January 28, 2008

COLA, Starbucks Face Off In Union-Busting Case

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Companies are finding even more ways to screen job applicants — by checking club discussion boards. Starbucks Corp., the nation’s leading coffee retailer, is under scrutiny after a series of e-mails revealed the company’s anti-union practices. The pinnacle of the events in question came when Starbucks managers read through the discussion boards on Cornell Organization for Labor Action’s website in order to identify job applicants and current employees that were labor activists.
In a series of e-mails uncovered by The Wall Street Journal, Starbucks managers pulled names from the discussion board and then cross-referenced them with an employee database. They found that three employees were members of the University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations and active union supporters, and asked executives if they could inform local managers of the workers’ identities.
Daniel Gross, an organizer for the SWU and a former Starbucks barista, testified that Jim McDermott, a Starbucks executive, admitted on the witness stand in a pending NLRB case that he had approved of these activities.
The company has already singled out three graduates of the University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations as union activists — Tomer Malchi ’03, Peter Montalbano, and Sarah Bender. All three worked as baristas and are members of the Starbucks Workers Union, SWU, which is a part of the Industrial Workers of the World.
The SWU has been trying to organize Starbucks baristas since 2004. The movement stems from some workers’ claims that Starbucks does not treat its employees in a fair manner by paying low wages and not providing enough hours to work. These two factors can make it very difficult for someone to support themselves, according to the Starbucks Union website.

Because the content on the discussion board is public information, it is not illegal for managers to read through it. However, some consider it a questionable practice to use the information against current or prospective employees — similar to an employer’s use of a person’s Facebook profile or MySpace account to find information that could be used against them.

According to Kate Bronfenbrenner, director of labor education research, Starbucks was not looking to single out students and graduates of the ILR school, instead they were aiming to target individuals who were known labor activists and pro-union workers.

Bronfenbrenner said, “Cornell sends more students into the labor movement than any other university in the country and corporate America is aware of this.”

Currently, the IWW has taken Starbucks to court in New York arguing that the corporation has committed at least 38 labor violations during 2005-2006. The National Labor Relations Board found that there was enough evidence to support these allegations and has passed the case onto to an administrative law judge, who will determine if there is enough evidence to support these charges.

Gross claims he was fired because of his union activity, which is a subject of the pending NLRB case.

“This case is important because it tells about the reality of employment at Starbucks. Starbucks has tricked people into thinking it is a better place to work, but the trial has shown just like Wal-mart, Starbucks will go to great lengths to coerce and restrain workers’ right to organize,” Gross said.

Starbucks maintains that it complies with all labors laws in New York state and recognizes workers’ rights to organize. Forbes Magazine ranked Starbucks as the number two “best company to work for” in the large company category. It claims that the average hourly worker nets $35,294 a year.

The e-mails are part of an exhibit in the case that exemplifies Starbucks’ anti-union stance by denying workers the right to engage in concerted activity and discuss working conditions on the premise. Gross said the union-busting mentality stems directly from the top with Chairman Howard Schultz.

“A company-wide message was sent out within days of our announcement that we were going to try to organize the workers saying [Schulz] was disappointed with the union. The union busting started immediately at this point,” Gross said.

However, even if Starbucks is found guilty, Bronfenbrenner speculates it will receive no more than a slap on the wrist. As punishment for its action, it would merely have to hang a poster on the wall stating that it will not terminate or discriminate against union supporters. Starbucks would have to reinstate the worker and pay any lost wages that accrued during the case minus any wages the worker made in the meantime.

“That’s the problem with American labor law… if a worker gets fired for union activity he is not going to want to go back to that employer,” Bronfenbrenner said.

In light of these revealed e-mails, COLA has been forced to modify how they distribute information through online channels in order to protect their members from being discriminated against.

“We are disgusted by the fact corporations read our e-mails to screen out applicants. The reading of the e-mails itself is not illegal, so there is not a lot we can do but we have switched to a private list serve for specific campaigns like the one against Starbucks right now. Fil Eden ’10, president of COLA, said. “Because we are so integrated with our alumni network and it helps people who don’t go to the meetings . . . It’s difficult to keep [names] anonymous on the listserv . . . we know have to be careful about what we write.”

The last time Starbucks executives came to campus was more than a year ago to recruit ILR graduates for positions in the human resources department of the corporation.

This is not the first time the University has allowed an organization facing labor law violations to recruit on campus. In 2003, Cornell came under fire for violating the Open Hearts, Open Mind policy by allowing the uniform manufacturer Cintas to recruit at on-campus career fair after they had purposefully screened out applicants who were labor activists. But due to pressure from students in COLA and Students Against Sweatshops, University did not permit Cintas to recruit at any more events.

“Employers do not want a unionized setting because it takes away some of their control. Unionized workers make more money and have more control of their schedules, while also providing a way for workers to ensure there is just cause for discipline. They gain stability and morale,” Bronfenbrenner said. “It’s an issue of what kind of country do we have.”