait for the verdict in this trial to issue a judgment on corporate social responsibility from the vantage point of workers at Starbucks, the master of "cause branding.” Why are workers organizing at this darling of the corporate media that has responded with such intensity?

Starbucks workers struggle to make ends meet with a poverty wage of around $7 or $8 per hour. Wage increases amount to a few cents, if anything. The total number of full-time hourly café employees at Starbucks is zero. All baristas are part-time and not a single one is guaranteed any number of work hours per week. Employees are consequently left vulnerable to fluctuations in income and changes in their work schedule.

The company boasts about its health care plan but its own data reveal that it insures a lower percentage of employees than Wal-Mart. Baristas are excluded from care by a combination of a work hours qualification threshold and unaffordable out-of-pocket expenses.

It’s a testament to the resilience of my co-workers that despite the union-busting, the IWW campaign at Starbucks has expanded to multiple stores around the United States and has pressured the company to make some improvements. IWW baristas have taken action on the shop floor, in the community, and in the public arena to win on a wide variety of workplace issues from remedying religious discrimination to increasing the security of work hours. But there’s no doubt that the union-busting has been a monumental challenge.

So what is the verdict from the front lines of corporate conscience? Activists can and do make use of CSR by pointing out the hypocrisy behind the big brands. But that’s about all CSR is good for.

Corporations are profit-maximizers period. We’d do well to remember this axiom when a company is telling us about its respect for employees or its commitment to global warming solutions, etc. The following may sound self-evident but it’s important: when we hear anything about a corporation we’re almost always hearing from management, not employees. Workers have a very different story to tell.

The marketing gimmick known as corporate social responsibility or cause branding or any other business initiative will never serve as a replacement for the independent voice of organized workers secured by shop-floor and community power.

Far from being less relevant in the global brand-centric economy, labor unions remain as critical as ever.

DANIEL GROSS is an organizer with the IWW Starbucks Workers Union, He can be reached at