Working on the Coffee Line

The image of a cheerful, energetic coffee shop worker, also known as a “barista,” is something that many people find both familiar and comforting. At both corporate coffee chains and small neighborhood cafes, the image of that pleasant, happy-go-lucky worker is both heavily promoted and culturally expected. Very few customers expect their beverage—costing on average between four and six dollars—to be served by an apathetic, exhausted barista with little energy left to paste on a smile for them. Unfortunately, this is often the reality for the beleaguered barista. With a combined eleven years in the coffee service industry, the authors of this article hope to shed some light on the actual conditions of the workers that so many depend on for their morning buzz.

Coffee shops often impose extremely early hours and exhausting working conditions for the barista. In many cases, baristas who work at smaller coffee shops are forced to work alone for the majority of each shift, which means they do not receive bathroom or meal breaks unless they find a couple of minutes between customers. Even in larger establishments where several baristas may be on duty, an actual break for the worker to recuperate from such a fast-paced work environment is virtually non-existent, as there is an expectation that customers are the priority and therefore should not be kept waiting.

According to the bosses, your meal or bathroom break is inconsequential to the profits that can be squeezed from each sale. From the second the barista clocks in they are expected to be working, and if they are opening the shop they are expected to unlock the doors as soon as they arrive. Baristas are typically not allowed to sit at any point in their shift and are expected to constantly be working when not waiting on customers.

Many stores, including smaller ones, enforce this by using cameras positioned on the workers. If management “pops in” unexpectedly and sees a worker “not doing anything” they assume the baristas are slacking off without considering that they are not given formal breaks. This creates a working environment of paranoia; workers could be caught “not earning their wages” at any second and so they must look busy at all times. The old adage that “if there’s time to lean, there’s time to clean” is certainly a foundation of many coffee shops’ philosophy in their treatment of the baristas.

Baristas who work opening shifts are not able to call in sick unless they can find a shift replacement, which is usually nearly impossible at 5 am. Working with migraines, the flu, after surgeries, and other illnesses, is common place because there is the ever-present threat of termination if they do not come in. On the other hand, baristas who work afternoon or closing shifts can often get away with calling in sick once in a while, but usually that means the person already working will be forced to stay late or cover their entire shift against their will and without any breaks. Whether or not management attempts to find a worker to cover the shift depends entirely on favoritism, availability, and luck. Often the only time management gets angry about someone calling in sick is if they work in the morning, thus inconveniencing them; they do not care if it inconveniences a worker who is forced to stay late.

As far as hours go, this also generally depends on favoritism and luck. Very few baristas are given full-time hours, and schedules are often made with near complete disregard to a worker’s requests for more or certain shifts, the need for sleep, or for time off. The owner or manager will sometimes “lose” your written request for days off, and force you to work those days anyway. If you pick up extra shifts and your hours go into overtime, don’t count on getting paid the overtime rate of time and half. Suddenly you find out you work for two companies and your paychecks can be divided so that you worked half of those hours for another company! This is a flagrant violation of labor laws, but very few in the general public understand that these kinds of practices take place in coffee shops.

As with service workers everywhere, after working all day in these conditions, the barista is understandably exhausted. There is often little energy afterwards to enjoy the time off and they end up spending a good deal of their personal time recovering from work.

Despite these poor working conditions, low pay, and lack of adherence to basic labor laws, baristas are expected to have a jovial attitude constantly and consistently, or face disciplinary action or even dismissal. A lack of enthusiasm is the direct result of poor working conditions, and yet the worker is always to blame. Besides the ever-present drive for profits, these working conditions serve another purpose: high turnover. With a high turnover rate a business owner can avoid giving raises or facing union organizing drives because the workers are not around long enough and are constantly in fear of loss of hours or termination. The bosses know that if their baristas were unionized they would demand a living wage, breaks, overtime pay, real health benefits, safe working conditions, paid sick and vacation days, and paid maternity leave.

There have been a few examples of successful union organizing by baristas, generally in one of two forms: cafes within larger establishments that are organized and individual union drives at coffee shops. Author Eric Clark at one point served as both a barista and a shop steward while working at a Starbucks kiosk within a grocery store organized by the United Food and Commercial Workers.

As a union barista, there was a contract that governed working conditions which set forth guidelines for breaks, pay scales, working conditions and the right to lodge a formal complaint, or grievance, with the union over any real or perceived violation of the contractual agreement. When a barista was due their break and there was no relief available, the Starbucks was closed for the fifteen or thirty minutes allotted and customers were turned away. In the experience of the author, this allowed for exponentially better service once the rested barista returned to the cafe to continue work. What may seem like a given benefit for many union workers is in fact a luxury for most coffee shop workers!

Despite the difficulty of organizing a union in the service industry, Starbucks workers have attempted, and succeeded in some cases, to unionize with the IWW in some U.S. cities. The Starbucks Workers Union (SWU) was founded in 2004 as part of the IWW. Worker complaints include instability of weekly hours, inability to obtain health benefits despite what the company claims, low wages, under-staffing resulting in repetitive stress injuries such as carpal tunnel syndrome, disrespectful treatment from management, unsafe working conditions, and more.

The company has responded to these organizing drives by terminating workers for speaking out in favor of a union and appealing to the NLRB for elections to be extended to stores who had not filed for the election, among a number of other union-busting tactics. In an inspiring display of solidarity, Starbucks workers in Chicago demanded the reinstatement of workers terminated for organizing activity. In Minneapolis, workers engaged in direct action and launched a petition drive to reinstate the job of Erik Forman, an IWW barista who was fired for union activity.

Starbucks workers in Chile formed the Sindicato de Trabajadores de Starbucks in 2009, with the SWU in the U.S. pledging their support and solidarity. In the summer of 2011, the unionized baristas in Chile started a hunger strike, demanding wage increases (they made around $2.50 an hour), a lunch stipend, that the company provide uniforms and required safety equipment, a contribution to their transportation costs, a greater contribution to their health insurance, and more. The company brought in scab workers to keep the stores open, denied all complaints from the union, and refused to come to an agreement with the workers. In a remarkable display of international solidarity, IWW baristas held a Global Week of Action in Phoenix, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Pittsburgh, London and Melbourne, Australia, holding pickets and handing out fliers detailing the situation in Chile.

In the final analysis, the conditions of the barista are by no means isolated. Service workers in all fields of activity, be it a fast food joint or an upscale restaurant face the same grueling conditions and indifference from management. It is high time that the unions do what they are meant to do: organize the workers! Only through a massive and concentrated organizing drive can these conditions be alleviated. Further, with a mass party of labor based on the trade unions at their side, the wave of militancy and unionization would be near-unstoppable. A labor party would fight for card-check legislation, making union organization infinitely easier in work places with high turnover rates—something the “pro-labor” Democrats have failed to enact.

The plight of the coffee industry workers makes them a prime example of those who need unions now more than ever. Steam the milk and tamp the espresso, but remember that not a single dose of caffeine can be consumed without the kind permission of the worker!

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