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Brewing Up a Union

Starbucks workers across the country fight for their right to unionize

Written by: Riley Roliff

The initial domino fell in December 2021, when a Starbucks in Buffalo, New York became the first of the company in the United States to file to unionize. Starbucks executives, including the president of Starbucks North America, immediately flocked to the New York town and occupied the store in groups during shifts. The tactics created an air of intimidation and made it nearly impossible for pro-union workers to discuss their views with coworkers. The tactics failed, the Buffalo store voted to unionize and the race commenced. The first 60 union elections, occurring through the winter and spring, had a stunning 90% success rate. Nearly a year and more than 250 unionized stores later, the number and success rate of stores filing to unionize each month has slipped significantly. For this, the hundreds of open unfair labor practice charges the company has racked up throughout the year likely deserves the blame.

The union is centered around Starbucks Workers United (SBWU), which is a collective of US Starbucks Workers organizing their workplaces. According to their website, SBWU is fighting for a wide range of things. Their non-economic proposals include the right to organize unions free from intimidation, protections against cuts to wages or benefits without prior negotiation, stronger non-discrimination measures, health and safety policies, protections against unfair disciplinary action, the establishment of employee-staffed labor management committees for each location and more.

In the Cleveland area, the five Starbucks stores that filed to unionize have had successful votes.

In the Cleveland area, the five Starbucks stores that filed to unionize have had successful votes. The locations include University Circle, Cleveland Heights, Clifton Boulevard, Westlake and the Warehouse District. The first store in the area to unionize is located on West Sixth Street. In a Cleveland Scene article written after their union vote, workers at the store described harsh hour-cutting practices, which they believed to be retaliation for their unionization attempt. Some workers described having their hours cut from 30 hours a week to 10, reducing workers' ability to pay for basic necessities and leading to a high rate of turnover. An article in The Buckeye Flame that included interviews with organizers at the Clifton location found similar practices, and noted how hours for workers were often cut to right below the threshold needed to qualify for health insurance. At the Westlake location, consistent scheduling below the threshold was also a major factor in the decision to unionize. After filing to vote on a union, the Westlake store hired at least four additional workers, a move that workers saw as an effort to tip the scales of the vote.

Credit: Riley Roliff

Maddie Vanhook, a former worker at the West Sixth location, said that she and her coworkers were inspired by the Buffalo stores unionization. “We were just like, ‘they can do it, we can also do it,’” she said in an interview.

According to Vanhook, one of the main things that she and her coworkers wanted to change through unionizing was wages. Another was the training system, which she said didn’t give new baristas enough preparation. Further improvements included wanting to change vacation and sick time policies and allowing customers to tip from credit cards. Other workers emphasized the need to fix understaffing issues, which leads to employees becoming overworked and stressed.

Vanhook said she encountered various union-busting tactics after her store filed to vote on a union.

“I’ve had people break down and cry while they’re making drinks,” said Olivia Como, a barista at the Cleveland Heights Starbucks. “I’ve got customers that swear. I get sexually harassed constantly. And the company doesn’t do much about it … I don’t want anyone else to have to deal with that.”

Credit: Riley Roliff

Cleveland Heights Starbucks worker Sasha Burnette expressed concern that the company is preoccupied with making NFTs and providing unneeded benefits like free Spotify, rather than doing things that would help workers, such as updating credit card readers to be able to accept tips and fixing the registers that glitch nearly every shift.

“Their biggest priority is making money and they don’t really care about their workers,” said Como.

Employees have taken note of the vast amount of money flowing into the company since the pandemic began. “When the company keeps seeing billions of dollars in profits, we have to ask ourselves who is being paid that money,” said Cleveland Heights barista Hannah Woodside in an interview with the online media outlet Workers World earlier this year. “Because it isn’t us.”

Vanhook described an additional conflict that unionized stores have found themselves stuck in for months: struggling to get the company to come to the bargaining table.

Starbucks’ profits rose 31% in the final three months of 2021, and CEO Kevin Johnson pocketed a 39% pay raise through the year. This increase did not stop the company from raising prices and understaffing stores.

Vanhook said she encountered various union-busting tactics after her store filed to vote on a union. First were the captive-audience meetings. During the meetings, the store and district manager shut down the store during work hours and gave anti-union presentations to the employees.

“It would just be straight up anti-union propaganda,” said Joseph Nappi, another former worker at the West Sixth Starbucks, about the captive-audience meetings. “Oh, a union would be a third party. Oh, you wouldn’t be able to pick up shifts. Your manager wouldn’t be able to work with you, you can’t talk to your manager anymore, they’re going to take so much out of your paycheck for dues, stuff like that.”

Nappi said that unionized locations or locations suspected of wanting to unionize are commonly moved to being mobile-only.

“Starbucks claims it’s for safety reasons,” said Nappi. “I don’t buy that.”

Nappi explained that the Starbucks mobile app does not have an option to tip, leading to a sharp decrease in the income of workers. Nappi said he felt a main purpose of going mobile only is to distance customers from workers, likely for the purpose of tamping down on public support.

The Red Cup Rebellion, as the workers called it, was the largest nationally coordinated action the union has done.

“One of Starbucks’ main mission statements is being a third place, which is not home, not work, but Starbucks,” he said. “But now, you can’t go to Starbucks and grab a cup of coffee with friends and just sit down and talk, you can’t go to Starbucks and do work, you can’t go to Starbucks and get on a zoom meeting with someone, because they took that away from customers. I think it’s a way to distance customers from baristas to tamp down on public support for the union push as well.”

It is also common for workers to be disciplined or fired for small infractions happening months prior. This occurred to Maddie Vanhook early in November. She had just clocked in for her shift when she was pulled into a side room by the store manager and the newly hired district manager. The district manager explained that she was being let go because of a time she was sent home from a shift due to having a headache and a cough. According to the rules, workers are not supposed to come to work if they are experiencing these symptoms. This technical violation occurred in September, two months before her firing. Vanhook said firings and write-ups like this are not an uncommon occurrence at the location. For example, she explained that another worker at the store had recently been issued a final warning, citing an attendance violation that occurred in June.

Credit: Riley Roliff

Unfair firing and discipline practices like these are happening nationally. In mid-November, the National Labor Review Board (NLRB), a federal agency that deals with labor law, petitioned a federal court for a “nationwide cease and desist order” stopping the company from using firings to retaliate against pro-union workers. SBWU has accused Starbucks of illegally firing over 150 pro-union workers since the unionization push began. Despite the company’s claims that the firings were not acts of retaliation, evidence shows otherwise. For instance, a former Starbucks manager testified under oath in August that higher-ups told him to search records of pro-union workers to find things to use against them.

Starbucks' spree of lawlessness was partially made possible by the hollowing out of the NLRB, which has not seen a funding increase since 2014. Due to budgetary strains, the agency's staff has been cut by 37% in the last eight years. The budgetary and staffing issues combined with exponentially increasing unionization attempts and alleged labor law violations have led union leaders to call the situation a crisis.

Vanhook described an additional conflict that unionized stores have found themselves stuck in for months: struggling to get the company to come to the bargaining table. At the West Sixth store, the company canceled a date they set up for bargaining. At a unionized store in University Circle, the company walked out of a bargaining meeting five minutes in. Workers across the country have had to wait for hours for the company to arrive at scheduled bargaining meetings, only for them to walk out minutes later. Starbucks representatives claimed that the walkouts were due to workers in the session broadcasting the meetings for other workers who were unable to attend over Zoom, despite the fact that representatives had allowed workers to attend previous bargaining sessions remotely.

On November 17, over 100 unionized stores went on a one-day strike to protest the company's union busting and refusal to bargain. The strikes took place on Red Cup Day, when the company hands out reusable red cups for holiday drink orders. The day was selected due to it being one of the most popular days of the year for the company.

“It’s Starbucks’s version of a Black Friday,” said Bee Woodside, a Cleveland Heights Starbucks barista.

The Red Cup Rebellion, as the workers called it, was the largest nationally coordinated action the union has done. To raise awareness of the union effort, striking workers handed out SBWU branded reusable cups.

Credit: Riley Roliff

“I was honestly really shocked to see how many people came out,” said Burnette about the strike. “We had musician union members come here, we had members of other unions and other people come by and hold signs with us.”

Workers said they have encountered strong community support throughout the unionization effort.

“People would put their names as ‘union strong’ on their mobile order cups and we would call it out,” said Como.

In addition to receiving encouragement from customers, workers have received support from local activist groups. Over the summer, the Cleveland chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) held a fundraiser concert featuring local bands and raised over $2 thousand for Starbucks workers that have had their hours cut. Cleveland DSA has also held rallies over the summer to protest Starbucks union busting and show support for workers. Other fundraiser events included a Cleveland SBWU organized drag show titled “Starf*cks: Union Busting is a Drag!”

Nappi stressed that all workers, no matter what job, deserve a union. “What I’ve heard a lot from service employees that work minimum wage is ‘well, I’m just a minimum wage worker, I don’t need a union,’” he said. “Yes, you do … You deserve it. You dedicate hours of your day to help your company earn a profit and you deserve to be represented at the table in these important business decisions.”

“My advice is always just to do it,” Vanhook said when asked what she would say to other workers who wish to unionize. “It seems really scary … but I ultimately think it’s worth it to be able to have that collective power between you and your coworkers and be able to be like, we have each other's backs, even if our management doesn’t and even if our company doesn’t.”

Other workers emphasized that strength comes in numbers, and that workers who are afraid to organize their store are not alone in feeling that way.

Nappi holds high hopes for the future of the labor movement. “I think this wave of unionization isn’t going to stop anytime soon,” he said. “It’s not only happening at Starbucks. There’s Chipotle stores that are unionizing, Trader Joes, more and more teachers and professors and people that are finally realizing ‘hey, I think what I do has dignity and I deserve to have a bigger voice in my workplace.’”

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