employment law industrial action industrial disputes trade unions

Barista rights: Starbucks or Starbucked?

Right, to start, a confession: I’m a coffee fanatic. And, no, that doesn’t mean that I purely order espresso shots and seek to then identify the origin of the exact coffee bean used when drinking it; rather, I regularly seek out coffee as a near necessary small luxury in life.

Now, that doesn’t mean I literally can’t function without it. I managed to give it up for 40 days over Lent a few years ago, albeit my wife has practically banned me from doing so again (the first week of work absent coffee wasn’t the most fun experience!) But, overall, in a stressful day, my instinct is to reach for a nice cup of java (whilst, if you’re interested, is the name of an island they used to obtain coffee beans from (as was the island of Mocha (seriously!))

Why the sudden fascination in coffee? Well, I’ve recently been reading an intriguing book called ‘Starbucked’ by Taylor Clark. And, no, it isn’t a demolition job of Starbucks (nor a ‘fanbook’ financed by the company); rather, it is a neutral and balanced look at the growth of Starbucks and also explores their employment practices and treatment of staff.

As many are aware, Starbucks haven’t had the best treatment in the press in recent years in relation to staff treatment (or, indeed, their policies of allegedly ‘minimising’ tax liability). But how much of that is true? For a start, not many people are likely to be aware that:

  • Starbucks was one of the first ‘big’ retail/beverage chains to voluntarily offer extensive health insurance to all staff and to voluntarily pay all medical bills for terminally ill employees with no financial limit (in the USA);
  • Starbucks has been a part of Fortune’s annual “Best Companies to Work For” list on numerous occasions in the USA and are rated highly on Glassdoor in the UK; and
  • When 3 employees were tragically killed in an attempted robbery of a Starbucks store in Washington, Howard Schultz (Chairman and CEO) immediately ended his holiday and flew straight back to be with the victims’ families and then announced that all future profits of that store would go to a non-profit organisation dedicated to preventing violence.

Naturally, it is easy to state that the above is corporate posturing and to instead focus on the rumours that Starbucks have anti-union tendencies (when a store sought trade union recognition in the USA, it is alleged that Howard Schultz left a voicemail message to all employees calling the union developments “very disappointing and disturbing”) and now view profit over quality (as evidenced by the fact that baristas are now trained to press a button on the espresso machine rather than their original ethos of ensuring drinks were ‘hand-crafted’ and fully training all baristas extensively in the art of making bespoke drinks by hand).

And, frankly, sometimes it is easy to criticise a corporation just because – one example surely being the IWW union (in the USA) complaining that some staff were ‘gaining weight’ because the company, rather kindly, offered them free drinks and pastries.

Overall, it is can be difficult to judge which is more accurate between the negative media stories or the various ‘Best Companies to Work For’ lists which place Starbucks high up.  The answer, as per normal, is most likely in the middle – some employees love the job, whilst others don’t enjoy it so much.

There is definitely one key difference between ‘1990s’ Starbucks and modern Starbucks, however.  Rather than skilled coffee and espresso massively shaped by the talents of the individual barista which could have ranged from a 4 out of 10 to a 10 out of 10 (as per the 1990s), you now have a coffee shaped by the press of a button (designed to speed up the process and reduce queuing) which is a consistent 7 out of 10. 

Whilst some people will find it comforting to know that if they travel abroad, for example to Riga in Latvia (which is highly recommended), they are guaranteed a consistent coffee drink which tastes the same than at home, I’ll always be in the local, independent coffee house trying out their ‘gunpowder’ coffee blend!

As for baristas?  Well, Starbucks tend to have a decent reputation within those staff members who enjoy the rush and pressure of the job and, absent a well publicised dyslexia-related case in 2016, aren’t regularly on the receiving end of crushing Employment Tribunal defeats.  Perhaps their employee status is the same as their coffee?  A solid 7 out of 10?