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Starbucks Union Vote Sets Up a Watershed Moment for U.S. Labor

12 minute read

U.S. workers have authorized strikes in a wide swath of industries and quit jobs in record numbers but could soon pull off an even more audacious coup: Winning a unionization vote at one of the country’s signature non-union firms, Starbucks.

On Wednesday, the National Labor Relations Board will mail ballots to employees at three Starbucks Corp. coffee shops in and around Buffalo, New York, who will vote over the next four weeks on whether to establish the first-ever unionized locations among the chain’s thousands of corporate-run U.S. stores.

The elections involve only around 100 employees, but a vote to unionize would be among the embattled U.S. labor movement’s highest-profile organizing victories in years, creating a foothold at an iconic global brand. It would also extend U.S. workers’ recent momentum into a new arena — the company’s ubiquitous coffee shops, visited by millions of Americans each day, where past organizing efforts have repeatedly fizzled.

“It’s a much bigger deal than the number of people would suggest,” said former NLRB chair and union attorney Wilma Liebman, given how a union victory at Starbucks would create new inroads in the broader restaurant industry. “Winning is contagious, and it could spread like wildfire.”

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Baristas at several Buffalo-area Starbucks say they’ve been talking casually with a union organizer over the past couple years, but more-serious conversations began in earnest this summer, after workers were exposed to new pressures and risks by the pandemic and then emboldened by a tightening labor market. After a swift series of confidential conversations, including at rival coffee shops, employees in August publicly announced their campaign to join Workers United, an affiliate of the Service Employees International Union.

Employees say they love the company but want to secure a say to address issues like schedules that sometimes provide inadequate hours and wages that don’t sufficiently reward longer-serving staff, as well as security to speak up when confronted with hazards like harassment from customers about masks.

“You can’t tell us that we’re essential workers and then also tell us that we shouldn’t have a voice or equal say,” said Jaz Brisack, an activist barista who before getting hired last year at Starbucks was employed by Workers United as an organizer on a successful unionization campaign at another Buffalo-area coffee chain, Spot Coffee.

Starbucks asking staff to vote against unionization

More than its peers, Starbucks has cultivated a progressive brand, closing stores nationwide to hold trainings on racial bias, pledging to achieve “carbon neutral green coffee,” offering health benefits to part-timers and recently announcing it would implement a nationwide $15 wage floor. Some pro-union employees say they hope the Seattle-based company will eventually come to see how collective bargaining could advance the company’s mission too.

Asked about the campaign, a Starbucks spokesperson provided an October open letter to employees from the coffee chain’s North America president, Rossann Williams, in which she said she recognized that workers in the Buffalo region “have not had the Starbucks experience that we work so hard to create for you,” and that she and other managers were “here to ensure that we can give them just that.” Starbucks is asking employees to vote against unionization, Williams wrote, “because we believe we will best enhance our partnership and advance the operational changes together in a direct relationship.”

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On Saturday, Starbucks closed Buffalo-area stores early and paid employees to attend a gathering with its former CEO Howard Schultz, the billionaire who is its chairman emeritus and largest individual shareholder. Schultz told employees that Starbucks had already built “a different kind of company,” and that no outsiders had successfully “pressured us, maneuvered us, threatened us to do anything other than what we felt in our heart and our conscience we needed to do and should do for the people who wear the green apron.”

In a letter to employees published on Starbucks’ website in conjunction with his visit, Schultz said he was “saddened and concerned” to hear that any employee would think they need to have “a representative seek to obtain things we all have as partners at Starbucks.”

Starbucks Holds Annual Shareholders Meeting
CEO Howard Schultz speaks during the Starbucks annual meeting of shareholders on March 22, 2017 in Seattle, Washington.Stephen Brashear/Getty Images

Employee concerns at Starbucks

Still, Schultz was escorted away after the speech when Gianna Reeve, a pro-union employee at one of the stores slated to vote, asked him if he would support principles proposed by the union to restrict union-busting, she said.

Starbucks has said that workers already have a say in scheduling, that more senior workers already get extra pay, and that it prioritizes workers’ and customers’ safety.

The company also shared a September message to Buffalo-area employees from a regional vice president, Allyson Peck, saying that Starbucks was “bringing additional recruiters and managers to help with staffing, finalizing dedicated training plans for new baristas and repairing store issues quickly.” The steps, she said, are “actions only Starbucks can deliver on — versus an outside third party like the Workers United union.”

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On Aug. 30, after unsuccessfully petitioning Starbucks headquarters to make a deal restricting anti-union campaigning, employees moved ahead at the U.S. labor board, submitting signatures that organizers say represented at least four-fifths of the eligible staff at each of three Buffalo-area stores. The NLRB rejected Starbucks’ argument that the appropriate voter pool would instead consist of employees at all 20 of its stores in the region and granted the union’s request to hold store-by-store votes at the three sites, boosting the organizers’ chance of success.

Since each store’s employees are voting separately, Starbucks will be legally required to negotiate if a majority of eligible staff at even one of them votes for the union.

U.S. workers are having their moment

Richard Bensinger, the former AFL-CIO organizing director spearheading the Buffalo Starbucks campaign for Workers United, said it was born out of a regional effort to organize restaurants, not a national strategy to target Starbucks.

He’s found organizing Starbucks both easier and harder than he’d predicted: He thought he might find executives at the company, known for comparatively generous pay and benefits, eager to avoid a bitter struggle, along with workers who were tepid about organizing. Instead, he said, employees have proven highly motivated to seek changes but the company, as much as any other he’s gone up against, has been steadfast in seeking to defeat the drive.

The Starbucks campaign is unfolding at a moment of unusual leverage for U.S. workers. They’ve been emboldened by a tight labor market and inspired to demand payback for the risks and sacrifices they shouldered during the pandemic, and to reverse concessions they acceded to in past years’ contract talks. Union members have recently authorized potential strikes involving over 100,000 workers in a slew of different industries, while workers in general have been quitting their jobs in record numbers.

Read More: Workers Are Furious. Their Unions Are Scrambling to Catch Up

Over the past week, striking workers at farm equipment maker Deere & Co. voted to continue a 10,000-strong work stoppage rather than accepting a tentative deal that included a 10% immediate wage hike, while unions representing over 30,000 health-care workers at Kaiser Permanente announced plans to strike starting Nov. 15.

But Workers United’s NLRB election effort remains a gamble. While U.S. law promises employees the right to collectively bargain if a majority of their co-workers cast ballots in the affirmative, the law also gives companies wide latitude to campaign aggressively against unionization. Companies generally face only minimal penalties for engaging in illegal efforts to stymie the union or obstruct negotiations once a union is victorious.

Starbucks' corporate headquarters seen in Seattle. The
Starbucks' corporate headquarters seen in Seattle on Apr. 27, 2021.Toby Scott/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Winning a union contract

In recent years, NLRB election victories at the top U.S. companies in union-scarce industries have been almost unheard of, except for where organizers could cut a deal beforehand with management to limit anti-union tactics, as the Starbucks workers tried and failed to do. The “Fight For $15 and a Union” campaign, another SEIU project, has spent about a decade organizing and mobilizing fast-food workers without ever filing for NLRB elections in any restaurants. Instead, they’ve opted for pressure campaigns targeting companies like McDonald’s Corp. in hopes — so far unrealized — of securing a national agreement easing unionization.

Under U.S. law, companies can require workers to attend numerous group or one-on-one meetings about why they shouldn’t unionize, and make dire predictions about what could happen if they do. If workers are proven to be illegally fired for their union activism, the worst penalty a company usually faces is eventually being required to reinstate them with back pay, without punitive damages or personal liability for executives.

If a group of workers does vote to unionize, companies can delay the process with extensive legal challenges. If a union’s victory is upheld, management is required to hold contract talks “in good faith,” but has no obligation to concede much on the issues workers want addressed. The majority of the time, workers still haven’t reached a contract one year after voting to unionize, according to a 2009 study.

Read More: Beyond Labor Day—Three Ways Unions Have Helped American Workers

“Typically, all the board does when an employer fails to bargain in good faith is order the employer to bargain in good faith,” said Columbia University law professor Kate Andrias. “Employees’ ability to win a good first contract is usually not a result of the law, but rather of workers’ decision to stick together, to demand improvements in their workplace, to mobilize public and political pressure on employers, and to engage in collective action by protests and strikes.”

Winning a union contract for a small number of employees at a mammoth, otherwise union-free company is particularly difficult, Andrias said, because those workers have less direct economic leverage over management. Executives also have ample incentive to take a tough stance, knowing that if workers who unionized in one place succeed in securing improvements, organizing would be more appealing to others elsewhere.

Newark Begins 10-Day Stay-At-Home Order To Curb Rising Covid-19 Cases
A person wearing a protective mask collects a pickup order from a Starbucks Corp. coffee shop in Newark, New Jersey, U.S., on Wednesday, Nov. 25, 2020.Angus Mordant/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Starbucks workers say they are pressured

In New York, Starbucks workers say they’ve been pressured to attend frequent anti-union meetings in which the company issues warnings, such as that unionization could cause them to lose existing benefits. The employees also say their stores have been visited by out-of-town managers and higher-ups like Rossann Williams who show up to press the anti-union case.

“We want you to vote no,” Peck, the Starbucks regional vice president, told staff in a Nov. 1 email viewed by Bloomberg. “Unless you are positive you want to pay a union to represent you to us, you must vote no.”

Last week, the union and barista Michelle Eisen filed a complaint, now pending with the NLRB, accusing Starbucks of “engaging in a campaign of threats, intimidation, surveillance” and other illegal tactics such as store closings in its effort to defeat the Buffalo organizing campaign.

Starbucks declined to comment specifically on the NLRB filing. The company has said that workers are expected to attend its meetings but aren’t punished if they refuse; that it’s not uncommon for higher-ups to visit its stores; that its temporary conversion of one store to a training site and closure of another for remodeling were unrelated to union organizing; and that it strictly adheres to U.S. labor law.

Read More: Pandemic Fuels Union Interest Among Front Line Workers

Tia Corthion, a shift supervisor at a Buffalo-area store, said in an interview arranged by a Starbucks spokesperson that she’s received necessary information in the company’s meetings about unionization.

In union contract talks, “there are things that we have to give up to get the things that they’re negotiating,” said Corthion, whose pay and benefits at Starbucks exceed the ones she had in prior jobs. “I don’t know what the outcome could be. It doesn’t sound like any good outcomes.”

Activist employees in New York say they’ve built organizing bonds among co-workers that can withstand an anti-union campaign, and that they’re already hearing from colleagues around the country who want to support them or start organizing themselves, despite management’s efforts to dissuade them.

“They think three stores in Buffalo is bad — they’re going to love the next year,” said local shift supervisor Alexis Rizzo. “Because the interest that we’ve had is mind-blowing.”

Bensinger, the Workers United Buffalo organizer, said he feels good about workers soon getting to vote.

“We don’t have to win a hundred stores, we have to win one,” he said. “If you can win one store, then I think the whole world will rally behind bargaining for a contract like people have never seen.”

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