Weeks after a successful union drive in New York state, workers at a Seattle Starbucks store are moving forward with a unionization effort, bringing the coffee chain’s high-profile labor fight to its hometown.
Employees at the Starbucks at Broadway and East Denny Way in the Capitol Hill neighborhood filed a petition Monday with the National Labor Relations Board to hold a union election Jan. 10.
“We do not see our desire to unionize as a reaction to specific policies, events, or changes, but rather a commitment to growing the company and the quality of our work. We see unionizing as a fundamental and necessary way to participate in Starbucks and its future as partners,” wrote four employees, who the company refers to as partners, in a letter to Kevin Johnson, CEO of the Seattle-based coffee giant.
A Starbucks spokesperson did not comment on the Seattle store, but the company has opposed unionization at other locations.
“From the beginning, we’ve been clear in our belief that we do not want a union between us as partners, and that conviction has not changed,” Executive Vice President Rossann Williams wrote in a letter to Starbucks employees Monday, saying that the company plans to bargain in good faith with the newly unionized workers in Buffalo, New York.
The union push comes at a tumultuous time in the American labor market, as workers reconsider their jobs and working conditions. A labor shortage has given employees new leverage just as the pandemic transformed food-service and other work once derided as “unskilled” into an “essential” service.
Workers have staged strikes at large corporations, such as John Deere and Kellogg. In Seattle, carpenters and concrete truck drivers have slowed local construction projects with work stoppages as they argue for higher pay. Employers here and across the country have scrambled to attract enough workers as they also grapple with supply-chain hangups.
The Seattle unionization effort “is very significant because it indicates it is spreading,” said John Logan, a professor of labor and employment studies at San Francisco State University. “It’s not something Starbucks is going to be able to contain to these few stores in Buffalo.”
In the city where Starbucks began and once had unionized stores, the effort “has added significance, and people will be watching it even more closely,” Logan said.
Although some licensed Starbucks locations in airports and grocery stores are unionized, employees at a Buffalo Starbucks earlier this month formed the only union at a corporate-owned store in the United States. The union lost an election at a second store in Buffalo and the vote is still unresolved at a third. A unionized corporate location in Victoria, British Columbia, recently settled a contract with Starbucks.
“Seeing other people around the country standing up for their rights has emboldened us to do the same,” said Sydney Durkin, a member of the organizing committee who has worked at the Broadway and Denny location for two years. “We hope doing this shows other people they can do exactly what we’re doing.”
Forming a union would allow the employees to collectively bargain with management over their pay and working conditions. After workers file the petition, the NLRB can schedule an election, unless workers and management disagree on who should be included in the bargaining unit. In that case, the NLRB holds a hearing to resolve that issue.
Organizers at the Seattle store say an “overwhelming majority” of the 15 to 20 employees at their location have signed union cards indicating their support.
The coffee chain founded in Seattle 50 years ago is a multibillion-dollar enterprise with thousands of locations. The company reported net earnings of $1.76 billion in the fourth quarter, up from $392 million during the same time last year.
Seattle, meanwhile, has passed an array of labor laws in recent years, including new scheduling rules backed by Starbucks baristas, among others.
Starbucks offers more benefits than many others in the industry, including health insurance, and recently said that by next summer baristas in U.S. stores will make between $15 and $23 an hour. But employees say there’s still room for improvement.
“For a long, long time, I was not making enough to take part in” the health care benefit, said Justin Ferguson, another member of the Capitol Hill organizing group, who worked for Starbucks in Texas before moving to the Seattle store. “I couldn’t afford to have money taken out of my paycheck to pay for insurance. Just because a benefit is there doesn’t mean all partners are able to take part in it right now.”
Employees in Buffalo said their store was understaffed and they faced demanding performance metrics to serve customers quickly. In Mesa, Arizona, where a union effort is underway at one Starbucks location, employees described taking on more responsibilities with little increase in their pay. Soon after the Buffalo elections, workers at two Boston-area Starbucks announced their plans to unionize.
The pandemic has heightened the stresses of food service, particularly in a small store like the one at Broadway and Denny, local employees said. (The cafe’s lobby is currently closed, allowing only takeout.)
As the company rolled out pandemic policies on masking and indoor dining, “We didn’t have a say. We were just told what the new rules are,” said Rachel Ybarra, a member of the organizing group who has worked for Starbucks for about a year and a half. “Having a conversation and a voice in that conversation really would have helped.”
Amid the union push in New York, Starbucks executives pointed to their plans to raise wages and the increased benefits the company rolled out in recent years. Starbucks offers U.S. employees free tuition for a first-time bachelor’s degree at Arizona State University online as well as paid sick leave and parental leave for hourly employees.
The company has promised more recruiters across the U.S. and $200 referral bonuses to attract new store employees and address staffing, as well as improved training and a new app to “make it easier for partners to work available shifts that [meet] their personal needs.”
“We listen. We learn. We get better together,” founder Howard Schultz wrote in a letter to employees during the union campaign in Buffalo. “No partner has ever needed to have a representative seek to obtain things we all have as partners at Starbucks. And I am saddened and concerned to hear anyone thinks that is needed now.”
Organizing food-service workers has historically been difficult because of high rates of turnover, said Erin Hatton, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Buffalo who studies work and labor movements.
“I suspect companies such as Starbucks got away with for a long time throwing workers a few bones and being seen as a good employer relative to the many worse employers,” Hatton said. “That worked for them until this economic and public health crisis when those bones were suddenly seen as the bare bones. It wasn’t enough for how much workers were putting on the line.”
After the organizing drive began in Buffalo, Starbucks sent extra managers into stores, which union organizers described as an effort to intimidate workers. Starbucks said it was attempting to improve training and staffing in response to employee concerns, The New York Times reported.
Seattle employees said they are prepared for a similar response. The company did not comment on its plans.
So far, the Broadway and Denny location is the only one in Seattle to file for a union election, but organizers see big potential.
“Because Starbucks is such a large corporation and such an iconic brand, we could do a lot to change working conditions at more than just Starbucks,” Ybarra said. “This might have a lasting change in labor movements of all kinds.”
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