Attack on Starbucks is new-media blend

Starbucks a hub of union-busting and worker exploitation?

Say it ain't so, Howard Schultz!

The Starbucks chief executive, who actively cultivates a socially progressive image, is in the cross hairs of a new-media campaign designed to bolster union representation at the retail giant and beyond. For five years, Starbucks has been the target of a limited but sometimes nasty unionization drive that has tarnished its reputation for high-minded benevolence.

But last week, Brave New Films in Culver City launched an ambitious "Stop Starbucks" offensive, including a website (stopstarbucks.com) featuring a four-minute video that was also posted on YouTube assailing Starbucks' treatment of workers, along with a petition demanding that Schultz "quit following Wal-Mart's anti-union example." By week's end, almost 12,000 had signed the petition, while nearly 40,000 had viewed the video, organizers said.

The anti-Starbucks onslaught also featured an attempted Twitter "hijacking" designed to undermine a Starbucks promotion in which contestants vied for prizes by submitting photos of themselves at Starbucks cafes. The virtual saboteurs forwarded the required "Twitpics" but hoisted signs blaring seditious mottos such as "I want a union with my latte" or Schultz "makes millions, workers make beans."

The new-media assault, Starbucks officials say, presents a distorted portrait of management's collaborative relationship with its "partners," a reference to the company's 135,000 U.S. workers. "Calling Starbucks a bad employer simply doesn't ring true with the overwhelming majority of our partners," said Jim Koster, Starbucks senior vice president for partner resources.

The anti-Starbucks blitz is indicative of how some unions and pro-labor activists have begun to embrace new media. The Communications Workers of America, representing some 80,000 AT&T; employees seeking a new contract, has also posted videos of its rallies on YouTube. It also sends text messages to keep its members informed. "It's a good way to spread the word and get people to participate and feel they're part of something bigger as well," said Peter O'Brien, organizer and executive board member of CWA Local 9510, based in Orange. "It goes viral pretty quickly."

Most major unions boast extensive websites where workplace issues, political objectives and other concerns are thoroughly aired.

"New media is playing a central role in organizing workers in the service sector," noted Harley Shaiken, a labor expert at UC Berkeley.

But employers also have well-developed Web presences and often aggressively refute what management views as misleading statements posted online. "I don't see the use of the Internet and social media as giving the unions a tremendous upper hand, though to some extent it does allow them to make initial contact with a wide variety of people," said Nelson N. Lichtenstein, a labor historian at UC Santa Barbara. "The companies also have the same abilities."

Organizers say the Stop Starbucks campaign has already resounded through social networks on the Internet. The video was prominently displayed on the popular BoingBoing blog, along with others.

"What happens with these things is that people watch it, send the link to friends, and you can see it build," said Robert Greenwald, head of left-leaning Brave New Films, which has produced previous videos attacking Fox News, Sen. John McCain and corporate targets. "Its a tool that doesn't cost billions of dollars."

The campaign against Starbucks was timed to coincide with the titanic congressional battle anticipated for organized labor's major legislative goal: the Employee Free Choice Act, which would make it easier for U.S. workers to choose union representation.

Like most big businesses, Starbucks is opposed to the act. The coffee giant, which generates $10 billion a year in revenue, has joined forces with retailers Whole Foods and Costco in forming the so-called Committee for a Level Playing Field, which is backing what it calls a compromise plan.

"We stepped out to take an alternative position, and that makes us a target," said Koster, the Starbucks vice president. "The video, for us, is a one-sided attempt at a lobbying campaign for the Employee Free Choice Act."

The video opens with a radiant Schultz, the Starbucks CEO, proclaiming to a CBS interviewer: "We're not in the business of filling bellies. We're in the business of filling souls."

Former and current Starbucks employees then speak on the video about the company's alleged hostility to unions. The Industrial Workers of the World -- whose members were known as the Wobblies during its early-20th century heyday -- has been organizing Starbucks baristas in New York, Minnesota, Illinois and elsewhere.

Starbucks officials said that employees enjoyed favorable working conditions compared with others in the retail industry. "We're proud to be one of the most progressive employers in the United States in terms of benefits, offering stock options, healthcare and working conditions," Koster said.

But pro-union employees have denounced what they call low wages (typically from $7.50 to $10 an hour), inadequate healthcare benefits and a grueling scheduling regimen.

The new-media campaign "puts the lie to this widely promulgated notion that Starbucks is a socially responsible company," said Daniel Gross, a former barista in New York who is an organizer with the IWW Starbucks Workers Union. "The bottom line is that Starbucks baristas are not rewarded with respect for the hard work they put in every day."

In December, a National Labor Relations Board judge in New York ruled that Starbucks had illegally fired three baristas, including Gross, and violated other labor laws as it sought to squelch an organizing drive. Starbucks is appealing.

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patrick.mcdonnell@latimes.com

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