Starbucks workers and supporters jump for joy as votes are read during a viewing of their union election on Thursday, Dec. 9, 2021, in Buffalo, N.Y. Starbucks workers have voted to unionize over the company’s objections, pointing the way to a new labor model for the 50-year old coffee giant. | Joshua Bessex / AP
BUFFALO, N.Y.—Starbucks Workers United broke a significant barrier on December 9 with the first-ever worker win at the big retail coffee chain. Workers at the Elmwood store in Buffalo voted 19-8 to unionize with Starbucks Workers United, the National Labor Relations Board officer announced. The union also won 15-9 at a second store, but there are seven challenged ballots, and the NLRB will have to decide whether and how many of them to count.
The union lost 8-12 at a third Buffalo-area store, with two challenged ballots and two invalid votes. In one of many tactics management used to try to beat the union, the firm abruptly closed two more stores which had the most pro-union staffs and transferred people into other stores.
It also brought in co-founder Howard Schultz and other honchos, to argue against the union. But when pro-union worker Gianna Reeve stood up at a captive audience meeting and asked Schultz to sign a set of fair election principles pledge, “he ran away,” she said.
Richard Bensinger, left, who is advising unionization efforts, along with baristas Casey Moore, right, Brian Murray, second from left, and Jaz Brisack, second from right, discuss their efforts to unionize three Buffalo-area stores, inside the movement’s headquarters on Oct. 28, 2021, in Buffalo, N.Y. | Carolyn Thompson / AP
And it tried to stuff the ballot box by expanding the proposed bargaining unit from the 70 workers whom Starbucks Workers United wanted to include, to 100. It scrambled with last-minute improvements and a promised pay raise. And it hired Littler Mendelson, a notorious union-buster which advertises itself as the nation’s #1 corporate law firm. The tactics failed as the workers became more determined than ever to get their union.
The Elmwood workers, gathered at their storefront union quarters in Buffalo, erupted in fist-waving cheers and hugs when the results came in. They literally jumped for joy as they realized their victory was a defeat for a powerful multi-national corporation that rakes in profits from stores around the world.
“I’m so proud of the workers in my hometown of Buffalo. Way to go” declared Howard Kling, a vice president of the International Labor Communications Association, who lives now in Minnesota. His organization was holding a virtual convention of labor communicators when the results at Starbucks were announced.
“There’s been a very clear shift from ‘partners’ to profits. It’s been a churn and burn,” among the workforce, 11-year-worker Michelle Eisen, a leader among the workers, told a town hall for the workers several days ago, hosted by strongly pro-worker Sen. Bernie Sanders, Ind.-Vt. “Partners” is the Starbucks term for workers, like “associates” at Walmart. Bosses have adjusted even the usage of words in the English language to disguise what they are doing. In true Orwellian style, the Starbucks term “partners” sounds better than “exploited workers.” The town hall is posted at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Yolib6O7xhU.
Their victory is important: Starbucks, with 9,000 stores and 200,000 workers nationwide, is—like Amazon and Walmart—a domain of low-paid, low-benefit workers. And those workers, marshaled by the Service Employees, the parent union of Starbucks Workers United, and other unions, have been rising up against corporate exploitation for more than a year.
The coronavirus pandemic, and the massive job losses it created in the restaurant-bar-hotel sector, already the economy’s lowest-paid, shone a national spotlight on such worker exploitation. Workers have responded with unionization drives, or by finding better jobs in the current recovery, telling their old bosses to “take this job and shove it.”
Starbucks tried to cultivate an image that it’s different from those other firms. “It is a company that I came to” 11 years ago “because they professed to be a company I would want to work for, one of the better ones, and someone who cared about the community and their employees and the environment,” said Eisen. “At least I viewed them that way.
“And in the last few years, and this predates the pandemic, things have changed. There’s been a slide in the working conditions and a very clear shift in how they value their employees, and I definitely have felt undervalued.
Will Westlake, left, and Casey Moore, right, watch as votes are counted during a union election watch party on Thursday, Dec. 9, 2021, in Buffalo, N.Y. | Joshua Bessex / AP
“Since we went public on August 23rd, we’ve seen something that’s very contrary to what Starbucks says they are, at least to the public…We’ve seen our stores inundated with Starbucks corporate from all over the country.”
Besides Schultz and Starbucks North America President Roxanne Williams, “they’ve sent ‘support partners,’” she added, waggling her fingers to indicate the quotes, “to prevent us from talking about the union with our co-workers. They’re called ‘support managers,’ but we know they’re there to surveil us and prevent us from doing the work we’d like to do.”
There were so many managers that one male barista, working at the store on a Sunday, found himself surrounded in a “captive audience” meeting with nine managers and HR reps.
“What I’d like to see after we have our union is to have a seat at the table, a say in our working conditions and a say on our pay. I mean someone hired tomorrow is going to make 63 cents less an hour than I do after 11 years with the company and that’s unacceptable.”
The gap is so narrow, Eisen added, because while she’s had small raises, the newer workers benefit from New York state’s rising minimum wage. She doesn’t begrudge them that. The state minimum wage is $12.50 an hour outside the New York City metro area, rising to $13.20 on December 31. It’s $15 an hour in the city, its suburbs, and Long Island.
“What is clear is that senior employees are not valued the way we should be, given the time and energy we’ve put into this company,” Eisen added.
Award winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but a holy terror when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.