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Starbucks workers win historic first union: ‘If we can do this here, you can do this too’

Photo: Starbucks workers await results of the union election. Credit : Starbucks Workers United

After experiencing months of harassment, intimidation and stalling by executives, Buffalo baristas have successfully formed the first Starbucks union in the United States. The organizing drive was led by Starbucks Workers United.  

Workers at two different locations, Elmwood and Cheektowaga, announced today that their coworkers voted in favor of unionization, despite months-long attempts by the company to prevent this effort from coming to fruition. Baristas described the tactics of the company as neither fair nor legal. Workers at the Elmwood location voted 19 to 8 in favor of unionization. The Cheektowaga workers voted 15 to 9, but the result will only be finalized after the status of seven disputed ballots is resolved. Another location narrowly voted against unionization.

Starbucks, which raked in enormous profits this year, has attempted every tactic in the union-busting handbook, from sending in managers from across the country to surveil organizers to executives threatening baristas to vote “no” on unionization. The company ridiculously argued that a union was unnecessary because workers were already “partners” in the company. This rampant use of intimidation was unable to break the workers’ solidarity, as many locations filed their petitions to unionize with near unanimous support. 

At a press conference on Dec. 1, SBWU organizers Michelle Eisen and Jaz Brisack reported that Starbucks executives had begun a new tactic — to move in more than 30 additional workers from other locations, recently hired, to dilute union support by having their names added to the roster of employees who will be voting to unionize. “The purpose of them taking hiring out of the store manager’s hands was to be able to vet these new employees” and “get them to attend these anti-union meetings before they’ve even entered our store,” Eisen said.

Due to these tactics, workers filed a complaint with the NLRB in November, but are still waiting to see the outcome of this proceeding. However, the “psychological warfare” against the baristas has continued, according to organizer James Skretta, who described the constant anxiety and fear he’s felt since the company brought in “support managers.” According to organizers, support managers are used by the company to monitor organizing efforts, including ensuring organizers like Skretta are isolated from their coworkers. They also closely monitored organizers’ adherence to dress code, looking for reasons to fire them. 

At other locations, support managers have taken union pamphlets from break rooms and hosted frequent anti-union meetings to deter baristas from supporting the union. William Westlake, a barista and organizer at the Camp Road location, said that the day prior to unionization ballots being sent out to his store he was told to attend a meeting. Upon arriving at the meeting, he was met by seven managers and two support managers, telling him “individually, in a nine on one meeting, why I need to vote ‘no’ on the union and threatening to take away benefits.” 

However, support managers are not the only higher-ups which have swarmed Buffalo since workers began organizing in August. Barista Casey Moore said her store has had multiple executives drop by “in Armani suits” to take out the trash and simultaneously surveil employees since the first union filings. Recently, a man came into her store and introduced himself as John, and when she asked him if he was an executive, he laughably replied, “I’m just a partner.”

These same executives have forced baristas into mandatory “listening sessions,” where they have made absurd claims about unionization taking away employee freedom and that workers would lose the minuscule benefits they already have if they go through with the vote. Organizers have found this threat comical, as many workers have reported that the benefits they supposedly receive are not accessible to begin with. The benefits “look really good on paper; what they don’t talk about is the fact that most of their employees or partners make so little annually that they don’t need to use Starbucks benefits, because they still qualify for federal benefits,” Eisen said. 

To SBWU’s advantage, these tactics have actually convinced many baristas to vote in favor of the union. Skretta reported that co-workers who had worked at Starbucks for years had even said the union campaign has been the single most unifying experience that has happened during their time working at the store. 

SBWU organizers were inspired by a unionization campaign in Buffalo two years ago by Spot Coffee employees who fought back against abuse by the company when two workers were fired for beginning the unionization process. Community outrage forced the company to rehire the workers and forgo further union-busting, leading Spot workers to secure a more fair contract with their employer later that year. 

She also believes the pandemic was a catalyst for the recent unionization wave, as Starbucks has been unable to use their “churn and burn tactics” of low wages and a revolving door of baristas. Instead, workers faced extreme hardship as the company provided little to no measures to ensure workers were safe from COVID-19, no new workers were hired to implement sanitization procedures, and hazard pay was only provided for the first four weeks of stay-at-home orders. 

The pandemic also showed baristas that Starbucks’ executives valued their profits over the very lives of their workers. This forced baristas to take care of each other, which built higher levels of trust amongst workers. This new-found solidarity has made it much more difficult for Starbucks to create distrust between workers. “I think our strategy has always been honesty,” said Eisen. “We know our coworkers far better than those flying in from across the country.” 

SBWU’s recent efforts seem to have inspired baristas across western New York to take steps towards unionization, as several other locations have begun the process of organizing. A location in Mesa, Ariz., was so enraged by the tactics used by Starbucks that they themselves recently filed a petition with the NLRB after one of their coworkers was fired for whistleblowing against the company and their anti-union tactics.

The actions Starbucks executives have taken against organizers should have been punishable by law, but the United States’ laws protect the profits of corporations over the wellbeing of workers, something that this case of union-busting so blatantly demonstrates. At the end of SBWU’s livestream on Dec. 6, members spoke on the lack of labor laws within the United States, and concluded that they would have never had to go through a fight like this if labor laws had protected them instead of Starbucks. 

Not only have the anti-worker labor laws wasted taxpayer money by forcing the NLRB to entertain Starbucks’ never ending appeals, but it has communicated to workers that the labor they engage in is not valuable. “We are the company,” said Eisen. “It is our work that brings in all that profit, we deserve a say in our working conditions.” 

Despite the months of union-busting and millions of dollars the company spent trying to prevent workers from organizing, today was a truly historic moment, and there are high hopes the unionization wave will spread further because of it. In the words of SBWU member R.J. Rebman, “At the end of the day, working-class people know what their interests are, and they can prevail even when there’s union busting and intimidation. … If we can do this here, you can do this where you are too.”

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