Militant Journalism

Starbucks workers strike for ‘some basic human decency’

Workers arrived at Starbucks #10636 in Urbana, Illinois, at 7:00 a.m. on June 24. But they weren’t there to open their store. Instead, they set up a table with water bottles, sunscreen and sign-making supplies on a grassy area across from the Starbucks parking lot. They pulled on matching shirts with rainbow logos that read “Be Gay and Organize” and began blaring Lady Gaga and Diana Ross on a bluetooth speaker. 

They were there to “Strike with Pride,” taking part in a nationwide rolling strike organized by Starbucks Workers United. According to local organizers, the Urbana Starbucks workers were part of more than 150 Starbucks locations and over 3,000 workers nationwide striking to force Starbucks to meet their union at the bargaining table. Even though Starbucks stores began unionizing in late 2021, Starbucks has yet to bargain a contract with the union. 

Urbana Starbucks workers held their picket line over two days, braving intense heat to wave signs that read, “honk if you support unions,” “tell Starbucks to brew up fair pay!” and “Urbana is a union town!” Many customers refused to cross the picket line and left to buy their coffee elsewhere, while drivers at the intersection of Vine and Main honked and waved in support. 

Workers at Starbucks location #10636 had unionized only a month before, winning their union vote by 19 to one. Dalton Toberman, a member of the local’s organizing committee, spoke to Liberation News about why workers voted to unionize. “People just feel as if they don’t have enough say in what goes on in their lives,” he said. “We’re unionizing to take some control of our lives back. We just need some basic human decency.” 

The unfair labor practice strike was organized during Pride Month as a direct response to Starbucks’ treatment of LGBTQ workers. Wednesday Cotton, a strike captain for the local, said that a majority of workers at the Urbana location were queer. However, last year, management ordered that Pride displays in the store be taken down part way through June; this year, they weren’t allowed at all.

“Starbucks continues to decrease their support for the LGBT community,” Cotton said. “And we’re tired of it. We’re not going to let them take advantage of us or the community.”

Starbucks worker Ashley Lofton said that she was on the picket line due to persistent understaffing and low wages. Every time she clocks in, she reports that she’s working multiple stations, doing the job of three or four people. 

Lofton reports that workers at her store have experienced chronic stress and exhaustion from overwork, while not being able to pay their bills due to cut hours. Some of them have had to downsize their apartments, move in with family or even become homeless, she said. 

“They call us ‘partners,’ but it’s not even that anymore,” Lofton said. “We’re just slaves at this point.”

Starbucks worker Brioche Gilkin was on the picket line just one week after major surgery to demand consistent hours and benefits. In January, Starbucks management decreased Gilkin’s hours from 30 to 14 per week with no explanation, despite the store being consistently understaffed. Besides the lost pay, Gilkin also worried about having enough hours to qualify for the health insurance they need to their afford surgery.

When asked what was behind Starbucks’ decision to cut hours in Urbana, overwork their employees and force them to get by on low wages, Toberman replied, “Honestly? Corporate greed … Just to make more money, to make their final quarterly reports look better.”

The striking workers were joined on the picket line by organizers from other Champaign-Urbana unions, community groups and members of the Party for Socialism and Liberation.

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