Today is apparently Starbucks day in the Wall Street Journal, with front-page articles in both the A and B sections dealing with the company’s travails. (Also of note, a quote from the one guy who’s unhappy that junk-food manufacturers are marketing as aggressively toward children, George Carey, CEO of Just Kid Inc. Where else but the Journal? And what is this guy thinking? How do you get into a career like that?). In the A section, a report on how Starbucks honchos are fretting over their recent lobbying victories in Washington, and their recent participation in the pay-for-play legislation-writing system that makes American democracy so great, so responsive. Starbucks garnered themselves a huge tax break by schmoozing the Bill Frists of the world, but they wonder if this in keeping with their reputation. What reputation? Who (outside of the Wall Street Journal, who grouses over how it makes them less competitive) gives Starbucks any credit for the genuinely good things they do, like give part-time employees benefits? At least among the people I know, Starbucks is just another colonizing, homogenizing force, akin to Wal-Mart in its propensity to drive small businesses out of business. Maybe the people who get drive-through lattes in the morning are thinking to themselves how they patronize a “blue-state” business that practices fair trade. But I kind of doubt it. They probably are comfortable in the fact they are patronizing a quasi-luxury business, the same feeling they get in Pottery Barn.
The more familiar Starbucks image is burnished by the story in the B section, which details how Starbucks is trying to streamline its employees’ movements ala the heyday of Taylorism and ergonomics, in order that they may produce blended frappacinos with more alacrity. In this story, employees are not the coddled health-benefited workforce of the 21st century, but are instead the automatons of generic labor straight out of the Victorian workhouse. Industrial engineers prefer to call this mechanization and coordination of anonymous labor “a balllet, a well-choreographed play” and I’m sure that makes the person whose sole job it is to make sure customers get thier lattes 20 seconds faster feel very important, indeed.