How Young Workers Are Unionizing Starbucks

Yves here. It’s a welcome development, but not exactly a surprise, to see that young Starbucks staffers are leading its union charge. Generally speaking, teens and young adults have provided a lot of energy and muscle to change efforts. Many, including many of our readers, have pointed out how student debt has served as a brutally effective form of social control by making it effectively impossible for young borrowers to buck the system via protesting. They can’t risk an arrest which could result in job loss and/or a ding on their record that would greatly reduce their employment opportunities.

Separately, both observation and common sense say that Starbucks workers skew young. Being on your feet all day doing any kind of short order work is taxing.

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, a project of the Independent Media Institute

At only 19 years old, Joe Thompson is one of the youngest lead organizers with Starbucks Workers United(SWU), the umbrella organization at the forefront of one of the most exciting labor successes of the last few years. Thompson, who started working at the coffee chain at age 16, told me in a recent interview, “Starbucks likes to claim it’s super-progressive, and a lot of workers there are, but we’re the ones actually holding Starbucks accountable to that standard.”

The very first Starbucks location to successfully unionize was in Buffalo, New York, where a vote was held only last December. Since then, dozens more locations have voted to join SWU—whose parent company is Workers United, an affiliate of SEIU—and more than 200 other locations have filed for union elections.

Thompson, who uses they/them pronouns, and who describes their background as “working-class Hispanic,” lives in Santa Cruz, California, and works there as a shift supervisor at the first Starbucks in the state to petition for a union. That vote is expected to take place in May, and it will be a bellwether for union organizing at Starbucks cafés across California.

The nation’s most populous state has lagged behind New York, Virginia, Massachusetts and Arizona on unionizing efforts at Starbucks primarily because, as per Thompson, California “does have better working conditions than a lot of other states.” The statewide minimum wage in California is $15 an hour, which is more than twice the federal minimum wage. Thompson also cites “better workplace protections” in California compared to other states.

The lesson here for anti-union forces is that poor wages and working conditions can prompt union activity. Unions are needed precisely because pro-corporate politicians have resisted raising the minimum wage and have weakened labor rights for decades.

Additionally, workers at California’s Starbucks locations “wanted to see what Buffalo could accomplish” before petitioning for a union, said Thompson. “After watching them win their vote, then we really started to organize.”

It’s no wonder that Starbucks worked so hard to stop organizers from successfully unionizing in Buffalo, flying in external managers and holding captive-audience meetings with CEO and founder Howard Schultz. The company was rightfully worried about the domino effect of a successful union vote triggering similar efforts elsewhere.

It seems as though the standard anti-union corporate playbook may have reached its limit as workers across the United States are seeing the benefits of labor organizing in the face of undignified work, meager pay, unpredictable hours, little to no benefits and few rights.

One of the most effective corporate anti-union tactics has been to disparage unions for charging fees (monthly or annual dues) to finance their protection of workers. Indeed, union dues were the entire basis of the Republican-led effort to pass so-called “right-to-work” laws in states around the country. It was also the central theme around which the online retail giant Amazon discouraged workers from organizing, saying instead that they could “do it without dues.”

But this tactic failed in the face of SWU’s organizing. “Before a union goes public, we’re inoculating our organizers,” said Thompson. “We’re telling them, ‘here’s exactly what Starbucks is going to say; here’s why it’s wrong.’” The union uses creative graphics via social media to explain how union dues are a perfectly reasonable price for collective bargaining rights that yield better working conditions. “We’re using Discord and other technology really to get workers engaged and to keep them there,” said Thompson.

The union’s overall messaging is savvy and effective, and it remains one step ahead of the company. For example, Starbucks refers to its employees not as workers but as “partners,” a slick PR term that implies a level playing field with the boss. But, weaponizing this wordplay against the company, SWU counters that only through the power of a union can workers truly be partners with their employer. “Partners becoming partners” has become a central theme of its organizing strategy.

Another aspect of the successful unionizing streak that may have caught Starbucks off guard is that most workers are relatively young and extremely cognizant of the social and political conditions under which they have come of age. “They’re all young people who are growing up during the Bernie Sanders era,” said Thompson. The same fearmongering against unions that may have worked with older Americans appears not to be working against these younger workers.

“We’re recognizing that we have power together, and young people are so fed up with not only their workplaces… but with a lot of other things too,” said Thompson. Among those things is the existential threat of climate change. “Being young right now, we don’t have a solid future ahead of us,” said Thompson, who volunteered for Sanders’ presidential campaigns in 2016 and 2020, and said that their fellow Starbucks workers are “asking ourselves, what are we going to do to stand up and fight back against these corporations that are not only polluting the earth but also not paying us a living wage?”

“The simplest answer is to unionize,” said Thompson.

It is simple. And that elegant idea is a countervailing force to corporate power that businesses like Starbucks have been dreading since their inception. The company is already facing a lawsuit from the National Labor Relations Board for illegally retaliating against workers over their union organizing activity.

So overt is the company’s anti-union position that CEO Schultz recently announced that he was considering new benefits for workers, but only for those who did not join the union.

Thompson said, “that is clear union-related retaliation against organizing; it’s unlawful.” If Schultz goes through with such a step, Thompson promises that SWU will sue the company for unfair labor practices. “He is a bully… disconnected from his workers,” said Thompson of Schultz.

Although the Starbucks unionizing efforts have been wildly successful over a short period of time, voting to join a union is only the first—and easiest—step. The hard part comes during contract talks where the nuts and bolts of workers’ demands will be negotiated.

For example, Starbucks’ baristas are tipped workers and those whose wages do not have to meet minimum wage standards because they are expected to earn tips to compensate, resulting in the possibility of taking home appallingly low paychecks. But the company still refuses to allow customers to pay tips via credit card—a major issue that workers plan on raising during contract negotiations.

Given the geographic diversity of the company’s locations, contract negotiations could be unique to each state and even café. Thompson explained that in California where they are based, the union’s statewide organizing committee is currently putting together “an action plan” of the sort of contract that workers in the state want to negotiate, including the specific type of benefits they need.

That plan will form the floor of a contract that each unionized store in California will start from in their negotiations with Starbucks, adding on demands specific to each store as needed. Thompson’s Santa Cruz-based café, for example, will be including a demand for a security guard on its premises.

Not content with helping to lead a historic union organizing movement, Thompson is also running for office for a seat on the California State Assembly representing District 28 and is the youngest person to do so. Their campaign website says, “Joe knows what it’s like to not know when you’re gonna be able to eat your next meal and how it feels to be left behind by a system that allows for the rich to get vastly richer while the rest of us continue hard work for starvation wages.”

“Anyone can unionize,” said Thompson, who remains optimistic even in the face of multiple dire crises facing young people like them. “Young workers are recognizing that we need to do something to protect ourselves and to fight for our values… The world we are living in is falling apart. And we can change that.”

Print Friendly, PDF & Email


  1. Dr. John Carpenter

    I’ve said it before, but again, this is one bright spot in everything going on in the world right now.

    I find it really amusing to see companies like Starbucks, Amazon, etc. running the same old anti-union play book and that the organizers are finding the tools that effectively counter that. I don’t think they have anticipated that this time and they seem to be kind of sputtering that the same anti-union stuff is falling flat. I was in an electrical company in the 90s targeted by the IBEW and it was shocking how effective the company’s anti-union stuff was. So I’ve had a laugh seeing some of the same stuff rolled out again (there was a Delta flyer someone showed here about how you could buy a videogame console with your union due money that was almost word for word one I saw back then) but falling flat.

    The big effect is, I do think this is having a snowball effect. Now this is strictly anecdotal but, I have friends in various areas of the service industry and they all are talking about this and watching to see how it goes. I can only assume the Howard Schultzs and Jeff Bezos of the world really were caught unaware because I can’t believe there wouldn’t be more movement to tamp this down.

    Sidenote to add, I understand a vote to unionize isn’t the same as a contract. There’s still a lengthy road to travel. But just this first step is something I’ve never seen in my lifetime. I grew up with UAW, cops, teachers and a few trades having unions, all of varying degree of effectiveness, and that was it. I really thought the union movement would be extinct in my lifetime, at least here in the US.

    1. NotTimothyGeithner

      Besides the repeated propaganda (though hiring Team Blue operatives instead of GOP ones could be an issue), young people aren’t able to take advantage of low interest house loans or have money for a 401k. Healthcare is ridiculous too.

      The powers that be aren’t even offering concessions or plucking a lucky few.

  2. Reify99

    I am VERY encouraged by what I’m seeing out there. I also like that ALU is a new creature. Put the dinosaurs on notice!

    Believe me, they will attempt to pluck a “lucky”few, recruiting the effective organizers. The ranks of management will SWELL!
    I was in a little AFSCME local and was once offered a promotion.
    I received print outs of two compensation plans, union and non-union. Union was lower, of course. I picked the union one and poof, no promotion.

    It took 4.5 years to get a contract once the vote to unionize passed. The company, advised by Scott Walker’s lawyers, were very effective at vilifying the union. They were still pulling that kind of s#*t last time I checked.


  3. orlbucfan

    I’m glad to see this happening with the young folks. I’ve worked 4 political campaigns as an unpaid volunteer; and I know they are angry, very, very angry. They have every right to be. Look at the world they’ve inherited. To say it stinks would be a very gross understatement. This labor movement has both my full support, and very best good luck wishes.

  4. tongorad

    “Anyone can unionize,” said Thompson…

    Except if you work in an at-will employment state.

    I teach in TX, and if I go on strike the state will revoke my teaching credentials and kill my retirement. I advise young folks to stay away from at-will states.

    1. Scott

      At-will employment is the standard in every state in the US, and in DC. Except for Montanna, I think, which has some sort of just-cause wording in the state constitution. I’m not a lawyer or a governemnt scholar though, I just read that somewhere a number of years ago and thought it was pretty together.

      That said, there was a just-cause section in my CBA when I was in the Teamsters in CA (as a hotel valet). That alone was worth every bit of the dues I paid. Far better remuneration, and this was before CA raised their min wage to $15, in both pay and benefits than when I had the same job in VA.

      It’s really a no-brainer. sometimes I wonder what people are bitching about . . . I mean, you make more with a union job, so some of that pays for the union, but you still come out ahead. And yet, some folks are so confused and propagandized that they choose to forgo the better pay and benefits because they’d rather have nothing than something unless they can have everything?

  5. Mak

    It is articles like this that remind me of the importance of Unions or at least the importance of the latent power. In my country (Australia) I have a mostly negative view of unions. They mostly known for their blackmailing tactics in industries in which many are already well paid with good conditions.

    But my viewpoint exists because the labour wars were mostly won by unions before I entered the workforce. We have the third highest minimum wage in the world and excellent working condition standards.*

    *At least for the 95% of jobs that adhere to the legislated requirements. There is definitely an subset of jobs that lie below the minimum legislated requirements, but that is another story.

Comments are closed.