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Starbucks Union Busting and The Labor Movement

From an outsider’s perspective, Starbucks is the same corporate coffee giant that has dominated the market since its first store in Seattle opened in 1971. When Howard Schultz joined the company ten years later, he championed the story of community, quality coffee, and a workplace built on fairness. Now, as a multi-billion dollar industry titan, Starbucks has capitalized on its convenience and specialty drinks to expand across the country. 

Despite the unimaginable success Starbucks has seen with its thousands of stores spread across the nation, the chapter of shared success for partners is beginning to end. Employees have continuously reported unsafe work conditions that were exacerbated during the pandemic. Broken equipment, understaffing issues, cut hours, and poor management have become the norm for these service industry workers. The majority of Starbucks baristas who live off of minimum wage were forced to choose between bills and food when the company slashed their store hours or closed locations permanently. When a Buffalo location voted to unionize in 2021, hundreds of stores followed suit in a sign of solidarity and support. But the fight for better benefits and protections was only beginning.

Starbucks partners gathered nationwide to organize, educate, and take action against the abuses caused by corporate negligence. The organized efforts of Starbucks employees, affiliated with Workers United Upstate, formed Starbucks Workers United. The collective members of Starbucks Workers United have been instrumental in the ongoing movement to unionize, giving workers a chance to be seen as something more than just profitable labor.

Through a series of ongoing strikes and union votes, partners throughout the country are raising awareness of the increasing burden that they are forced to bear. Wearing the infamous Starbucks Workers United shirt, an employee on strike at the Santa Cruz location described the ongoing battle between union stores and corporations. “We are tired of being union-busted, we are tired of being treated this way – we’re tired of corporations not taking accountability for the things they’ve been doing for years.”

Workers on strike have demanded better pay and adequate working conditions, a mere drop in the bucket of wealth that Starbucks and Howard Schultz have – which Forbes approximates at $3.6 billion to date. Employees have performed walk-outs and banded together to call out existing locations that fired or penalized pro-union partners. Near the center of the Starbucks Workers United movement, students at Cornell University protested the University’s contract with the company. Calling for an end to the Cornell-Starbucks relationship, students and workers recounted a hostile environment and unsafe working conditions. In an interview with the Cornell Sun, a former employee bundled up the frustrations and obstacles set in their path to unionizing. The worker stated that “Starbucks went to extreme lengths to make an example out of us, to make baristas nationwide afraid to fight for what we deserve.” Pro-union partners faced disciplinary action for minor infractions and were denied time off in Ithaca locations. In an unforeseen victory for Starbucks Workers United, Cornell University announced it wouldn’t pursue another contract with Starbucks. 

On the opposite side of the country, a Santa Cruz Starbucks was following suit. During a three-day strike, workers occupied the storefront and protested throughout the weekend, forcing the store to close on a Saturday. A shift supervisor at the location recounted instances of workers being harassed and threatened by customers, with little to no support coming from management. Employees banded together to unionize the location, only for management to become hostile and refuse to answer their requests for better equipment and consistent work breaks. Workers on the picket line stated they were on strike “due to Starbucks committing unfair labor practices,” which they described as “denying unilateral benefits at union stores – including ours.” 

In an effort to combat these ongoing issues, Starbucks Workers United has prioritized health and safety for all unionized workers. These concerns are legitimate and experiences real for workers at the Cornell University Starbucks, who voiced concerns over a failed grease trap, which was also cited as the reason for the abrupt closure of this location. Suggested union contracts created by Starbucks Workers United deals with the issues present in locations all around the nation, and their efforts don’t go unrecognized. To date, more than 200 stores have voted to join a union with veteran baristas and employees leading the cause. Minimum-wage service industry positions are no longer a viable option, and workers are demanding that Starbucks keep the company’s promise of opportunities to succeed. The continued movement to organize is crucial in Starbucks’ partner’s bargaining power, and it legitimizes the months-long campaign that has blossomed into a union comeback. Throughout their efforts, Starbucks Workers United has amplified workers’ voices and mended their wounds of corporate greed. However, at both the Santa Cruz and Ithaca locations, a consistent pattern of union-busting tactics were utilized in order to suppress and silence employee concerns and grievances. 

Unionizing hasn’t been easy, and workers face setbacks in getting a seat at the negotiating table. The company’s industry-leading treatment of workers is crumbling, and the cracks are beginning to reveal Starbucks’s anti-union sentiment. Retaliation has been widespread throughout the country, with one man leading the chorus that defines Starbucks union-busting – Howard Schultz. His testimony before Congress, as well as various other interviews, solidified his distaste of unions as bad for business. The company has more than 400 wrongful labor practices and violations pinned against them, for which workers are paying the price. Pro-union employees have faced wrongful termination, reduced hours, and continued penalization for minor infractions such as tardiness. While the penalties are laid out as workplace code violations, the company’s use of them is another example of Starbucks punishing workers who wish to unionize.

At the Buffalo location, Schultz required employees to attend a meeting where he outlined the consequences of unions. Starbucks relocated workers to split their efforts to organize, overstaffed locations ahead of votes to unionize, and repeatedly turned away workers with pro-union sentiments. While those who still organize face increased workplace hostility fueled by Howard Schultz’s passionate anti-union speeches, unionized locations struggle to hold onto their victory. Workers among the over 300 unionized stores have waited weeks to sit at the bargaining table, hoping to negotiate for better pay and safer working conditions with the company. Starbucks, in an effort to drive out union workers, stalls on these negotiations among partners and incentivizes employees to turn their backs on unions. With promises of increased pay and benefits, the company is pitting its workers against each other to recover a foothold on its billion-dollar labor force. The hundreds of partners who have called for corporate accountability have been silenced, the doors slammed shut on them as the company began permanently closing locations. Despite the dozens of partners who represented Starbucks values, stores in Ithaca, Kansas City, and Seattle were shut down in what workers say was a desperate attempt at squashing the movement. Despite moving one step forward, workers are pushed back by the closure of their stores, upon which they are forced to find other work with similar problems. Rather than legitimately solving the ongoing issues of the company, Starbucks has prioritized its profits over its partners in an effort to turn its workers into an anti-union force. Every step of the way, workers have been silenced, threatened, and terminated – all for the sake of a better working environment. Despite this, the fight to unionize reached a head when Schultz was grilled by members of Congress over the company’s labor practices.

Seated among individuals with salaries that are larger than what most Starbucks employees will make in their lifetime, Howard Schultz led his anti-union defense to Congress. Faced with the heat of the company’s union-busting tactics, Schultz stated that although union stores and their partners are recognized, their relationship with Starbucks isn’t. “I have the right, and the company has the right, to have a preference. And our preference is to maintain the direct relationship we’ve had with our employees, who we call partners,” he argued before Congress. While testifying, Senator Bernie Sanders grilled him on Starbucks’ extensive history of union-busting tactics that have waged a war against their partners. When Schultz continued to insult union partners and deny Starbucks’ involvement in union-busting tactics, Michelle Eisen, a Starbucks employee and organizer in Buffalo, took this as a slap to the face. Eisen stated that “These workers are up there to testify about the absolutely abhorrent conditions that we’ve faced in the last 18 months because of this union drive but also about the conditions that led to this union drive,” tying together months of work for the first notice of accountability. 

The rights of the working class can’t be stagnant, and better benefits and compensation still need to be gained. Even through repeated bullying and harassment, Starbucks Workers United has rekindled a spark for improvements among minimum-wage workers. The Starbucks employees’ efforts to attain a safe and positive workplace are echoed throughout the nation – and not just in the service industry. In a record-breaking union negotiation and walkout on October 11th, the United Auto Workers union echoed some of the same sentiments expressed by Starbucks employees. The push for unions has finally come after decades of corporate abuse, and workers are fed up with poor and inconsistent solutions to the nationwide problem. In a turbulent and unprecedented political climate after the pandemic, it is evident that work safety measures and guaranteed benefits are instrumental to the labor force. During the peak of unionizing efforts from Starbucks Workers United, NPR found that service industry union petitions jumped to 27.5%

Looking back at the intense anti-union parade that was endorsed by Starbucks, workers in America are growing tired of the vicious cycle that exists in the workforce. Through shortened hours, increased overtime, and hostile working conditions, Americans in every industry are facing the consequences of a broken system. The efforts to unionize by Starbucks Workers United provides a breath of fresh air in the stale and stuffy atmosphere of the working class. While a new generation of Americans enter the workforce after a drought caused by the pandemic, the same hostile working conditions and unstable benefits exist. Although the unimaginable success of their unionizing movement has spread nationwide with steady support, the road ahead must be built alongside the instrumental partners behind Starbucks Workers United. At the end of the day, when the espresso machines are off and ordering ahead is closed, there’s still a barista that is closing down the store. They are the silent, unnamed force of tomorrow’s labor movement, their nails dirty with specks of coffee grounds from the hundreds of lattes produced over the past eight hours. When the store is closed up and the lights are off, the question on these workers’ minds isn’t if they’ll be able to stand up – it’s when.

Featured Image Source: Vox

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