String of Union Wins for Starbucks Workers

Since the workers at a Buffalo-area Starbucks voted to form a union on December 9 and became at the time only one of the nearly 9,000 company-owned stores in the United States to be organized, there has been a growing social movement of Starbucks workers organizing unions.

By mid-April, there were 19 stores that officially had a union election, with more than 280 workers voting, out of which workers at 18 stores certified a union. In the United States, workers at more than 200 stores have filed for National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) mediated elections in 29 states by mid-April.

On May 11, 2022, two Starbucks stores unionized in Santa Cruz, becoming the first two stores to unionize in California.

The fight by Starbucks workers is in hopes of a democratic workplace and a voice on the job. Additional complaints of Starbucks workers are better staffing, pay, benefits, and consistent scheduling. Different regions have various priorities of what they will negotiate. It will be up to the bargaining committees at the unionized stores to decide what to fight for in their contract.

The unionized employees are joining Workers United, an affiliate of Service Employees International Union. Workers had complained about understaffing and insufficient training. According to an interview with a Starbucks Workers United (SBWU) committee member, “Starbucks had responded to the union campaign by flooding the stores in Buffalo with managers and executives who questioned employees while they would help out in the stores.” Workers found their presence to be intimidating. Workers said that despite the anti-union campaign, they held strong.

It’s possible the psychic weight of union wins is bigger than their actual weight. A typical Starbucks only has 26 workers, and there hasn’t yet been public union activity at the vast majority of the company’s 9,000 corporate stores. However, Starbucks corporate headquarters is not taking the union threat lightly.

Starbucks corporate has waged an anti-union war against their “partners,” which is what it calls their barista employees. They have threatened, intimidated, and retaliated against pro-union partners, including going so far as to fire over five union leaders across the country in one week in April. Corporate is sending high-level executives, including both interim CEO Howard Schultz and President of Starbucks North America Rossann Williams, across the country to personally tell workers to vote ‘no’ to the union.

“They are shutting down our stores to host mandatory anti-union meetings, forcing managers to do anti-union one-on-ones with workers while they’re on the clock, and spreading false and misinformation about organizing,” said a union supported who signed as SBWU committee member in an April 13 email. “They’ve threatened that workers will lose their benefits if they organize, including the loss of the right to transfer stores or pick-up shifts at other stores, and have threatened that workers will lose their health care benefits and ASU tuition. Starbucks has used every legal delay tactic they can to slow down our elections, have flooded our stores with new hires to try to dilute the union vote, and has used psychological warfare against their workers in an attempt to crush our union effort.”

As Schultz and a team went on a tour of different Starbucks locations nationwide to dissuade workers from voting to join the union, they did not label it as anti-union efforts. In response to workers’ complaints, the CEO Schultz lashed out saying “If you hate Starbucks so much why don’t you go somewhere else.”

While corporate headquarters disputes that it engages in unlawful anti-union activity, the National Labor Relations Board found the company guilty of illegally firing two baristas that were trying to unionize on July 1, 2021.

There is not a sure answer on how many stores have closed as a part of the corporate anti-union campaign. “They shut down the Galleria Mall stores in Buffalo at the beginning of our union drive over the summer and have been closing down stores temporarily for unscheduled renovations,” said the SBWU committee member in the April 13 email.

“This is a worker-led and -ran movement. Workers across the country are reaching out to organize their own stores. The only necessary next step is for Starbucks to end their war against their workers and respect our right to organize.”

There has been a string of unionization drives in the retail industry. Workers at an outdoor-equipment and apparel REI store in New York City voted to unionize with the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union on March 2.

Alongside the Starbucks union movement, the union campaign at the megaretailer Amazon, led by Christian Smalls, has collaborated together in support of the union movement. After one Staten Island Amazon fulfillment center won its vote to unionize at the end of March, a second sort center lost, and there are more than 800 Amazon warehouse facilities across the country. The movement continues on – influencing more workers that are not adequately paid.

You can find more information about Starbucks Workers United on social media @sbworkersunited.

by Gizelle Jane Rabi

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Additional Materials

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