Starbucks is a brand of contradictions: it’s the crême de la crême of fast food, blending high-brow coffee culture with middle-brow commercialism. And its workers represent a stylishly liminal “barista class” hovering between upward mobility and millennial stagnation. But as Starbucks industrializes global cafe culture, the company’s “partners”—their preferred term for “workers”—face a growing labor crisis, percolating just beneath the surface of the coffee brand.
The New York Times explored the lives of the Starbucks precariat last week with a feature on Jannette Navarro, a 22-year-old single mom doing the barista hustle in San Diego. As she juggles erratic hours, her family life has become consumed by financial stress. Her workdays are tightly scheduled through an ultra-efficient computerized program. But the logistical automation leaves workers subject to scheduling volatility that interferes with household budgeting, from Navarro’s childcare expenses to her lapsed college plans.
Starbucks spins this kind of instability as an asset: they call it “flexibility.” The emancipatory ring of that term suggests what CEO Howard Schultz calls the company’s “employees first” philosophy—keeping workers happy to boost performance. Just as you can personally flavor your own latte, the company’s system of not giving set schedules is all about a freewheeling, enterprising lifestyle. Baristas can embrace this slippery work/life balance with “your special blend” of “rewards,” such as health benefits and partial tuition assistance (relatively rare in low-wage service work). So goodbye forty-hour work week, hello flexible work life, with barista shifts filling the hours between philosophy seminars and band practice.
But a new report by the Starbucks Workers Union (SWU) argues that the coffee giant fails to fairly source its labor. Drawing on the company’s data, the union, an affiliate of Industrial Workers of the World, argues that “partners” are tethered to miserable wages and schedules akin to those suffered by other fast-food workers, and workloads are intensifying despite unsustainable pay scales. Compared to the dramatic growth in corporate revenues, SWU says, the supposedly progressive company is denigrating the employees it claims to put “first.”
While baristas typically scrape by on less than $10 an hour, the company has transferred a cumulative total of about $3.7 billion to shareholders from 2010 to 2013, through dividends and repurchased shares, according to the report. The union points out that the company’s “improved performance is due to the hard work of the nearly 200,000 Starbucks workers,” mostly “low-wage store baristas who serve the customers every day.”