SAN FRANCISCO -- They're 20, they're hip, and - more and more often - they're unionized.
A growing number of young employees are demanding higher wages and better benefits from what might seem like unlikely sources. Their employers include Starbucks, Borders Books & Music and Noah's Bagels, all companies that have prided themselves on progressive, employee-friendly policies.
Each, however, has gone public. Union members say that has made company officials more beholden to shareholders and less to employees, creating a need for workers to organize.
"After three or four years, all we really have is credit card debt," says Chris Grant, a 25-year-old book clerk at Borders who helped form a union at the store in Chicago where he's worked for 21/2 years.
Though they have yet to negotiate a contract, employees also have organized unions at Borders stores in Des Moines, Iowa; Bryn Mawr, Pa.; and New York.
The idea appears to be catching on. Employees at a handful of Starbucks stores in Vancouver, British Columbia, organized last fall, winning a new contract with better wages.
And, in July, Einstein/Noah's Bagel Corp. agreed to recognize a union in Berkeley, Calif., after months of legal challenges.
"We're not out to gouge the company or ask for the sky," says Joshua Smith, 25, who has worked for Noah's for four years.
But, he says, things changed after founder Noah Alper sold his chain in 1996. Based on customer complaints, the new owners instituted what some employees consider "conservative" policies, including limiting the types of facial piercings employees can have.
So, in a secret-ballot election, the employees voted 13-1 to join the United Food & Commercial Workers Local 870. Earlier this month, the fledgling union handed management a three-page contract asking for full benefits for part-timers and higher wages.
Officials from Einstein/Noah's say the union in Berkeley and another that is forming at a nearby store are anomalies.
"I just don't think it fits the lifestyle of most of our employees," company spokesman Gary Gerdemann says.
Most, he said, prefer a flexible schedule to high salaries and stellar benefits.
But that's what Borders employees are asking for. In addition to better health benefits, they want a starting wage of $7 an hour instead of $6.50 and the right to work 40 hours a week instead of 371/2 .
Borders Group Inc., based in Ann Arbor, Mich., did not return calls from The Associated Press.
Union members say the wages are only fair. They say many workers are college graduates turning service-industry jobs into careers.
"The manufacturing jobs that people used to rely upon don't exist anymore," says Dmitry Litvin, a 22-year-old Starbucks employee and union member in Vancouver.
With the help of their union, Mr. Litvin and his co-workers increased their starting wage from $7 (Canadian) an hour - minimum wage in British Columbia - to $7.75. Next summer, they'll get another 12 cents.
Alan Gulick, a Starbucks spokesman, said Canadian law prohibits the company from stating any opinions about unions, and he doesn't believe any unions are forming in the United States.
He thinks most employees, called "partners" by management, are happy with company's benefits package, which includes medical and dental for full- and part-timers, the ability to buy Starbucks stock at a 15 percent discount and a free pound of coffee each week - worth about $9.
Labor expert Harley Shaiken says the new unions are intriguing, especially since union membership overall has suffered in recent years.
"Most young people probably don't even know who the president of the AFL-CIO is, so this is well worth watching and could be very promising for unions," says Mr. Shaiken, a professor at the Institute of Industrial Relations at the University of California-Berkeley.
But not everyone seems interested, including an ice cream scooper at Ben & Jerry's in San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury district.
"They haven't gone corporate on us yet," Angel Blayton, 26, says of the Vermont-based company. "They let us do anything."
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