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How do workers take on a national chain like Starbucks? One store at a time

After three Starbucks stores in Buffalo sought union elections, the movement has quickly spread to other stores around the country. It may not be the most traditional way to unionize a giant company, but it has one key ingredient: momentum.

How do workers take on a national chain like Starbucks? One store at a time
[Source Photo: Libby March for The Washington Post/Getty Images]

Barista Casey Moore’s work helping to unionize Starbucks began when she picked up a shift at a Buffalo-area store that wasn’t where she usually worked. While there, another Starbucks worker on the same shift asked to talk to her about something after work. A few employees in Buffalo were talking about organizing a union, and Moore’s coworker wanted to know what she thought.

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Initially, Moore wasn’t sure. She’s always had a positive view of unions, she says (her dad is in the teacher’s union), but she never thought about them at her own workplace. “It honestly never really occurred to me that that’s something we could do, or that we had the right to do,” she says. Her coworker told her there would be a meeting with other baristas starting this effort, for people interested in joining the organizing committee or who had any questions, and so she went.

Casey Moore [Photo: Joshua Bessex/AP/Shutterstock]

“After that, I was like, this is absolutely something that I want to do,” says Moore, now involved in the Starbucks organizing committee. “The thing that convinced me was seeing how hard me and my coworkers work every single day—the physical labor, the emotional labor that goes into it—realizing a lot of us are barely able to afford our rent. And realizing that we can actually do something about that. We can have a say in what happens at work.”

In central and western New York, a wave of regional coffee-industry organizing had slowly been spreading for several years. An Ithaca, New York chain called Gimme! Coffee ratified their first union contract with the help of Workers United, an affiliate of Service Employees International Union (which is also now the union behind the Starbucks workers organizing drive) in 2018. Campaigns spread to SPoT coffee in Buffalo, and then to Starbucks locations around the city, which held elections in December 2021. Since then, Starbucks stores across the country have petitioned with the National Labor Relations Board to hold their own union elections—with more sending letters to Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson announcing their intent to form a union nearly every day.

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Though Workers United has been helping Starbucks workers navigate the complex unionizing process, the actual work has mostly been driven by the baristas themselves. The labor union has congratulated them, but also, “one [Workers United] person was like, ‘When we heard about this, we thought you guys were crazy,'” Moore says. “No one’s done this before. No one’s done a big chain like Starbucks.”

How do workers even go up against a giant chain like Starbucks, which has nearly 9,000 stores across the country? (Gimme! Coffee, in comparison, has just four locations in Ithaca, and one more in nearby Trumansburg.) For now, they’re going store by store, without worrying about unionizing the entire company at once. While major union drives of the past century were made simpler by geographic clustering of industries—the whole auto industry in Detroit, for instance—national chains pose a challenge. Attempts to organize workers at Amazon warehouse by warehouse, for instance, have been halting, with the high turnover making it hard for unions to cement a solid block of support. So pursuing a store-by-store strategy is sure to be taxing and time consuming, but it’s also a way to grow the movement organically, and a hedge against holding larger, potentially harder-to-win elections.

Organizing store by store may look as effective as a dripping faucet—a few stores out of nearly 9,000 is just a drop in the bucket—but it could also be a way to open up the floodgates for organizing at Starbucks, and even to the larger service industry itself.

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For the union, smaller elections are often better

When the first three Buffalo-area Starbucks stores petitioned with the National Labor Relations Board to hold union elections, they did so with the intention of each voting individually—three separate elections. But the company argued they should vote together. Starbucks made a case to the National Labor Relations Board that instead of just having those three stores vote, all 20 Starbucks locations that make up the “Buffalo market” should vote together about whether to form a union.

It may sound like a counterintuitive move from a company that has said it does not want a union “between us,” but labor experts say it was a strategic move that could have hurt the organizing effort if successful. “Say there’s 25 to 30 workers in a store, it’s much easier to organize that rather than to try and get a majority of a 3,000-worker unit to agree,” says Cathy Creighton, director of Cornell University’s ILR Buffalo Co-Lab, an extension of Cornell’s School of Industrial Labor Relations (ILR), who previously worked as a union lawyer.

The labor board disagreed with Starbucks; it has long held that “single-facility” units are appropriate, and there is precedent under the law that says single stores in a retail chain or one plant out of a multi-plant company can hold their own union elections.

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Starbucks can make that same argument to challenge the unit size with every new attempt to organize stores in other parts of the country, effectively delaying each election; Moore says she’s already seeing this happen. During these delays, there’s also more time for Starbucks to ramp up anti-union messaging to employees, Creighton says.

The slow march of organizing store by store is sure to be onerous—every union election gives the company a chance to counter and fight. Whenever it comes time to actually make a union contract, bargaining separate contracts could be another whole headache (though Creighton says there’s precedent for the employer to voluntarily agree to one master agreement; whether Starbucks will, though, is another question). On the micro-level, going store by store is easier—and more likely to go in the union’s favor—than tackling the entire chain at once.

Letting each store have a voice

Letting each individual store have its own union election is also a way to ensure that workers there actually have a voice in the process, argues the union. “We’re organizing store by store because we genuinely believe every store has the right to decide whether they want to unionize or not, and even though we’re all [part of the] Starbucks company, different stores have different issues and different managers, and things like that,” Moore says. “We truly believe every store should have a right to decide if they want to go through this process, because in all honesty, it’s also a huge fight that you have to gear up for.”

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Starbucks says it has already given workers a voice, through things like in-person listening sessions, an internal workplace platform that lets company leaders host live video sessions, and ways to contact leadership through email or an 800 number. Starbucks spokesperson Reggie Borges points to the company’s response to the pandemic, including that it closed stores for March and April of 2020 after hearing from employees (which Starbucks calls “partners”) that they felt scared and unsafe. He points to recent wage investments as a sign of support.

The company also says its argument that all 20 Buffalo stores vote together was to ensure all workers in the area have a voice, since employees can sometimes work across stores (as Moore was doing when she first heard about the union). “When you have a single store deciding to unionize, that doesn’t bring about equity,” Borges says. “With individual store efforts, what that does is [silence] the number of partners who work in that store but don’t call it home; it’s not their primary store, they don’t qualify to have a voice.” Borges says that if a union contract were created for a store, partners who work there wouldn’t be able to move to other stores, and vice versa.

Creighton disagrees with that argument. First, she notes the rate of employee interchange is small. Moore’s story seems to be an outlier; at the Elmwood store in Buffalo, for example, according to documents filed with NLRB, employees from other stores worked 7.1% of the shifts, or 5% of the hours, in fiscal year 2021; the year prior, the figures were 3.5% and 3.6%, respectively. “Second, and more importantly, a union would in no way prevent employees from working in a union store and picking up hours and a non-union store, nor would unionization prevent the reverse,” she says.

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Starbucks employees and the union itself have said they wouldn’t include language in union contracts to limit interchange, she says, and that they see it as a benefit they wouldn’t want to eliminate. Taking away the option to work at other stores because one store unionized could even be construed as a threat to organizing workers, Creighton adds, which could violate of the National Labor Relations Act.

Spreading across the country

As of today, more than 20 stores from Memphis, Tennessee to Mesa, Arizona have followed the Buffalo stores and petitioned to hold their own union elections. In some ways, the question of whether this is an optimal strategy is moot: It’s happening organically regardless. The fast-moving trend hasn’t been happening as part of a broader campaign from Workers United, but from employees themselves.

“Partners have been reaching out on Twitter, on Instagram, through email, through our website, and are just like, ‘How do I do this in my store?”’ Moore says. “Essentially, this thing has been partner-to-partner organizing.” Buffalo partners, including Moore, have been on calls with partners in Tallahassee after they recently filed, and those in Hopewell, New Jersey, and Chicago, and so on.

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The community support Starbucks workers are seeing could also be a sign of how the momentum could grow even further. The first store to unionize says they’ve since seen an outpouring of customers and tips, with regulars coming in wearing union pins. At Moore’s store, which actually did not file to unionize, she says she’s gotten orders where people change their mobile names to “union yes” or “union strong,” and had customers leave sticky notes with their tips that say “solidarity.”

Just as that community support could bolster the spread of the organizing effort, it could also hurt Starbucks—something the company seems to acknowledge. In its January 12, 2022 filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, Starbucks wrote that if a “significant portion” of its employees were to unionize, its labor costs could increase and its business “could be negatively affected.” But it also added that the company’s responses to organizing efforts could “negatively impact how our brand is perceived and have adverse effects on our business, including on our financial results.”

Historically, public opinion in America has tended to favor employers over workers in recent decades, but that’s beginning to change. The Great Resignation, the growth of the r/antiwork subreddit, and the media attention drawn by recent union campaigns point to a shift. “American society is much more friendly towards workers than it has been in my lifetime,” Creighton says.

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Creighton recalls being asked in December what was going to happen, when the union activity was focused just in Buffalo. “I was like, ‘I don’t know . . . I think it might start something,’ and then: Blammo, it started a lot.”

However this moment plays out, there’s no denying “we’re in a very unusual moment,” says Ileen Devault, a professor of labor history at ILR, where workers have more economic power. “What American workers do with that advantage, I don’t know,” she adds. If they start organizing, that contagious spirit may spread even further, to other industries. “We’re all sort of waiting to see what happens.”

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