A Rhodes scholarship to the University of Oxford can open doors to elite worlds—to a life spent in boardrooms and at gilded galas. Bill Clinton, for example, famously smoked (though “didn’t inhale”) marijuana there before becoming President. Pete Buttigieg served as his cohort’s whiskey purveyor before serving as a Cabinet Secretary.
But Texas-born Jaz Brisack was so unenthusiastic about her Rhodes acceptance that she almost didn’t go. At the time, she was a student at the University of Mississippi who also volunteered on union picket lines. Going to a fancy school to learn about organizing, rather than doing it, lacked appeal. “I wanted to be in the movement,” says the 24-year-old.
So she raced through her studies, where she uncovered an early-1900s labor rallying cry: “Get on the job and organize.” The motto became not just a section in her thesis, but also a call to action. After Oxford, Brisack didn’t vie for a Yale law degree like Clinton, or a cushy consulting gig like Buttigieg. Instead, she got a job at the Elmwood Avenue Starbucks in Buffalo, N.Y. A year later, she organized the first successful unionization among staff of a corporate-owned Starbucks store in the United States.
She rebuffs allegations that unionizing the location was a “grand scheme,” but also says she’d try to organize any place she worked. “There’s no unorganizable workplace,” she says. “There’s just workplaces that haven’t been organized yet.”
COVID-19 sped up the timeline. Her colleagues wanted stronger safety provisions, better health benefits, more pay, and more of a voice in what their workplace looked like. As frustrations mounted, Brisack began to ask them, “Have you ever thought about Starbucks unionizing?”
She didn’t swoop in out of nowhere; she learned the job, gained colleagues’ trust, and explained how a union might help them—brewing support for a barista collective that has since stood in defiance of the nation’s most recognizable coffee brand.
The Elmwood café was ground zero, becoming the first of roughly 9,000 domestic Starbucks locations to unionize in December 2021. Drawing inspiration from Elmwood, 60-plus other locations have unionized, and at least 170 more have successfully filed to hold a vote—despite Starbucks’ retaining an infamous union-busting law firm and requiring employees to attend meetings about potential downsides of unionizing.
The success of unionization efforts at Starbucks has not occurred in a vacuum. After decades of declining membership due to globalization and antiunion laws, union support reached a 56-year high in 2021 as wages flatlined and workers fell sick. Employers lost leverage, resulting in a string of union successes, including a once unimaginable winning union election at a Staten Island Amazon warehouse. Meanwhile, workers at the previously unionized John Deere and Kellogg’s, plus nurses and teachers around the country, have in the past year finalized major contract-negotiated improvements in salary and paid leave.
It could take years before corporate Starbucks and union members codify contracts aimed at improving conditions for employees. But until then, Brisack says, she’s not going anywhere. “I have no plans to leave Starbucks,” she says. Neither is the unionization effort. “It would be amazing to see every Starbucks in the country unionized,” she says. “I think that’s very possible.”
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