Workers at Cleveland’s West 6th St. Starbucks location announced their plans to organize a union on Jan. 10. In their announcement letter, they cited inconsistent and ineffective safety measures throughout COVID-19, inadequate training for new workers, and conditions that regularly lead to burnout.
The move to unionize comes amidst a national struggle of Starbucks workers to unionize their shops. On Dec. 9, 2021, workers at two different locations in the Buffalo area announced that their coworkers voted in favor of a union. The successful vote came after a months-long campaign by the company to prevent their effort. Anti-union tactics utilized by the company included sending in managers from across the country to surveil organizers and hiring more than 30 additional workers to dilute union support.
These intimidation tactics only strengthened the solidarity amongst Starbucks workers. Another Buffalo shop successfully unionized on Jan. 10. Many other union drives are ongoing across the country, including in Cleveland. “When they [Starbucks workers in Buffalo] succeeded, it taught us that forming a union is possible,” Joe Nappi, a Starbucks worker at West 6th, told Liberation News. “They overcame all of the anti-union tactics. We can too.”
Worsening work conditions amidst economic and health crises
The decision to form a union has been met with widespread support within the shop. Following the successful campaigns in Buffalo, local organizers reached out to Starbucks United, and within a week union cards were being signed. So far, 17 of the 20 workers at the shop have signed on.
“We are all close and look out for each other,” said Maddie VanHook, another worker at the West 6th shop. “That led us to quickly agree that forming a union is the right thing to do.”
The COVID-19 pandemic and the company’s response was cited by workers as a major factor in the decision to pursue a union. The company has failed to provide consistent guidelines that address the concerns of the workers.
Describing the current policy, VanHook told Liberation News, “We must come into work even when we are exposed to COVID, as long as we are vaccinated and asymptomatic. This puts us in the tough position of either using up our few sick days, or risk spreading COVID to other coworkers and customers.”
This policy, coupled with the long lines for a COVID test in Cleveland and the several days it takes to get results, has led to sickness spreading throughout the shop. This is a serious health concern for the workers, and it leads to short-staffing when workers get sick.
“We do not have enough people working at our shop. On all my shifts recently, we have been short staff. When a shift is short, even one person, all the work becomes much more difficult. We are constantly put in this position,” said Nappi.
The staff shortage is exacerbated by the low pay Starbucks workers receive. The West 6th shop is located in the heart of downtown where the costs of rent and groceries are higher than most places in the city.
When asked about pay, Nappi said, “I was hired at $12.50 an hour, and I have met people who had worked there longer earning even less.”
The company has promised workers that they will raise the minimum wage to $15 in the summer. But workers argue that a $15 minimum wage is inadequate given the rising cost of living. Nappi continued: “A $15 minimum wage may have been adequate when that demand was first raised, but the cost of everything has risen so much since then.”
Workers have also brought forward complaints about the rushed training new hires are put through. New hires only have five days of training before they are given full responsibilities on a shift. Workers are expected to know the full operations of the store and all of the recipes after this short amount of time.
“We have had new hires that will look all these up online and study in their free time because the training is rushed and inadequate,” said VanHook, explaining her experiences training new hires.
Responses to the announcement
When asked about the response they hoped to receive from the public, Nappi replied: “I hope that this process will lead more people to think about the person that makes their coffee every morning. You may only see us for 20 to 30 seconds, but we are still people. We deserve good pay and a dignified work environment.”
The workers’ decision has been met with immediate and widespread support from the public. Union-supporting Clevelanders have all been rushing to visit the shop, and even some politicians have stopped by to congratulate these workers
“The outpouring of support has been a whirlwind in the best possible way. Everyday people have been ordering their drinks with the name ‘Union Strong’ or ‘Go Union.’ Even the online orders have these messages of support,” said VanHook describing the past week.
The response from the public contrasts with the response from the company. A new manager was brought in at the start of the week. This manager issued a “media relations” policy which prevents the workers from posting pictures to social media or being featured in pictures taken by customers. This anti-union policy is meant to limit the circulation of images showing the widespread popular support for the union.
These anti-union tactics will not dissuade the workers in their fight to collectively bargain and advocate for their interests as a class. The workers at West 6th are confident their upcoming vote will succeed and more Starbucks workers will join the struggle.
The workers at the West 6th offered words of encouragement for other Starbucks workers who are considering a union.
VanHook: “They cannot stop us all at once. If you are thinking about unionizing, do it now. Because sure, they could make billions of dollars of anti-union efforts to come into, like, 20 stores to try and stop us. But they probably do not want to, and even if they do, they will not be successful everywhere.”
Nappi: “Do it. Just do it. Because, you know, you’re partners. If you have each others’ backs, there is nothing that Starbucks can do to stop you. They can pull you into listening sessions. They can try to intimidate you by sending people from out of your district you have never seen before. They can try to tell you, ‘Oh, you know a union would be so bad for you. Why are you doing this?’ But there’s nothing they can do to stop you if you have each others’ backs.”
Feature photo: Starbucks workers and PSL members stand outside the West 6th St. shop where workers are organizing a union. Liberation photo