In late 2021, Starbucks workers from Buffalo, New York voted to make their store the first unionized location out of the chain’s 9,000 company-owned U.S. stores. This moment has resulted in employees from different Starbucks, as well as coffee shops around the country, initiating their own unionization processes. Prior to the vote, Starbucks announced that they would increase their minimum wage to $15 an hour and raises for tenured workers.
Soon after the vote, two other Buffalo stores concurrently voted to unionize. One accepted the union while another store voted not to unionize. The union has formally objected to the rejection outcome alleging that company leaders had engaged in anti-union efforts. The objection is currently pending before the labor board.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 1.2% of U.S. food service workers are unionized. The Buffalo workers joined with Workers United, an affiliate of the Service Employees International Union. The successful union votes have inspired workers from three additional Buffalo stores to file for elections, in addition to stores in Chicago; Cleveland; Boston; Seattle; Tallahassee; Knoxville; Mesa, Arizona; Broomfield, Colorado; Eugene, Oregon; and Hopewell, New Jersey. Mesa and Buffalo ballots begin in January 2022.
To continue unionization momentum, the Restaurant Organizing Project, a Democratic Socialists of America campaign, hosted “Grande Sindicato, Please,” a virtual discussion featuring Buffalo workers and other coffee shop union organizers from around the U.S. on Tuesday, Jan. 18. The featured panelists talked about their motivations for unionizing and what strategies they employed to fight against anti-union strategies. There were over 130 people in attendance.
According to Restaurant Organizing Project leader Paul KD, the project began around the start of the pandemic when restaurant and service industry workers around the country began realizing that the service industry is fundamentally broken and in need of total systemic change.
“The only way for that to happen is for the workers to do it themselves,” said Paul. “As workers, we know what’s wrong, and we know how to fix things, because we’ve actually been there.”
The first portion of the discussion was led by Colleen, another DSA labor organizer. In the second portion panelists answer questions from attendees.
James (they/them) is a barista for two Starbucks in Buffalo which have both filed for elections with the National Labor Relations Board in Buffalo. They consider workplace democracy “a fundamental achievement.”
“We spend most of our time at our workplace, and it needs to be a democratic place,” they said. “The pandemic has created a heightened sense of precarity among all of us in our workplaces, and it’s shown us just how little voice we have and just how undemocratic our workplaces are.”
Unionizing efforts at James’ store have been energized by many grievances. These include a lack of seniority pay, increasing company health insurance costs, a lack of management accountability, poor handling of racial and gender discrimination and harassment, and a failure to help employees keep themselves safe throughout the pandemic. James said that they have heard similar grievances from other Starbucks employees from around the country.
“They don’t allow us to enforce mask mandates in our store,” they said. “We’re not provided with KN95 masks. And new policies surrounding exposure with regard to COVID and close contact with infected people are that if you’re vaccinated, and you do not have symptoms, you must come to work, regardless of how close or ongoing that contact … has been.”
Izzy (she/they) is an organizer and member of the marketing committee for the first unionized Starbucks in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada which won a contract six months ago. Their unionization movement was also driven by grievances related to COVID-19.
“We literally just wanted to be able to feel safe at work,” said Izzy. “And that wasn’t happening because of COVID. And it wasn’t happening because of customer harassment that was occurring almost every day.”
James said that it is important for their campaign’s public messaging to not be specifically foregrounded in their grievances because corporate leaders can easily co-opt said grievances to make it seem as though they are making radical systemic changes.
“For example, they’ll suddenly give raises, they’ll suddenly institute seniority pay, which they have by the way, they’ll suddenly fire managers and then scapegoat your managers,” said James. “But if your messaging … is foregrounded in workplace democracy as a social justice issue, then there’s nothing they can do about it. All they can do is quote Martin Luther King and just show how much they don’t actually run a company based on the values that the Dr. King died for.”
Izzy added that workers can use the contradiction between Starbucks’ proclaimed values and the way they treat their partners in order to derail and refute their anti-union propaganda. They said that they were able to get many of their coworkers on board with unionizing because most of the employees could see that a lot of the storewide decisions were not being made from a worker perspective.
They said that while they do live in a fairly pro-union area, some of the employees did have concerns over aspects like expensive dues and poor communication from the union. They said as time passed they were able to dispel some of these preconceptions based on Cold War era propaganda.
To help spread communication, Izzy said they tried to become familiar with the whole store meaning they started working opening and closing shifts. They do not recommend doing this long term because it can become taxing, however, they said it gave them opportunities to point out the company’s faults to other employees and give them motivation to take action. Izzy recommends abstaining from signing any confidentiality agreements at the beginning of bargaining. They said that their union made the mistake of signing one because it was considered local tradition for unions to sign the agreement as an act of good faith, but: “Starbucks, they don’t care about your good faith.”
“I didn’t believe that Starbucks was going to do this,” said Izzy. “But it’s just been absolute shock and awe the way in which they’ve gone into a massive psychological warfare campaign that deliberately isolates pro-union workers on the floor, that floods stores with corporate managers who constantly surveil and listen to make it so that you don’t feel like you can have open conversations on the floor. And this is why it’s just so important to have meaningful relationships … with your coworkers.”
When Izzy’s union won their contract, workers at their store became the highest paid Starbucks partners in the country, in addition to winning seniority pay.
James said it was important to have open conversations with several other pro-union employees before the company could begin introducing anti-union rhetoric. Those looking to unionize their store must be very calculated and quiet about it.
“The second a manager finds out about any union talk or any non-union supporter finds out, that word is going to be passed onto corporate very, very quickly,” they said. “And they will begin surveilling your shop. The reason why their anti-union campaign was so intense was because they knew that if they didn’t stop Buffalo, dominos would just fall all around the county.”
The organizers did a lot of mapping at the store and were very systematic about deciding who would talk to who before approaching individual coworkers to address their concerns.
“Most of my co-workers knew nothing about unions so it was really important to be having open conversations with them before corporate could force feed them all of the anti-union talking points that they eventually did,” said James. “And these conversations in my experience, were much less about me talking [in] some professorial way, like what a union is, and more so just asking sincere, curious, vulnerable questions, because I really wanted to know what my coworkers were concerned about.”
James said that they began having quiet conversations about unionization with a private circle about three months before the campaign went public. Higher risk conversations came later once they saw that they would have enough support.
The panelists stressed the importance of avoiding physical evidence. Palm cards and even text messages can lead to management discovering the unionization effort or even get organizers in trouble with local labor boards. Agitation through Zoom and phone calls is preferable though still not without risk.
However, even once discovered, union organizers are not always fired. Starbucks fired a manager in Mesa, Arizona for leaking a video which showed corporate Starbucks employees discussing union busting tactics. This tactic backfired, leading to public outcry and pro-union sentiment among store employees. Instead, Starbucks now tends to create an uncomfortable workplaces for organizers in hopes that they quit. This is part of a larger strategy to characterize unions as third parties coming from outside a store. While large unions do often extend assistance in the form of representatives or staffers, Izzy said that their union representative was “hands off” during their organization process. Representatives can be effective, but successful organization comes down to grassroots solidarity among the workforce overcoming the hostile work environment imposed by management.
Another panelist, Iz D. (they/them), shared their experience on the negotiation committee for a union working with Pavement Coffeehouse, a Boston-based chain. According to Iz, minimum wage starting pay is a major concern among Pavement workers, as minimum wage is unlivable in the city. But just as frustrating is the harassment endured by LGBTQ+ and BIPOC employees. Iz claims that that cafes like to hire people who are diverse or openly queer for aesthetic purposes, but fails to defend them with explicit and holistic grievance procedures.
“They love to use our outward appearance, but not actually protect us,” said Iz. “There were a lot of microaggressions happening, lots of sexism, racism, homophobia from upper management. And whenever anyone reported it, it was kind of just like, ‘Oh, we’ll talk to the person.’ There were never any real consequences and a lot of people felt and still feel unsafe. We’re currently bargaining to have a comprehensive discrimination clause that actually goes beyond just what the law says and protects us.”
Iz said that in their experience, reaching out to media organizations was a vital means of generating public support.
“The media is going to be your best friend. It felt really nice to know that our fight wasn’t invisible. It felt really great to have support from all over the country but also just from our regulars coming in and giving us fat tips and writing us nice notes.”
Other panelists also emphasized the importance of community support. They said that comrades can help establish a sustainable and accessible strike fund prior to bargaining and customers can show support for the union by contacting corporate and advising them to work with the union. And according to Michelle, a Mesa, Arizona Starbucks worker, sometimes even verbal support can make a huge difference.
“The greatest thing that we could ask for is actually support at the store. If you have the opportunity to say ‘Hey we wish you guys well in this’ [or] ‘Union strong’ … those are amazing moments for us while working in the store. It really means the absolute world to us during this time.”
Starbucks Workers United can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
A link to the panel can be found at https://www.facebook.com/103327184726541/videos/1353150748447598.
The attendee Q&A portion was excluded from the Facebook livestream to maintain privacy.
To speak to a workplace organizer visit https://workerorganizing.org/support/
The Starbucks Workers United strike fund can be found at https://www.gofundme.com/f/starbucks-partners-strike-support-fund.
The next Restaurant Organizing Project meeting is set to take place at 7 p.m. Feb. 15. Visit https://actionnetwork.org/events/coffee-talk?source=direct_link& to RSVP.