How a Group of Starbucks Workers Emerged Victorious in Their Union Fight

Yves here. It’s noteworthy that Starbucks has taken the position that union organizing efforts, even at a handful of cafes, are on a store-by-store basis. From CNN:

The vote to unionize at a shop in Buffalo, New York, won by a 19-8 margin. The vote at a second store resulted in a count of 12 opposed versus 8 in favor of the union, but each store’s tally is considered separately, so workers at the second location will not have union representation while those at the first one will.

A third Buffalo store’s votes were inconclusive as of Thursday afternoon. The union was leading the vote at that store 15 to 9, but there seven other ballots challenged and therefore not counted. Six of those challenges were brought by the union, which argued that those workers worked at other Starbucks locations. Those challenges will need to be resolved at a later date before the outcome of that vote is determined.

Starbucks downplayed the significance of its loss, referring to the votes at the three stores as a “split decision.” But the effort to organize Starbucks employees had been closely watched nationally. The company put a major effort into convincing employees that they were better off without a union, but at least in the case of one of the stores, it failed to make its case.

By Sonali Kolhatkar, the founder, host and executive producer of “Rising Up With Sonali,” a television and radio show that airs on Free Speech TV and Pacifica stations and a writing fellow for the Economy for All project at the Independent Media Institute. Produced by Economy for All

The iconic American coffee chain, Starbucks, employs hundreds of thousands of people in nearly 9,000 cafés nationwide. And yet, the news that a handful of Starbucks employees at one café in Buffalo, New York, recently voted to join Workers United—an affiliate of SEIU—made headlines nationally. The New York Times called it a “big symbolic win for labor,” while the Washington Post hailed it as a “watershed union vote.” Social media feeds were replete with joyous posts celebrating the vote. The café, located on Elmwood Avenue, was the only one out of three union-voting Starbucks locations in Buffalo that successfully chose to unionize.

“It is significant,” says Cedric de Leon of the Starbucks union vote. De Leon is the director of the Labor Center at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where he is an associate professor of sociology, and he is the author of several books about labor organizing in the U.S. “The employer knows it and the workers know that establishing a beachhead in one of the largest corporations, and really an iconic brand in the U.S. hospitality market, is a major accomplishment.”

Ahead of ballots being cast, Starbucks tried to delay the vote and even stacked the Buffalo cafés with new staff to try to dilute “yes” votes. It flew in external managers to closely watch workers in what was seen as brazen intimidation. The company, which has long resisted union activity, brought its former Chief Executive Howard Schultz to Buffalo to discourage workers from unionizing, even shutting down its cafés during his Saturday visit so they could attend what was essentially a captive-audience address.

Given that Starbucks would go to such lengths to stop just a handful of stores from joining a union, it’s no surprise that it took 50 years after its founding for a single café to unionize. And it’s no wonder that commentators are shocked by what is a potentially groundbreaking event.

During his address, Schultz, who remains Starbucks’ largest shareholder, reportedly spoke of the company’s health insurance benefits and tuition assistance as reasons why a union was unnecessary. Believing he knows what is best for workers, Schultz had written in his first memoir, “I was convinced that under my leadership, employees would come to realize that I would listen to their concerns. If they had faith in me and my motives, they wouldn’t need a union.”

Yet there is evidence that Starbucks workers could indeed use the collective bargaining power that a union confers. A study by Unite Here of thousands of Starbucks employees working at airport locations found a racial pay gap with Black workers earning $1.85 less per hour than their white counterparts. Nearly one in five of those workers reported not having enough money to purchase food.

And in 2020, in the midst of the national uprisings for racial justice, Starbucks issued a policy prohibiting workers from wearing pins or clothing in support of Black Lives Matter. The company backpedaled after a public uproar.

Like Amazon and Walmart, Starbucks has often retaliated against those workers seeking to organize a union. Starbucks barista Gabriel Ocasio Mejias in Orlando, Florida, was fired after attempting to convince his colleagues to join Unite Here.

The pandemic was particularly hard on workers as online to-go orders sharply spiked. A shift supervisor in New York who wished to remain anonymous told the Guardian, “They want us to just be these robots that move fast, we’re just little drones to them that just need to pump out as many lattes as we can in a half-hour.”

When asked to respond to the shift supervisor’s complaint, a Starbucks spokesperson responded with a statement that could only have been written by a public relations expert. “Our 200,000 partners across the US are the best people in the business, and their experiences are key to helping us make Starbucks a meaningful and inspiring place to work,” said the spokesperson. “We offer a world-class benefits program for all part- and full-time partners and continued support for partners during Covid-19 to care for themselves and their families, and we continue to have an industry-leading retention rate.”

It’s true that the company refers to its employees as “partners,” as if using a term that sounds powerful is enough to eclipse the lack of worker power. But the use of the term has a downside as workers are challenging Starbucks to live up to what “partner” implies.

One of the Buffalo Starbucks workers who voted to unionize, Michelle Eisen, said in a statement, “This win is the first step in changing what it means to be a partner at Starbucks, and what it means to work in the service industry more broadly.” She added, “With a union, we now have the ability to negotiate a contract that holds Starbucks accountable to be the company we know it can be, and gives us a real voice in our workplace.” And it’s precisely that ability that Starbucks and Schultz are terrified of.

“When workers get the notion that this giant boss who seemed like a colossus a year ago can be beaten, when they see that, then they begin to organize,” says De Leon. Already two Starbucks stores in Boston, upon seeing the success of the Buffalo café, signed up for union elections. Those workers, once more challenging Starbucks to live up to the term “partners,” issued a statement saying, “We believe that there can be no true partnership without power-sharing and accountability.”

Workers at a store in Mesa, Arizona, are similarly inspired by the victory in Buffalo and filed a petition for a union election. One worker told the Arizona Republic, “Our eyes were on Buffalo.”

Increasingly, workers appear to be seeing through the anti-union propaganda of their corporate employers. Starbucks spokesperson Reggie Borges said of the pro-union activity in Mesa, “We shouldn’t have a third party in between us when it comes to working together to develop the best experience that our partners can have.” But a Buffalo Starbucks worker serving as a union liaison for Mesa workers countered, “our union is going to be made up of baristas and shift supervisors who make up Starbucks. That’s not a third party.”

The general public also seems to be growing more supportive of union efforts, as a worker at the Buffalo store reported that more people were coming to the café, excited by the news of the union vote, and tipping more generously than usual. A Gallup poll in September found the highest public support for unions since 1965, with a whopping 68 percent of respondents supporting the right to collective bargaining. De Leon says, “So many successful organizing campaigns are buttressed by community support.”

The eyes of those union supporters among us now ought to be on Starbucks management as the question remains whether or not the company will negotiate a contract in good faith. Terri Gerstein writing in the American Prospect warned that “even in Buffalo, the battle is far from over,” and that “there are too many ways employers can try to destroy a union even after an election.” Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, who had declared his solidarity with the Buffalo workers, demanded after news emerged of the vote that “The company should stop pouring money into the fight against the union and negotiate a fair contract now.”

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  1. Bill Smith

    What is the average tenure of a Starbucks employee?

    Is this store by store approach useable in the longer run? If the workers in a few dozen stores could do this individually, could they then go to court to force Starbucks to deal with them together?

      1. Whiteylockmandoubled

        Aggregating multiple stores into one union drive is excruciatingly difficult under the NLRA. The law has an overwhelming bias for limiting the scope of bargaining units to isolated locations, which means that you’re running simultaneous drives that are only morally related to one another, you have to win each shop to win the whole, and the workers can’t use the law to compel joint negotiations for the first contract(s).

        This is only one of many advantages that employers have in these situations – constant bureaucratic delays; intense psychological warfare tactics that are permissible under the law; laughable non-enforcement, difficult evidentiary burdens, meaningless penalties and even more egregious delays when employers do step way over the line by firing activists – all these things make the translation of shop floor militancy into a formal union difficult in a single shop. When you have overcome them in multiple shops all at the same time, the challenge multiplies exponentially.

        Just one tiny example: If the boss challenges the scope of a union in one place, do workers in the other places hold their elections, or do they wait? If they win, do they try to proceed to bargaining without the other shop? That WU managed to pull off three simultaneous elections was impressive, but right now they’ve won one, lost one and the third is ……delayed.

        None of this is to say things are hopeless, just to recognize how badly stacked the deck is against workers transforming shop floor grievance and short-lived positive labor market conditions into formal collective bargaining, how urgently they need public support and how disgraceful it is that the Democrats have chosen to wring their hands about filibusters, parliamentarians and norms instead of taking advantage of the moment to use whatever tools are at their disposal to do things that benefit their working class constituents, including the reforms in the PRO Act.

        1. BeliTsari

          Almost makes one suspicious, as poor precariate being good-cop-bad-copped, by a smoothly functioning, well greased & worn in tag-team kleptocracy? Wasn’t all this atomization of state and local labor laws (ALEC boilerplate, kinda comes to mind) the entire idea of “oversight?” Soon, we’ll all be 1099’d into disruptive, virtual share-cropping gigs anyway? Thanks, for your astute & succinct post.

    1. drumlin woodchuckles

      Perhaps this store-staffs’s victory should be viewed as like a successful beachhead on Normandy Beach. It has to be defended and protected before it can be broken out of.

      Union sympathisers in that store’s part of Buffalo could help by making a special point of patronizing that particular Starbucks and none of the other Starbuckses anywhere near it.

      Also, I suspect part of what the union-victors at this Starbucks are thinking is that they won’t be moving on to better jobs because there are no better jobs and there will never ever be any better jobs to move on to.

      So they have to make Starbucks jobs into the better jobs they wish they could someday have.

      If they see it that way, they may be prepared to stay there for many years, fighting in place.

  2. jhallc

    Once these few stores manage to negotiate a contract that spells out benefits, work issues (hours, overtime, time off, etc) and pay scales for positions, you will see other Starbucks employees looking at what they managed to extract from management and want it as well. Getting a contract in place will not be easy, especially if there are disparities between stores. Management will want to maintain the lowest common denominator. But, this is perhaps the camel’s nose under the tent.

  3. Steve Ruis

    Step 1 . . . Check
    Step 2 Bringing management to the negotiating table to get a contract. Aye here’s the rub. Some recently “unionized” business have gone over a decade and still no contract is in sight. Foot dragging is the next technique in the anti-union business.

  4. Christopher Horne

    There is (so far) a missing element of the effort to unionize employees in
    this country. Back in the day, companies used actual violence to discourage
    unionization. They would call in the goons from Pinkerton’s to rough up or
    even kill would-be unionists. I remember one strike at Boeing where a guy
    drove up in a pick-up truck to the front lines. He had a rifle on the dashboard
    and waved around a six-pack of beer, offering it to the workers on strike.
    Obviously an attempt to discredit our strike (you can bet your last dollar
    there was a hidden camera rolling somewhere). No one on the picket
    lines bought it of course, but it is indicative of the tactics a hard man
    like Shultz would think of.
    I credit the power of branding (advertising) for the restraint Starbucks is
    using. A man that rich could care less about losing money personally,
    if it meets his goals. But the crushing power of universal advertising
    has latter-day monopolies like Starbucks hoist to their own petard
    when it comes to overtly employing the kind of violent physicality
    that corporations used in the past.

  5. Phil in KC

    The Workers United website is interesting to me. I worked in the hotel business for 25 years, and believe me when I say that the very word “union” stopped the hearts of owners and operators alike. The engineers at my hotel managed to form a union. In short order, the department was disbanded and replaced with a contractor–entirely legal, I assume.

    Things went well with the contractors until one morning in April. The hotel had a one-pipe HVAC system. To switch from heat to cooling, you had to shut down the system for about 15 minutes, which meant shutting off the water. Well, the contractors got that part done, but then they couldn’t figure out how to get the water back on. This on a Sunday at 430 AM. The hotel was sold out, all 586 rooms, each room packed with 3 or 4 guests who were in town for an AMWAY convention, which meant church services at 800 AM in the ballroom. But no water whatsoever for coffee, shaving, showering, etc.

    Frantically the manager on duty tried to track down any of the old union members. Finally found one of the guys. The negotiations must have been a hoot. The story was this: for about $8,000, the guy showed up, turned a valve, and collected his pay in cash. Eight G’s was a small price to pay to avoid having hundreds of disgruntled guests demanding water and refunds/adjustments to their bills. Karma is karma!

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