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.

This (via Andrew Sullivan) isn’t going to make their lives any easier:

Starbucks Corp. is telling its harried baristas to slow down—which may result in longer lines.

Amid customer complaints that the Seattle-based coffee chain has reduced the fine art of coffee making to a mechanized process with all the romance of an assembly line, Starbucks baristas are being told to stop making multiple drinks at the same time and focus instead on no more than two drinks at a time—starting a second one while finishing the first, according to company documents reviewed recently by The Wall Street Journal.

On the one hand, I should applaud the fact that the soy chi tea lattes I’ll get will now likely be better across the board. More remarkably, this might be the first time in American labor history that any kind of assembly line is being deliberately slowed down. Megan McArdle (via Sullivan again), explains the broader problem in industrial relations here:

What Starbucks would really like is simply to be able to say “make a latte this way every single time”, and have thousands of baristas hop to.” But anyone who has ever managed employees knows that this isn’t quite so easy as it sounds. Even with the cleverest and most motivated employees, little changes will creep in over time; when I was a canvass field manager for PIRG, I was always a little astonished to find the varied ways that people had modified the standard “rap” they were supposed to give at each door, often without even realizing that they’d gone off script. This is why Atul Gawande is so gung-ho on making doctors hew to checklists and hard-to-modify standardized procedures.

Rules, like machines, reduce variance, but they also introduce problems of their own. As one of the baristas interviewed by the Wall Street Journal points out, it really doesn’t make sense for him to stand there and watch a frappucino blend when he could be starting an iced tea. The problem is, if you make an exception for frappucinos and iced teas, one of two things happens: you weaken the rule, so that people stop following it when it does make sense; or you create a whole set of rules that are hard to remember, and will break down under the weight of their own complexity.

So Starbucks is sticking with its rule, but that means that many customers will have to wait longer for their drinks.

Quality over quantity (with no change in price)! What’s not to like? It’s that waiting. I’ve heard enough snippy customers in my time there reading that I fear greatly for the sanity of the average barista.


It’s all about the stuff.

9 08 2010

I hope you’ve read the NYT article on materialism from yesterday by now. In case you haven’t, here’s a taste:

Thomas DeLeire, an associate professor of public affairs, population, health and economics at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, recently published research examining nine major categories of consumption. He discovered that the only category to be positively related to happiness was leisure: vacations, entertainment, sports and equipment like golf clubs and fishing poles.

Using data from a study by the National Institute on Aging, Professor DeLeire compared the happiness derived from different levels of spending to the happiness people get from being married. (Studies have shown that marriage increases happiness.)

“A $20,000 increase in spending on leisure was roughly equivalent to the happiness boost one gets from marriage,” he said, adding that spending on leisure activities appeared to make people less lonely and increased their interactions with others.

So doing something will make you happier than owning something? Gosh, I hope so as I’ve been aspiring to own less and do more lately. I’ve also been reading a book that dovetails nicely with this subject, No Impact Man, by Colin Beavan. He’s the guy who tried to live for a year without harming the environment. [They also made a movie about his efforts, which I’d describe as interesting but not exactly enthralling. His wife, who can drink three Starbucks coffees that look like milk shakes in one sitting, cracks me up, though.]

Beavan is a little whiny sometimes, but he is also quite eloquent on precisely this subject:

The trick to environmental living might not be choosing different products. Instead–at least for profligate citizens of the United States and Western Europe–it might be partly about choosing fewer products. It might not just be about using different resources. It might be about using fewer resources.

As the ancient Chinese Tao Te Ching says, “The man who knows that enough is enough will always have enough.”

When Walmart takes that line, I might then be able to take their greenwashing seriously. I won’t hold my breath.

To me as a historian, this all goes back to industrialization. Direct from my PowerPoint, here’s the slide I use to define industrialization (it took me like hours back in my early PowerPoint days to do this, so I’m glad it’s getting extra duty here):

If companies hadn’t been able to sell all the new stuff that industrialization produced, then there wouldn’t have been any advantage to industrializing. Indeed, I tend to teach much of late-nineteenth and twentieth century history as being about stuff (or lack thereof during the depression). Americans have never known exactly how much was enough so they have generally been motivated by getting as much as possible.

With the environment being the way it is lately, it’s nice to see a few people talking about getting off the treadmill.

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.

Where do baristas fit on the class pyramid?

13 01 2008


I knew the IWW has been trying to organize Borders for years. I did not know about Starbucks. From the Wall Street Journal:

The Industrial Workers of the World, or IWW, has been trying to organize workers at Starbucks since 2004 and has been able to organize only several dozen at a handful of stores in New York and a few other cities.

According to several emails, in early 2006, Starbucks managers discovered that two pro-union employees in New York were graduates of a Cornell University labor program. According to an email, managers took the names of graduates from an online Cornell discussion group and the school’s Web site and cross-checked them with employee lists nationwide. They found that three employees in California, Michigan and Illinois were graduates of the program and recommended that local managers be informed.

Gee, I wonder why they thought their managers should be informed? To talk about Ithaca’s gorges during breaks?

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