Photo: Workers celebrate their 30th day on strike. Credit: Boston Starbucks Workers United
Boston Starbucks Workers United announced victory at 874 Commonwealth Avenue on Sept. 21, ending the longest strike in SBWU history. Workers celebrated ending a punitive availability policy and removing a bigoted, union-busting manager, while momentum builds nationally toward recognition of SBWU and Starbucks workers’ legal right to negotiate a contract after winning their union elections.
The workers at 874 Commonwealth unanimously voted to unionize in June, facing immediate retaliation including a new manager who made racist, homophobic and transphobic comments along with illegal threats of termination. Shift managers recall being instructed by the manager to fire workers who did not comply with a new availability policy. The policy itself mandates that workers submit availability schedules with an unrealistic ratio of available hours to requested hours, which especially harms part-time workers. This policy was applied to unionized stores without recognizing the workers’ legal right to negotiate changes in scheduling and staffing policies.
Workers aren’t going back
Liberation News interviewed worker leaders at 874 about the victory. Shift Manager Nora Rossi explained: “What’s changing is we’re not going back [to the way things were]. We’re more in control of our labor than before. We have more job security, especially the people who thought they could be fired at any moment if they didn’t give availability they couldn’t actually give. Part-time workers would tell us in person they had put availability in the computer that they couldn’t actually make, but felt they had to submit just to keep their jobs. There’s more security now, not just job security, but also a feeling of empowerment — like if we feel understaffed, we can immediately get in contact with our district manager and talk to people in our community too for support if it’s a long term situation. There’s more agency going in.”
Shift Manager Spencer Costigan added: “The strike was started because we were taking a lotta shit from the company for unionizing, they were doing illegal things, all through a terrible manager who was happy to do it unquestioningly. Her willingly helping the company break all these labor laws along with her own personal bigotry through her racism, homophobia, transphobia and being aggressive towards workers. We all got fed up with the abuse quickly. That’s how it started, it ended because the company acquiesced. They’re trying to play it off like they were gonna make these changes anyway but we went on strike, they made the changes we demanded, and when we go back into the building to work, things will be different in the ways we demanded. We won. We know the truth, they had no incentive to make these changes without the public pressure our and other strikes put on them.”
Starbucks’ failed attempts to break the strike
The forced availability policy is just one example in a long list of labor rights infringed on by Starbucks in the face of exponential growth of unionized Starbucks workers. Since August 2021, over 200 Starbucks stores have voted to unionize with Workers United. A corporation making $29 billion in 2021, Starbucks started workers at minimum wage for years, only increasing their starting wage to $15 by Summer 2022 — a raise initially denied to unionized stores. In a publicity stunt, billionaire and former CEO Howard Shultz declared his salary to be $1 when he “volunteered” to step in as interim CEO in April 2022 — despite purchasing $14 million worth of Starbucks stock in May 2022, increasing his share ownership to 2.13% as the largest individual shareholder. Starbucks used the profits made by its hundreds of thousands of workers to contract notorious union-busting law firm Littler Mendelson and additionally hire new in-house union-busting attorneys and PR agents in April 2022.
At 874 Commonwealth Ave, Starbucks management tried to break the strike by removing patio furniture, calling police on picketers to threaten arrest for trespassing, and even hiring the notoriously antagonistic private security agency Pinkerton to intimidate the picketers. Nonetheless, the workers held strong with community support and kept the picket line for 24 hours, halting deliveries for the entirety of the 64 days.
Barista Taylor Dickerson says, “We showed it’s possible, it happened, and we can go back to a better workplace than before. We can regain tangible things like getting rid of availability policy. We see the benefits in real time. Now they see how much power we have, we rallied a huge community behind us, we show that we can withstand a 64-day long strike, which is a huge deal.”
Workers at the Starbucks location in Watertown also successfully went on strike from Sept. 9 through 16, as well as on Aug. 1, facing similar unfair labor practices. Not only did they face the forced availability policy, they were also subjected to severe understaffing and a new manager within weeks of unionizing who used the availability policy to target unionizing workers and enabled transphobic and misogynistic behavior. Workers stated that it took over three months before their reports of misgendering and offensive comments by a shift manager were addressed, while two pro-union partners with perfect records were fired recently.
While Starbucks has used the forced availability policy to threaten unionized workers, the company has also added $200 million in raises and new benefits which were denied to unionized stores. Egregiously in the face of the Supreme Court decision overthrowing federal abortion rights, the company threatened to deny abortion and gender-affirming health care to unionized workers in anti-choice states.
The workers have strongly resisted the attacks and stood up for their rights to organize, filing over 200 complaints with the NLRB and continuing organizing actions like strikes and sip-ins throughout the country. The NLRB recently ruled in favor of SBWU on two major cases: 1) An injunction to reinstate fired workers; 2) A complaint stating new benefits and raises should be applied to all workers with back pay for unionized workers denied raises.
‘When we work together, when we fight together, we win‘
Kylah Clay, a core organizer with SBWU in Boston, reflects: “Obviously this is a big win for this store. Not just at the individual store level — on a regional and national level, the implications are monumental. All of us have experienced union busting at Starbucks whether we know it or not. This strike increased awareness of ULPs [unfair labor practices], inspired others to take action at their own store, and the win lets them know they can hold corporate accountable, and that it’s worth the risk. This shows that it’s worth it. It’ll be really helpful as we gear up for a national contract. Starbucks has made it hard to meet at the bargaining table, delaying and delaying. What we need to do is keep building a union family and be confident that when we work together, when we fight together, we win.”
This sets an exciting precedent for the Starbucks union movement and shows how much power workers truly have to be able to win concessions, even from enormous corporations, when they are organized.
“A better world is possible. Things can really drastically and rapidly change in ways people don’t expect,” says Spencer Costigan. “Unions can win so much more than better pay or benefits — they can bring about latent solidarity that has far more power than any one person, group or even worker has. Through that you can see the seed of a better world.”