Something is brewing at Starbucks, and it’s not just the coffee.
Employees in three upstate New York stores will vote this week on whether to form the first union in the coffee giant’s 50-year history. The campaign has the potential to spark similar efforts in its 9,000 corporate-run locations across the US, and dramatically alter the workplace at the second-biggest chain store in America.
It has drawn national attention from pro-union lawmakers Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and provoked a fierce backlash from executives.
Starbucks, which began its life as a single coffee shop in Seattle in 1971, has long prided itself on its humble origins and friendly corporate face, but an anti-union campaign by the company is threatening to upend those professed values in the eyes of some staff, which the company calls its “partners”.
“The bigger issue really is that for all the talk about us being partners, we don’t have a voice in the company or a true partnership with them,” Jaz Brisack, a 24-year-old worker at Starbucks in downtown Buffalo told The Independent. “We’re just trying to organise our union so that we have a voice over the policies that affect our lives and our work lives.”
Brisack said staff have been talking about unionising for years, but the idea gathered steam during the difficult months of the pandemic.
“It was scary going to work every day, especially before vaccines, having to constantly beg people to wear masks,” she said by phone on the eve of the vote count.
She added that people who want to make Starbucks a sustainable career have been dissuaded by an unwillingness to reward long-term staff with pay increases to match their experience. One coworker of hers who has been with the company for 11 years makes just 63 cents more than a new starter, for example.
Starbucks has dedicated an enormous amount of attention and resources into preventing the stores unionising, in a strategy that has drawn comparisons to the anti-union drive by Amazon in Alabama earlier this year.
It has staged a series of interventions by the company’s top executives to tip the vote in its favour. In September, a number of executives, including the president of Starbucks North America, Rossann Williams, visited stores in Buffalo and began sweeping floors, taking out the trash and talking to staff. In an October statement, Williams said she came to Buffalo “to see for myself the working conditions and operational challenges our partners had shared with us.” Former CEO Howard Schultz gave a bizarre speech to employees in the Buffalo area soon after, just days before ballots were handed out, in which he referenced the Holocaust in an attempt to dissuade employees from voting to unionise. The company also unsuccessfully sought to delay the election, arguing that a single vote should cover all three Buffalo stores, rather than each separately.
Why is the President of Starbucks North America, Rossann Williams, sweeping our floors in Buffalo? Our floors are fine -- clean up your anti-union campaign. pic.twitter.com/IbZaOmIv8f
— SBWorkersUnited (@SBWorkersUnited) September 16, 2021
“I didn’t think they would be jumping up and down with joy,” said Brisack of the reaction from HQ, “but I did think they might be more consistent with what they say they believe.”
On its website, Starbucks says that it is “not in the coffee business serving people, but in the people business serving coffee.”
“Our employees – who we call partners – are at the heart of the Starbucks experience. We are committed to making our partners proud and investing in their health, well-being and success and to creating a culture of belonging where everyone is welcome.”
In recent weeks, staff have claimed that dozens of executives from Starbucks headquarters in Seattle have been flown in to scupper the vote. Some staff have claimed that new managers brought into the Buffalo stores have been removing baristas from the shop floor to try to persuade them to vote against the union and to add more ‘no’ votes. A Starbucks spokesperson denied these claims, adding that “support partners are there to help create the Starbucks experience for partners and customers.”
The pressure has been “constant,” Brisack said.
“They’ve been sending us mail, texting us, emailing us, constantly pulling us into weekly or biweekly anti-union meetings telling us we must vote ‘No,’ and that we could lose benefits or promotion opportunities if we vote for the union.
“They brought in quote, unquote support managers who aren’t really supporting anything. They’re to watch us make sure that we can’t have conversations about the union because they’re always standing right next to her behind us,” she added.
The union campaign has drawn the support of Democratic heavyweights Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
Ms Ocasio-Cortez condemned the supposed “psychological, manipulative strategy” used by Starbucks to dissuade staff from joining the union during a visit to an organizing meeting.
At the same meeting, Richard Bensinger, a former organising director of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations, called the response by Starbucks the “most intense, most hostile, most vicious” that he’d seen in 46 years.
Senator Sanders said in a virtual town hall with union organisers on 6 December that a successful election “will be a major breakthrough not only for Starbucks employees but for all workers in the low-wage service industry as a whole.”
Sanders also noted that the company is making record profits in 2021, and “has the resources to provide its workers with good wages, good working conditions and good benefits.”
There are roughly 15,450 Starbucks stores in the US. Nearly 9,000 are company-owned.
The company reported record fourth-quarter sales to close out its 2021 fiscal year. Net revenues in North America grew 37 per cent over the previous year to $5.8bn, the company reported. Fourth quarter net income reached $1.76bn, or $1.49 per share, up from $392.6m, or 33 cents per share, from the previous year.
Starbucks has also announced a $1bn investment in raising worker pay, with starting hourly wages set at $15, and is among large US companies hoping to lure workers with debt-free college tuition
But their efforts have not been enough to dissuade organisers, who are confident they have the required majority of votes for recognition in each of the stores.
The election marks another milestone in a massive year for labour organising in the US, as thousands of workers demand better wages, protections, benefits and union membership during a public health crisis that has underscored the gulf between company earnings and working conditions and pay.
Some 10,000 John Deere workers won a significant pay rise following a five-week strike that ended last month. Unions representing 31,000 Kaiser employees also walked out this year and Amazon has faced a series of unionisation efforts nationwide.
Those efforts have come amid a general flux in the labour market which has caused record resignations from low-wage jobs in particular, prompted in part by the fleeting financial security afforded by pandemic stimulus checks and moratoriums on student loan repayments and rent. The “Great Resignation,” as it has been dubbed, saw nearly 7 percent of employees in the “accommodations and food services” sector leave their job in August.
Joe Biden has repeatedly spoken of his intention to be “the most pro-union President leading the most pro-union administration in American history.” His administration has announced steps to strengthen organised labour in legislation and through the creation of a task force.
In his first public comments following the union campaign, Kevin Johnson – the company’s CEO – told The Wall Street Journal that “there’s no shortage of resumes of people that want to come work at Starbucks.”
An attempt to unionise Starbucks workers “goes against having that direct relationship with our partners that has served us so well for decades and allowed us to build this great company,” he told the newspaper on 6 December.
In a statement to employees on 7 December, Mr Johnson said he respected the union election process.
“We have heard you, and we are making progress on the toughest obstacles,” he said. “There is more to do as we continue to adapt to a long-term Covid reality.”
The vote count takes place on Thursday, 9 December and the results are expected the same day. Brisack said a win for union organisers in Buffalo would likely have a knock-on effect for other stores.
“I think that’s one of the reasons Starbucks is so scared,” she said.