Starbucks shift supervisor Takuira Hika walked out of the chain's coffee shop in Newmarket yesterday to add his support to a claim for a minimum $12 an hour for the workers who report to him.
Mr Hika, 18, earns $13 an hour but says others in the store get just $10.
He believes his store is only the second Starbucks cafe in the world where the workers have gone on strike - another Auckland store beat him by a few minutes.
Mr Hika left his manager alone in the cafe and he knew there would be consequences when he returned more than an hour later.
"We were warned that if we were not back in an hour it would become an abandonment of shift, which could lead to a verbal warning," he said.
"There is also a personal relationship with the manager because she will take it to heart. She had family and friends waiting when she was due to finish."
Mr Hika was one of about 30 Starbucks workers from 10 Auckland cafes who protested outside the Karangahape Rd premises yesterday to start a national campaign to raise the legal minimum wage from $9.50 an hour to $12.
The Labour Government has agreed with New Zealand First and the Greens to raise the minimum to $12 by 2008 "if economic conditions permit".
However, Matt McCarten, whose Unite Union represents the striking Starbucks workers, said workers could not afford to wait three years.
His union plans protests outside all shops in Queen St during Sunday's Santa Parade to win public support for the campaign.
"It's got to come from the workers and the community and the Government and big employers," he said.
"In this industry, if they paid the same that they paid in the 1980s [adjusted for inflation] they would be paying a starting rate of $12.75 plus time-and-a-half for weekends, and there were no youth rates in the industry then."
Daniel Gross, an organiser with the Starbucks Workers Union, part of the Industrial Workers of the World in New York, backed Unite's claim that the Auckland action was the world's first strike by Starbucks retail workers.
His own union has run picket lines and other actions, but not a formal strike, to raise Starbucks' starting wage from US$7.75 ($11.22) to US$8.25 ($11.94) an hour.
But an internet search turned up references to a "high-profile strike" by Starbucks workers in Canada in 1997 and another strike at Southern Californian supermarkets in 2003 that closed Starbucks cafes.
Vicki Salmon, the head of New Zealand Starbucks' owner, Restaurant Brands, said the company respected employees' right to belong to the union and paid above the legal minimum rate of $9.50 an hour.