After years of low pay, tough working conditions, and few benefits, unionization is having a moment in the food and beverage industry. Workers at chains like Chipotle and McDonald’s are organizing unions at an unprecedented pace, likely due to added strain and financial difficulty induced by the pandemic. Costs for everything from food to gas are up, wages are stagnant, and that makes unionizing a seriously appealing prospect for underpaid workers.
This is especially true at Starbucks. The massive, Seattle-based coffee chain has seen a wave of unionization across the country, with workers in more than 100 locations in more than 19 states organizing unions. The company hasn’t exactly been welcoming of these new unions, and organizers say that Starbucks has engaged in a wide range of union-busting practices, from actively encouraging employees to vote against unionizing to allegedly firing workers who were involved with union organizing.
In the coming months, unionization at Starbucks will continue to be a hot topic, because the organizing effort shows no signs of slowing down. Here’s what you should know:
What’s the deal with unions?
A worker’s right to form a union was first enshrined into U.S. federal law in 1935, with the passage of the National Labor Relations Act. The Act stipulates that employers must, in good faith, bargain with an officially recognized union of its workers. Those unions may be recognized voluntarily, or through an election process that’s administered by the National Labor Relations Board, the government agency tasked with managing union elections and disputes between employers and workers.
What’s happening at Starbucks?
The current wave of unionization at Starbucks began in Buffalo, New York, where workers at two stores voted to unionize as Starbucks Workers United in December 2021. Though the union has not yet presented official demands to the company, one worker told Eater that he hopes the union will secure a $25 minimum wage for baristas, plus improvements to company-provided benefits like mental health care plans. As soon as the workers filed for a union election with the National Labor Relations Board, the governmental agency tasked with handling disputes between employers and unions, Starbucks asked the agency to delay the union vote. The NLRB rejected that request.
The push to unionize spread quickly, first to Starbucks locations in Boston, and now, to more than 100 locations in states across the country, including Arizona, Washington, Illinois, Florida, Ohio, Maryland, Virginia, and California. Not all of the campaigns have been successful, though — of three Starbucks locations in Buffalo, one voted against unionization. Each store has unionized individually, though Starbucks has asked the NLRB to require stores in the same geographical area to vote together.
On February 25, after multiple procedural delays instigated by Starbucks, workers in Mesa, Arizona voted 25-3 to unionize, a decision that the union calls “historic.” “This movement started in Buffalo and we’ve now brought it across the country. This movement is truly powered and run by partners,” Michelle Hejduk, a worker at the Mesa store, said in a statement issued by the union. “We as partners are demanding a seat at the table and a say in our working conditions. For too long, Starbucks hasn’t lived up to their mission and values and we are holding them accountable.”
Following the victory in Mesa, workers at three additional stores in Buffalo won their union on March 9.
How is Starbucks responding?
According to the union, Starbucks is strongly opposed to unionization efforts at its stores. In addition to asking the NLRB to delay the certification of the Buffalo union election results, the company asked the agency to prohibit Starbucks workers from organizing their stores individually, arguing that all 20 Starbucks stores in the Buffalo area should be required to vote together. The NLRB denied that request.
Starbucks also operates a website called We Are One Starbucks, which encourages “partners,” as it calls its employees, to vote against the union. “We do not believe unions are necessary at Starbucks because we know that the real issues are solved through our direct partnership with one another,” the website reads. The site also enumerates the benefits that the company provides to its employees, including health insurance, college tuition, and free Spotify Premium subscriptions.
Starbucks workers say that the company is also engaging in union-busting at stores where union efforts are underway. In January, a Buffalo barista told Eater that Starbucks sent dozens of “support managers” to his store and other locations in the area to surveil union activity. Just this week, Starbucks fired several workers at a location in Memphis, Tennessee in an act that the union describes as retaliatory.
According to the company, the employees who were fired were let go because they violated certain Starbucks policies. But union organizers say that the workers were targeted because of their union activity and that the policy had not been enforced “evenly” prior to the firing of these workers. The union also alleges that the firings came after one employee signed a union card in view of the store’s security cameras.
How can customers support Starbucks workers in their union effort?
Starbucks Workers United is not yet calling for more severe measures, like a boycott or a strike, so most customers won’t see any impact to their typical Starbucks run. Picket lines have been organized at some stores, like the Memphis location where seven employees say they were fired for engaging in union activity, and crossing one of those picket lines to buy a coffee is definitely frowned upon.
“Customers can help our unionization efforts by calling on Starbucks to end their aggressive anti-union campaign and supporting the partners at the organizing stores in their efforts,” a representative from the union told Eater via email. “Tipping workers, leaving them notes, and wishing them good luck with their union are all great ways to support us.”
Update: March 10, 2022, 12:15 p.m.: This story was originally published on February 10, 2022. It has been updated throughout to reflect the latest information.