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More than tall lattes: Organizing lessons from baristas at Starbucks

Inspiration, information, and solidarity among Starbucks baristas increasingly extends beyond individual stores, connecting workers across cities, regions, and, to some extent, even national borders—illustrating lessons applicable to organizing at the mega-chain in both the U.S. and Canada.

August 17, 2022

10-minute read

As of late July 2022, some 200 Starbucks stores in the United States had unionized.

Those 200 successful union drives took place just about eight months after employees at the first Starbucks in the U.S.—an Elmwood store in Buffalo, New York—voted to unionize with Workers United in December 2021.

But before the Starbucks Workers United (SBWU) campaign started brewing in the US, before it even kicked off in Buffalo, baristas had already unionized a corporate Starbucks elsewhere in North America.

Workers voted in favor of unionization with the United Steelworkers (USW) at a Douglas and Alpha Street store across from the Mayfair mall in Victoria, British Columbia, owned by Starbucks Canada, in August 2020.

Barista-led labour organizing

“The organizing drive in Victoria started sort of during the pandemic, kind of as a response to a lot of the stressors on the service industry during the pandemic, along with difficulty getting management to address our concerns, and just feeling not supported by the company during a difficult time,” Kolton Martin, a barista and union steward at the Douglas drive-thru store in Victoria, said in early August 2022.

They settled a three-year contract in June of last year.

Tara Cavanagh, a USW staff representative who was involved in helping baristas negotiate that collective agreement, said Starbucks employees reached out to the union.

“Through that movement, it's just continued that everyone keeps reaching out to us, but it's really the workers that have organized themselves, and then reached out to us for the assistance for the technical stuff, after our fantastic group,” Cavanagh said.

In the same vein, and perhaps even more in practice, the SBWU union drive in states throughout the U.S. has been directed by members. The campaign has relied on rank-and-file worker knowledge of the dynamics particular to each Starbucks location, coupled with communal barista relations cultivated on each coffee shop floor.

The approach echoes the tenor of past struggles at Starbucks. The Industrial Workers of the World union catalyzed Starbucks organizing in the early aughts, paving the way for “partners”—as the coffee behemoth’s employees are called—to carry forward the spirit of anti-bureaucratic organizing in the U.S. under the Workers United banner as of late.

Their neighbors to the north are taking a similar approach with help from the Steelworkers.

“We're trying to have this be a grassroots, sort of barista-led movement,” Martin said, acknowledging the impressive power and public face of the SBWU movement predicated upon active barista decision-making.

“So that's sort of what we're trying to do here is kind of uplift those that are doing the work of unionizing.”

That helps prevent Starbucks from being able to portray its struggle as a contest between the company and the USW, with workers merely sitting on the sidelines.

New legislation opens windows of opportunity for B.C. partners

The Steelworkers, the largest private-sector union in North America, with some 225,000 members across Canada and 850,000 on the continent and in the Caribbean, recently benefited from labour-friendly legislation in B.C.
The province’s NDP government just this year approved single-step union certification rules, making union recognition from the Labour Board automatic if 55 per cent of workers sign union cards, according to a June 2022 USW press release announcing that another corporate Starbucks store in the province had filed for union certification.

Workers organizing under the auspices of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) in the U.S. can either get a mutually agreeable voluntary union recognition from an employer—not an option with Starbucks, given the organized labour-averse leadership, like CEO Howard Schultz, at the company’s helm—or they can win a union via majority vote in a NLRB election conducted after at least 30 per cent of workers indicate they’re in favour of forming a union.

The new card check law in Canada’s westernmost province, coupled with the visible success and public support for the SBWU campaign south of the border, seems to have contributed to a critical juncture for the labour movement as a whole in North America.

Although anti-union efforts have been somewhat curbed in B.C., working conditions and workplace relations at Starbucks in Canada and the U.S. leave a lot to be desired.

Confronting union-busting tactics and adverse working conditions

Cavanagh said USW-affiliated baristas have experienced some resistance from Starbucks Canada in terms of organizing.

“They're trying to make it more difficult for employees wanting to become unionized,” she said, “but nothing like, from what I've seen, the campaign [that] is happening in the [United States].”

Tyler Keeling, a Starbucks barista and Workers United organizer at a store in Lakewood, California, said employees there were subjected to “captive conversations”—a common occurrence at stores in the U.S. after they file for a union election.

Per Keeling’s understanding, a worker might be asked to sit down with two or three managers who typically present messaging, presumably co-written by Starbucks attorneys, that is critical of unions and intended to scare the cornered partner.

“We also had an adjustment of hours in our store back in April, reducing the total operation hours of the store, which then cut hours for all partners in our store,” Keeling said. “And even before that we were facing, you know, hour cuts and minimum staffing for making the floor run.”

Union busting died down in Lakewood after they won the union vote, Keeling said, but the experience is hardly universal. It’s not even the norm in Southern California, where partners in Orange County continued to encounter anti-union measures from management, not unlike the situation barista organizers in the Midwest have faced.

Despite the formal right of workers to put union material up inside stores, “in practice, those sh*ts come down all the time,” explained Reed Essex, a barista and trainer at the Armitage and Hoyne Starbucks in Chicago.

At least five times, Essex said, he posted and re-posted the notice-to-file letter that they sent to Howard Schultz, who is described in sycophantic fashion on the company’s website as a “transformative leader” who, from the start, “set out to build a different kind of company,” an enterprise that purportedly “delivers business excellence through a culture of compassion” based on the “belief that a business can only exceed expectations by sharing success with its people and the communities it serves.”

In a weird enough move, apparently, just today I got a message from somebody else in the organizing committee that they came in today to install the new 360-degree field of view security cameras,” Essex said. “So that’s fun. I don't know why we need that.

The same holds for the informational pages posted about employees’ Weingarten rights, workers’ right to representation at disciplinary hearings, and their rights under the National Labor Relations Act in the U.S., all of which also disappeared.

“I'm at my other job Friday and Saturday, and then also on Monday, and I know that when I come in on Tuesday, back to Starbucks, that they'll be down,” Essex said about the material he most recently put up. “There's no doubt in my mind, which is why when I printed them out in the first place, I printed four copies.”

There are other issues, like being somewhat short-staffed, especially over the weekend, for several months, and less than congenial managerial attitudes toward dress code and union shirts.

“In a weird enough move, apparently, just today I got a message from somebody else in the organizing committee that they came in today to install the new 360-degree field of view security cameras,” Essex said. “So that’s fun. I don't know why we need that.”

Starbucks workers working together across stores and borders

Essex said the organizing committee at his store, which consists of a handful of people, works closely with organizers at other stores in Chicago.

“We've got organizers that were at the Logan and California store who are no longer with the company who are working with Workers United to help this campaign, as they really believe in it, and kind of were crushed a bit when the rug was pulled out from under them,” Essex said.

“And then we are also working with the campaign at a national level. I am part of the national bargaining committee. One of the other members on the organizing committee is at the national contract action team, which basically is trying to plan the actions to leverage our power as workers and bring Starbucks to the table.”

National SBWU coordination, via the committee that Essex is on, has helped forge a framework for figuring out what members want to accomplish, and it has aided store-to-store bargaining across the country, helping to ensure that partners don’t inadvertently undercut each other.

As organizing at Canadian stores with the Steelworkers accelerates in the wake of SBWU success, and unionization expands beyond the approximately one dozen union or soon-to-be USW-affiliated shops, that kind of national, if not also transnational, coordination could become essential to all whose jobs entail serving up chai tea cream frappuccinos, cold foam iced espressos and the like.

Momentum and militancy

Chicago witnessed a strike at a Starbucks several weeks ago when workers at the Ridge and Clark store in Edgewater, right on the border with Evanston, Illinois, decided they would withhold the partner labour that otherwise furnishes beverages like oatmilk cocoa macchiatos and caramel cream frappuccinos for customers.

The Elmwood store in Buffalo helped set the template for direct and collective action after Starbucks started closing union stores in the area. Workers there did a walkout in January over concerns about COVID-19 protocols and insufficient staffing, and they organized a strike in early July, followed by a strike there and at three other stores nearby.

Shop closures also spurred work stoppages in Seattle, where the coffee juggernaut is headquartered.

“After … shops were closed, there was a city-wide strike action, where I think five shops in total went on strike over the weekend, but the roastery did a one-day action, just because that's still something that's very new to that shop, doing a collective action, and it's 100 member unit,” explained Elizabeth Duran, who works at the celebrated Starbucks roastery in Seattle. “So it's a lot harder than getting, you know, 15 people at a regular store on board, right?”

Duran and co-workers at the roastery also staged a one-day strike because Starbucks refused to acknowledge their union and workers were demanding recognition. The company is appealing the election results and shows no intention of sitting down at the bargaining table.

Meanwhile, organizers throughout Seattle keep in close contact with each other, Duran said.

“We have a shared communications platform that we use. I know what's happening at the stores that closed down,” they said. “I knew about their closure, basically, as soon as it was announced.”

Organizers in the U.S. Pacific Northwest stay plugged into what fellow workers in the region are doing too, Duran noted.

“So I know what's happening in Portland. I know what's happening in Eugene, which has a lot of unionized shops down in Oregon. But yeah, in Seattle, especially, it's like, I know what's happening in every shop.”

Similarly, city-wide and regional correspondence could become crucial for the Steelworkers organizing as the USW Starbucks campaign continues to grow, albeit at a slower pace so far.

Barista internationalism and cross-border strategies for collective bargaining

Duran mentioned meeting Chilean Starbucks partners with union organizing experience at the Labor Notes conference in Chicago this past June. According to Duran, more than one-third of the Starbucks stores in Chile are unionized, and organizers there have been trying to connect with workers involved in the SBWU campaign for some time.

“And it's like, how do we open those channels of communication? And how do we have them open consistently?” Duran asked.

Duran said they want to read over the collective bargaining agreements with Starbucks abroad, be it in Chile or in New Zealand, where a shop is also said to have a union and where baristas ostensibly organized the first strike at the planet’s biggest coffee chain back in 2005.

“I've been talking to people going through union busting activity in their shop and their manager is like, ‘Oh, the Canada store that has this contract that they like to tout is somehow bad.’ And it's like, well, okay, but Starbucks workers in Chile have a union and this is what they won, and Starbucks workers elsewhere have a union and look at what they've won,” Duran said.

Martin said he’s seen documents circulated throughout stores in the U.S. that attempt to make the contract that he and his fellow workers secured at the Douglas Street store look bad.

“And oddly, some of them were just weird,” as Starbucks suggested that they got something they never did and, conversely, company PR claimed the Victoria store did not obtain some of what workers really did achieve in negotiations, “which was just bizarre,” Martin said.

He admitted that their contract didn’t specifically address store transfers for employees, and after allowing partners to change locations, Starbucks abruptly started enforcing a policy of not permitting them.

“Since it wasn't in the contract, there wasn't a whole lot we could do,” he said. “It was kind of in their prerogative to choose that for us. But suspiciously, as soon as they kind of made that switch there experientially, we did accept transfers, [and] that became the line to other stores. So based on the timing, it sort of seems like they change how they're behaving with our store in order to make a stronger argument to other places.”

But, ironically, the agreement negotiated in Victoria, while imperfect, resulted in gains for baristas in the B.C. bargaining unit.

When they signed the contract, partners all received a raise, Martin said. They also got guaranteed seniority-based wage increases, which marked a change from the market-driven and unilaterally determined pay bumps that the company would otherwise mete out when corporate management saw fit. In addition, baristas benefited from domestic violence leave, the right to a shop steward, and an enforceable document to consistently hold the company accountable.

Aside from worker input and involvement in the bargaining process, Martin suggests unionized baristas elsewhere in North America try to get a “me too” clause in their contracts, given the issues that his crew has had.

“The ‘me too’ clause just means that if the company is to give raises or other benefits to non-union stores, then those will be automatically applied to the unionized stores as well,” he said.

Prior to negotiations, Martin encouraged organizers to engage in peer-to-peer conversations, with an emphasis on listening to workers discuss their frustrations, followed by dialogue highlighting how the union might be poised to help partners address a number of work-related concerns.

As for barista solidarity beyond borders, he said it’s not absent, but given the social media savvy of the SBWU campaign, celebrating union victories in both the U.S. and Canada, and “including Canada in the narrative more often”—weaving together stories with partners in both countries as protagonists—could strengthen the movement.

Canadians, in turn, can continue to learn from the hardline approach that Starbucks has been inclined to take with their coffee brewing neighbours south of the border and from their ongoing efforts to hold the company accountable.

“It's not disheartening,” Essex said about his experience at the store in Chicago, “because it doesn't really affect my motivation to continue doing this. It's just like, it’s pathetic. It's really sad. … Their tactic is to be unfair [and] to break the law because they can afford to do so and get away with it as much as they can. The second they play fair, they lose." 

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