Starbucks workers of the world unite!

22 03 2008

“[T]he accumulation of the skill and knowledge (scientific power) of the workers themselves is the chief form of accumulation, and infinitely more important than the accumulation – which goes hand in hand with it and merely represents it – of the existing objective conditions of this accumulated activity.”

– Karl Marx, Theories of Surplus Value as quoted in David Montgomery, The Fall of the House of Labor, 1987.

I know I’m not supposed to, but I love Starbucks. They’re anti-union, and I don’t even drink coffee. Nevertheless, I just adore the fact that there are comfy chairs in every city in America where I can get a cup of tea and stay for as long as like. However, stories like this bring out the radical in me:

The new espresso machines, called Mastrena, will be manufactured in Switzerland by Thermoplan, the same company that makes Starbucks’ current machines. Officials are not disclosing the cost of switching machines…

The new machines also have a built-in mechanism to time the length of each shot, which tells baristas whether the coffee is being ground correctly. If it falls outside the ideal 18- to 23-second range, baristas can adjust the grind.

The machines have upgraded steaming wands that are adjustable, allowing baristas to decide how much steam comes out at a time.

They hold five pounds of coffee beans, up from about two pounds for the Verismo machines, so that baristas will not have to fill them as frequently. The side of the machine that faces customers has a new look, including brushed copper, light and dark woods, that can be changed depending on a store’s decor.

Starbucks regularly upgrades its Verismo machines, with the most recent upgrade at U.S. stores coming this year. The machines last an average of four to six years, but Starbucks will speed up the rate at which they are rotated out to make way for the new Mastrena machines.

I wasn’t actually looking for that Karl Marx quote after I read this, but another one from David Montgomery’s book. The first chapter of The Fall of the House of Labor is called “The manager’s brain under the workman’s cap,” after a quote from “Big Bill” Haywood and Frank Bohn. They used that to describe what a nineteenth-century factory might look like, where skilled workers were absolutely indispensable for producing the goods society wanted because of their accumulated knowledge from the job.

My understanding is that Starbucks workers are kind of in that position too. I garnered that understanding from a book I should have hated, but loved. It’s called How Starbucks Saved My Life, by Michael Gates Gill (the son of the legendary New Yorker writer Brendan Gill). Gill was a 60-something unemployed advertising man who basically applied for and got a job at a Manhattan Starbucks out of desperation (he had a tumor at the time). It’s supposed to be one of those inspiring tales of overcoming adversity, but I loved it for the parts where he described the work process at Starbucks.

To put it mildly, working at Starbucks ain’t easy and the hardest part, at least for Gill, was making drinks at “the bar”:

At the bar, you were responsible for delivering Starbucks drinks exactly right–with the correct temperature and weight of espresso and steamed milk.

Kester had shown me how to make sure a thermometer was always in the mug in which you steamed the milk.

“It should be between 160 and 180–never more,” he said. He had always instructed me in how to clean out the mugs, to keep the milk fresh. Then he had given me different tests when we had a few moments without Guests…

Each drink was still a big challenge. There seemed to be so much to remember. And since I had never been much interested in cooking, I was also not much good at being exact–like with temperatures and stuff like that.

You’d think the Mastrena machine would have been a godsend for Gill, and it probably would have been if it had appeared in Starbucks when he first got there. But what about now? Gill has presumably mastered the drink-making process. [He still works at Starbucks. I saw him on a recruiting poster there just yesterday.] If that Mastrena machine eliminates even some of these skills there will be less reason for Starbucks to keep people like him around who are good at making drinks. At the very least, they could try to lower his wages since he can be more easily replaced now than before. I understand that Starbucks began to automate the drink-making process years ago, but they were doing great financially. These days, the stock is tanking and when stocks tank labor costs are always at the top of the list for chopping.

American factories at the turn of the last century worked this way even when times were good. As Montgomery writes of the American steel industry during this era, they wanted to:

“cut the taproot of nineteenth century workers’ power by dispossessing the craftsmen of their accumulated skill and power.”

I realize that baristas and steelworkers have little in common, but, as Karl Marx suggested, their skills have been or are vastly under-appreciated. Automation might be better for steel buyers and coffee drinkers, but who is going to take care of the skilled workers? I hear the IWW is interested in helping.



2 responses

11 07 2008
The Writing On The Wal » Blog Archive » Movie Review: “What Would Jesus Buy?”

[…] that doesn’t require a college education to get. [They are not non-skilled jobs, but that’s another post entirely.] I guess just don’t understand how Starbucks can inspire civil disobedience. McDonalds? […]

15 10 2010
As if working at Starbucks wasn’t hard enough already. « More or Less Bunk

[…] As if working at Starbucks wasn’t hard enough already. 15 10 2010 Even though I don’t drink coffee, I find Starbucks fascinating. I think it’s the fact that I know there’ll be a comfy chair in any major American city where they won’t kick me out while I’m reading that makes my feelings toward the company more positive than negative, but I still have great sympathy for the people who work there. […]

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