For years, Starbucks workers have complained about the company’s labor practices, saying that chronic understaffing has led to a chaotic work environment, erratic hours and difficulty taking sick days.

Despite periodic commitments by Starbucks to revise its policies, the complaints lingered and appeared to intensify during the pandemic, when overstretched workers also had to contend with new health concerns and safety protocols.

Now the long-standing frustrations are fueling one of the most serious union campaigns ever to confront the company, whose more than 8,000 corporate-owned locations in the United States are not unionized.

Last week, Starbucks workers in the Buffalo, New York, area announced that they were forming a union called Starbucks Workers United, and Monday they said they had filed petitions from employees at three stores in the area asking the National Labor Relations Board to hold elections on union representation. They proposed a vote in two weeks.

“They could fix this or that issue, but there are always new things coming up,” said Brian Murray, a barista at a Starbucks in Buffalo. “The only way to have those resolved in the future is having a union, having democracy in the workplace.”

After the workers’ announcement last week about forming the union, Starbucks said in a statement, “We respect our partners’ right to organize but believe that they would not find it necessary given our pro-partner environment.”


The workers are seeking to hold elections store by store, each of which has about 20 to 30 eligible workers, although the company could push the labor board for a citywide or districtwide vote.

At least 30% of eligible workers must sign union cards for a workplace to qualify for a vote. The union said that “strong majorities” had signed cards in each of the stores where workers are petitioning for a vote.

Alexis Rizzo, a shift supervisor at one of the stores, said that she had had periodic conversations over several years with organizers for Workers United, the union with which the Starbucks workers hope to affiliate, but that until recently the timing for a union campaign had not felt right. “With the pandemic and labor shortages — the fact that for once we’re not totally disposable, they need us — it was the perfect time,” Rizzo said.