Out of the 9,000 stores, more Starbucks store workers are filing petitions for union representation. Photo credit: Asael Pena

Starbucks employees push the line for union representation after another win, petitions fall like drip coffee

5 mins read

On the heels of Starbucks stores’ employees voting to unionize, the dominating coffee chain now faces over 130 shops in 26 states that are working toward union representation.

This week, three Starbucks franchises in Buffalo, New York cast ballots in approval of their branches joining the Workers United of the Service Employees International Union. Now, this makes a total of six stores since the first nod at unionization took place last December. 

Called “partners” at their jobs, Starbucks employees are all smiles, while the road to the polls has been “hell” as expressed by Rachel Cohen, a shift supervisor working in Buffalo’s Sheridan and Bailey store for 10 years. Cohen calls the victory “pure joy” following months of aggressive “union-busting” tactics that created an anti-union atmosphere.

Prior to the Buffalo stores’ polling, the “union avoidance” law firm Littler Mendelson was hired to thwart barista voting efforts. Appealing to the National Labor Relations Board, Starbucks corporate said that single-worksite stores should not be able to vote. Rather, all 20 of Buffalo locations should vote at the same time. The U.S. agency decided in favor of the Starbucks workers, which allowed them to move forward.

Starbucks partners have recounted management cutting their hours and even surveilling team members. Some instances have resulted in firings. In Memphis, Tennessee, seven pro-union partners were booted for their advocacy work. “We’re fighting for a wage that’s livable . . . I think that’s not much to ask for,” expressed Nikki Taylor at a protest in front of her previous work location. She is one of the Starbucks employees who was let go. 

Taylor also cited that at her final meeting, managers used a bullying scheme by having three authority figures there, instead of the required one. In the discussion, they pointed to small issues in her performance to justify their actions. “Instead of [offering] a livable wage [at our meetings with corporate, we were given] termination.”

Taylor and her colleagues’ organizing as well as subsequent dismissal gained so much tempo, they are called the “Memphis 7.” The group launched their campaign on this year’s Martin Luther King Jr holiday. Taking from King’s last activist stance for the destitute, he was on a Poor People’s Campaign before being gunned down on the balcony of a Memphis hotel on April 4, 1968. He was in town to march with sanitation workers who were striking for better pay and working conditions.

Social justice advocate, Dr. Rev. William J. Barber, who says he follows King’s work, joined in the Memphis protest.

Notes on collective bargaining

This is not the first time Starbucks workers sought union representation. In 2003, a Manhattan store employee named Dan Gross began to organize workers following his frustration with pay and shop operations. Fourteen co-workers took out union cards, which provided the impetus for the Starbucks Workers Union.

Looking back, corporate offices used the same argument with the labor board in 2003 that they did in 2022. They stated that it was inappropriate for single stores to vote. Gross used the media, albeit before the explosion of social media, to rally worker involvement. While he drummed up support across the country and even in Canada, the movement failed to come up with a cohesive strategy. 

In 2019, two Philadelphia employees sued Starbucks after they were sacked for trying to organize. TJ Bussiere and Echo Nowakowska won their case in August 2021 for firing them as a method of retaliation. 

The latest wave of union organization for Starbucks employees—who collectively come together under Starbucks Workers United front—came after experiencing challenging working conditions during the pandemic. “We are trapped in a vicious cycle of burnout, quick turnover and hiring of partners and managers alike,” wrote workers seeking to unionize in Falls Church, Virginia to Starbucks president and chief executive officer, Kevin Johnson.

They also said they were once considered “essential workers” during the pandemic, but now must labor in “increasing “unsafe working conditions” and without “commensurate or manful raises.” Added, they cited that their hours have decreased under a new order that ended their food and beverage benefits. 

Overall, the call has been for an improved working environment, especially since Starbucks grossed major profits during their pandemic recovery. Though they lost $3.1 billion in 2020, they made a record of $8.1 billion in Q4 of 2021, perhaps attributed to those who are returning to work and must rev up their energy. 

If Starbucks made so much money off the toil of its partners, then its workers certainly deserve a bump in pay. Hence, their demands include salaries that consider the recent inflation rate and rise in the cost of living. “Tenured partners, they only make 63 cents more than partners who start tomorrow,” explained Maggie Clay of the Knoxville Starbucks Organizing Committee to Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-VT). Clay is part of the Knoxville store partners who petitioned for union elections this past December.

Today, four of the 40 Philadelphia stores are petitioning to vote to be unionized. “Being part of a union is like family,” said Eddie, coming out of Starbucks’ Fishtown location. Eddie, who used to be a Starbucks barista vocalized support. “I am in a union at my new job and I like it. If that’s what they want they should get it. [Now] I wouldn’t work if I didn’t have [union benefits],” he told Ark Republic.

The more, the more powerful

Just over the past few weeks, more Starbucks partners have filed to vote for unionization than in previous years. It is not a trend solely situated in the java bean industry. Apple, Amazon, REI, and even the Alphabet staff at Google, are the latest wave of Generation Zers who are reclaiming their time and labor currency.

In a gig-economy, where independent contractors and side hustles for Americans who rely on supplemental income have become the norm, the union fervor is something that younger generations ensconced in the workforce have extracted from previous generations. With the total decline of jobs where employees worked for three decades and enjoyed a livable wage and benefits, many of today’s jobs offer little stability. To shield themselves from employment volatility, more junior staff are seeking protections through unions.

“Generation Z isn’t gonna stand for all this inequality that’s been brewing [for] 50 or so years now,” Joseph Thompson asserted to Your Call Radio. “Unions are the best way to build working class power.”

Right when unions were dying a rapid death, the grandchildren of Baby Boomers are picking up where Pop Pop and GiGi retired. Today, the Bureau of Labor Statics shows about 10.3 percent of workers in the U.S. enjoy union representation, which is a significant dip from 1983’s 20 percent. 

Nonetheless, a 2017 report by the Economic Policy Institute found that 72 percent of new union membership was from those  35 years-old or younger. Although it dropped in 2021, much of that was due to the “Great Resignation,” where Americans from both blue-collar and white-collar industries dropped out of the labor force all together during the public health crisis. 

. . . .

The current economy has left many employees feeling vulnerable. In a 2021 Pew survey, gig workers expressed concern for “lack of benefits and job security that can be associated with these jobs.” In the same study, 37 percent of side hustlers reported sexual harassment with a majority being persons of color. 

Union erosion has seen the rise of toxic corporate culture. Frequent layoffs, underappreciation of employee performance and inadequate responses to COVID-19, drove many to take an indefinite leave from work. Starbucks employees represent workers pushing to organize when a labor market leaves them unprotected. 

Moreover, those at the economic bottom have a history of employing union representation. Evidenced in membership numbers, the Department of Labor reports that Black workers continue to have a higher union membership rate in 2021 (11.5 percent); followed by whites (10.3 percent), Hispanics (9 percent), and lastly Asians (7.7 percent).

For now, Starbucks workers across the country are seizing power through representation. “At the end of the day, Starbucks wouldn’t be able to operate without its workers,” said Thompson.

This week, the fifth Starbucks store in Colorado announced plans to unionize, as well as in the Miami Springs store, Murfreesboro and Knoxville, Tennessee.

Kaia Shivers covers news, features and the diaspora.

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