The Starbucks Union Movement Is ‘Unstoppable’

On Tuesday, Starbucks workers at five stores voted to unionize in Richmond, Virginia, bringing the count of unionized Starbucks stores to 25 locations out of 27 where votes have been counted. Most of the union wins have been landslide victories, some of them were unanimous in favor of the union. 

Despite Starbucks’ very best efforts to prevent the union drives at the coffee chain from spreading—bringing back former CEO Howard Schultz, firing union organizers, holding extensive captive audience meetings—the momentum of Starbucks stores filing for union elections isn’t showing any signs of slowing. More than 200 stores nationwide have filed for union elections with Starbucks Workers United, and new stores are filing most days of the week. According to the most recent data available on the National Labor Relations Board’s website, 26 Starbucks stores across the United States filed for union elections between April 12 and 19. New Starbucks union filings make up a shocking percentage of all new union filings in the United States.

“We are unstoppable!!” Starbucks Workers United tweeted on April 14. “On the heels of four unanimous victories in three days, four more stores in the NYC/Metro area just filed today!!” The tweet went viral. 

“I don’t see this campaign slowing down anytime soon,” said Rebecca Givan, a professor of labor studies at Rutgers University. “The pace of election filings and union victories is continuing. There are thousands more stores to go, including plenty more that haven’t filed or gone public in heavily unionized areas, college towns.”

Five months ago, none of this seemed possible. Not a single location of Starbucks’ more than 9,000 corporate-owned locations had unionized. For many decades, individual Starbucks stores—like much of the retail and fast food industries—were seen by the labor movement as impervious to unionization because of the company’s anti-union stance, the high turnover rate at stores, and the fact that the workforce is fragmented into small worksites of fewer than 50 workers. Efforts to unionize Walmart and the fast food industry had repeatedly failed. The logic also went that unionizing Starbucks store-by-store, 20 workers at a time, was an imprudent strategy for labor unions looking to rebuild the hemorrhaging labor movement in the United States, because it would require resources that unions could spend more effectively on larger workplaces, such as auto and manufacturing plants.

“Organizing small shops is always hard because the cost of representing small shops is high,” said Givan. “Unions also tend to think about strategic leverage so if you’re organizing small shops in a company with thousands of worksites, it is hard to imagine how you’d build leverage. The company could just close the branches that unionize.”

“The thinking went: if you’re facing super powerful corporations that are prepared to fight until death you’ll never win union elections,” said John Logan, a labor studies expert at San Francisco State University. “A lot of unions have given up on the private sector.” 

But the snowballing union movement at Starbucks throws a lot of this logic on its head. Experts say this is due to a few factors: the demographics of Starbucks’ workforce (young, college educated, and left-wing), the resurgence of enthusiasm for organized labor brought about by the pandemic, skyrocketing inflation, and increased leverage for workers in a tight labor market. Each of these factors have made the union movement at Starbucks spread more quickly than anyone had previously imagined it could. In fact, the small size of Starbucks locations now plays to the union’s advantage, experts say. 

“At Starbucks, you have a lot of workers who’ve worked on the frontlines during the pandemic. They haven’t been rewarded equitably or treated with respect. You also have a lot of young workers who have been politicized by Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, Bernie Sanders, the Democratic Socialists of America and other leftist organizations and causes. They’re precisely the kind of people who union messages would resonate with. That’s the kind of person Starbucks is hiring,” said Logan. Jaz Brizack, a 24-year-old former Rhodes Scholar and one of the early leaders of the Starbucks Workers United campaign in Buffalo, is one example of this type of worker.   

Logan says at worksites such as Starbucks with roughly 30 workers, those pro-union workers can engage directly with others at their store, know who is and isn’t on their side, and work on engaging those on the fence, allowing these movements to spread quickly from store-to-store. “They have the ability to win young politicized workers in a lot of stores where they can reach out to every single person in a store. As long as the campaign has the ability to spread quickly as it has done already, small size is actually a huge advantage,” said Logan. “If it didn’t spread like wildfire, small size would be a huge disadvantage.”

Starbucks sent executives, including the president of Starbucks North America, to the first unionizing stores in Buffalo to intimidate them out of unionizing, but the company can’t send executives to individually try to scare workers at hundreds of unionizing stores.

In recent weeks, stores in Seattle; Boston; Richmond, Virginia; Bloomfield, Pennsylvania; Eugene, Oregon have voted unanimously to unionize. Experts say that the greatest momentum appears to be in college towns like Ithaca, New York, and union-dense cities like Boston. 

Logan also says the self-organizing, worker-led nature of the Starbucks union drive, as opposed to the style of campaigns led primarily by professional union organizing staff, has also played an important role in the string of victories at Starbucks. 

Since Starbucks workers in Buffalo went public with their union drive in 2021, Starbucks has waged an intense campaign to crush union drives that has included flooding stores with executives and regional managers and holding mandatory anti-union meetings. More recently the union has accused Starbucks of reducing workers’ hours nationally to get pro-union workers to quit. 

Starbucks Workers United organizers say Starbucks’ anti-union campaign has escalated in recent weeks, as Starbucks reinstated former CEO, one-time presidential candidate, and billionaire Howard Schultz as head of the company. The company has begun blocking pro-union workers and labor leaders on Twitter and circulating fabricated tweets from the Starbucks United Workers account on fliers in some of their stores. In Schultz’s first week back as CEO, the company fired at least four union organizers, for reasons such as allegedly breaking a sink on purpose. Unionizing workers say much of Starbucks’ anti-union campaign has backfired, and isn’t working.

“Since Howard took over, there’s definitely a feeling that anti-union sentiment is less covert in my store,” said Victoria Bonklin, a Starbucks barista and lead union organizer in Buffalo whose store recently filed for a union election. “My manager started making lots of statements about not wanting any pro-union people working in our store at all. She won’t speak to me anymore unless she has to.” 

Bonklin, who has worked at Starbucks since 2017, says that Schultz has long been a beloved figure among a contingent of baristas at Starbucks. When he was CEO the first time, multiple copies of his books were often sent to stores, where workers could read them for free. “It doesn’t seem like a coincidence that Howard took over again. I think it was a direct response to unionization,” said Bonklin. “He has a cult following, and there’s a weird culture of workers being like, ‘Oh it’s just Howie, a cuddly grandfather figure who loves Starbucks.’ People would brag about how many times they’d met him.”

In recent weeks, Schultz has reportedly discussed excluding unionized staff from receiving new benefits, said to managers that unionizing workers “don’t really understand, let alone the dues they are going to pay,” and told a pro-union Starbucks worker in Long Beach, California,  “If you hate Starbucks so much, why don’t you go somewhere else?”

Experts say the number of unionized stores is growing so quickly that Starbucks, and the union, may eventually opt to engage in regional, sectoral bargaining that would involve negotiating contracts across large swaths of its workforce rather than store-by-store, as some major grocery chains have done. 

“I would expect that if unionization continues, Starbucks wouldn’t want to go store by store with contract negotiation,” said Logan. “There’s speculation about what Starbucks will do to prevent unions from developing regional strongholds and winning all the stores in regional markets, which would allow them to bargain in a really powerful way, in a way Starbucks might not be able to control.”

Givan says Starbucks will likely implement raises and benefits bargained in the first Starbucks contract across the country to deter further organizing. “Assuming stores reach a first contract, Starbucks will roll out material improvements to non-union stores like higher wages, but it won’t roll out wins that give workers actual power or a real voice, such as ‘just cause’ for terminations,” said Givan. “They’ll try to make not yet unionized workers think they don’t need to organize.” 

Bonklin, the Buffalo barista, says she’s optimistic that despite Starbucks best efforts to crack down on unions, Starbucks workers won’t stop unionizing. “I think that at this point we have so much momentum and public support that it’s hard for them to stop it,” she said. “It doesn’t mean they won’t try their absolute best to stop it, but they know more stores are filing and winning elections every day and their tactics aren’t working.”

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