Starbucks union wave comes to Houston

On July 18, the wave of Starbucks unionization hit Houston with its first union filing for an election. Located in the Montrose area just west of downtown, the workers at this Starbucks have taken the first step to organize themselves as part of Starbucks Workers United. They have faced overwork and mistreatment by management, and despite corporate pushback they will be holding their union election within a month. 

Josh Deleon and Madeline Gierkey are two of the workers at this store, and spoke with Liberation News about the struggle. “I don’t think our experience is unique within the company. It’s definitely something that lots of stores feel, even if they haven’t petitioned yet,” Deleon said.

Managers are often called away to other stores, leaving workers alone to pick up the extra work, including having to train several new hires at a time. Many workers are enrolled in school at the same time, leaving them exhausted as they attempt to balance multiple workloads.

Gierkey described the situation where workers are responsible for operating every aspect of the store, while receiving no wage increases or recognition. “Overworked partners, miscommunications, or lack of communication in general. We end up relying a lot on each other to figure out how the store should operate.”

It is this spirit of unity that has pushed the unionization drive at Starbucks according to Gierkey and Deleon. When these workers are forced under harsh circumstances due to under-staffing and mismanagement, they naturally come to rely on each other to get through the day.

For most Montrose workers, the process of unionization is a new one and they are learning what they are capable of. But the workers are willing to learn through taking action and feeling ownership of their work, rather than continuing with the exploitative status quo. “Most people don’t fully understand or imagine what the possibilities are with forming a union and what that means and what actual material changes that can bring to your work and your out-of-work life,” said Deleon. “We’re definitely in the process of forming our demands. We’re really trying to focus on the one-on-one interactions, asking ‘what do you want?’” said Gierkey

In between filing for unionization and electing local leaders, organizers teach coworkers the benefits and necessity of unionization. Even workers who are content with their jobs benefit from being union members. “Even if you feel you have the perfect job, a union is still necessary because it’s a protection,” said Deleon.

Starbucks presents itself as progressive and inclusive, but has threatened to remove workers’ benefits from stores that unionize, including healthcare for transgender workers and access to abortion benefits. Since filing, the Montrose Starbucks has faced increased scrutiny from managers including high-pressure, one-on-one discussions with workers. There have also been ridiculous offers of frivolous benefits to try and placate the workers, like Netflix and Spotify subscriptions.

Furthermore, Starbucks workers have also been directed to a page on the company’s website containing a long screed against unions that ridiculously presents a worker’s one-on-one relation with the company as superior to the collective bargaining allowed by workers organizing. The page uses what Starbucks calls “partner language,” which pretends that low-wage workers by themselves are on equal footing with executives and anti-worker management. In reality, there is no equality: Workers provide all of the value to the company, and the executives make all the decisions and take all the profit with no democratic input from the workers.

Meanwhile, the company falsely presents unions as “third parties” intruding on an otherwise “friendly” relationship between workers and management. In reality, a union is a collective of workers who are struggling to uplift their voices and fight for management to meet their needs. Starbucks, like every other megacorporation, prefers to isolate workers one-on-one as this allows them to use divide-and-conquer tactics against each worker, rather than allowing workers to build solidarity where they can realize their shared interests and collective power as workers.

Over 200 Starbucks have voted to unionize in the last year. The Montrose Starbucks is the first store to unionize in Houston, and it has the potential to inspire other Starbucks workers in Houston to organize their own stores like Starbucks unions across the country inspired the Montrose workers. Their formal vote coming up in either late August or early September could be a first victory for Starbucks workers in Houston.

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