Starbucks workers and supporters rallied in major cities across the country Friday to celebrate the anniversary of the first unionized store in Buffalo, New York.
In Seattle, workers marked the occasion but also protested the closure of the city’s first unionized store — a sign of the contentious relationship the union and Starbucks have had over the past year.
The rain and wind didn’t deter workers and union supporters from gathering at Seattle’s Cal Anderson Park on Friday.
Rachel Ybarra, an organizer and a barista at the Broadway and Denny store slated for closure, was among the speakers. The negotiations between the corporation and their store ended with a contract Friday, which Ybarra said included a severance package.
“It’s really important that we’re able to leave the company and have the resources we need to make sure we can pay our bills while we look for a different job,” Ybarra said. “It acknowledges that essentially, we were laid off.”
In the year since the first Buffalo store unionized, Starbucks has changed, and so has its relationship with workers.
The Seattle-based coffee giant has seen more than 260 other stores unionize across the U.S., created a plan to reinvent the company and was accused in hundreds of cases by workers and the National Labor Relations Board of employing tactics to bust the union movement.
In Seattle, Starbucks and the union, Starbucks Workers United, clashed over employee firings, closure of unionized stores and unfruitful contract negotiations.
Since the first Seattle Starbucks store unionized in March, six stores, including the first unionized store at Broadway and Denny, closed. Starbucks claimed unsolvable safety concerns that threatened the well-being of customers and workers at those stores. But the union said the closing of the Broadway and Denny store was retaliatory as the store’s closure date, Sunday, fell two days after the anniversary of the first unionized store in Buffalo.
Before the first Starbucks store unionized in Seattle in March, workers at some licensed Starbucks locations in airports and grocery stores had already unionized. And in the 1980s, workers at Starbucks’ Seattle stores and roasting plant joined the United Food and Commercial Workers Union.
The claims of Starbucks retaliating against the union movement are hardly isolated to Seattle.
In June, the company closed a store in Ithaca, New York, which was also under union representation, just a couple of months after store workers had gone on a one-day strike for alleged unsafe working conditions.
The NLRB ordered Starbucks to rehire fired pro-union employees in various locations, including Phoenix and Memphis, Tennessee. The union claimed more than 150 workers were fired this year in union retaliation.
In November, Seattle labor officials ruled Starbucks broke labor law by refusing to negotiate with the union at the Reserve Roastery store, which is represented by the union.
McGill University professor Barry Eidlin said the NLRB’s order to Starbucks to negotiate with the union is considered an extreme measure, one taken when labor officials determine the employer engaged in union-busting tactics.
Starbucks “may say good things about being a progressive company, about justice and equality,” said Eidlin, who has written books about labor movements in the U.S. and Canada. “But when it comes to the rights of their workers to unionize, that’s a bridge too far.”
Starbucks employed several obstacles to curb the union movement, Eidlin said, and the result was a flurry of charges of unfair labor practices filed with the NLRB as well as intimidated workers who might refrain from filing a union petition at their store.
Nationwide, Starbucks Workers United filed at least 446 charges with the NLRB alleging anti-union activity from the company since December 2021. Starbucks has filed 47 charges against the union.
Ian Meagher, who works at a unionized store in Eugene, Oregon, said he is proud of the movement and what the workers were able to achieve since the first store in Buffalo won the union elections.
“We’re very much at the point where we’re laying the foundation of a strong union, but just the level of progress we’ve seen in this year alone has me very optimistic,” Meagher said.
Union vs. employee benefits
While Starbucks brushed off retaliation claims, exiting interim CEO Howard Schultz said publicly that unions would divide the company and its workers. He returned to the company in April just as several stores were unionizing.
On his first earnings call as interim CEO in May, Schultz addressed the unionizing movement for the first time.
“Compare any union contract in our sector to the constantly expanding list of wages and benefits we have provided our people for decades, and the union contract will not even come close to what Starbucks offers,” he said.
Since then, Starbucks announced a $1 billion commitment to raise benefits and pay for nonunion store workers. The initiative is being contested as an anti-union tactic in an NLRB lawsuit in Seattle. Starbucks is arguing it has a right to do so based on previous NLRB rulings.
Despite this turmoil, Starbucks downplays the impact of the union movement and blames stores for any delay in bargaining.
Starbucks spokesperson Rachel Wall said Starbucks has appeared in more than 75 single-store bargaining sessions, but Workers United hasn’t moved quickly to schedule at more than 200 stores.
Wall also said that the organized stores are a “very small slice of the coast-to-coast fabric of Starbucks.”
Investors may share a similar view of the size of the union movement. According to Jeremy Bowman, contributing analyst for financial and investment advice company The Motley Fool, this year of unionization is not of concern to investors because of the small number of stores involved compared with the total 9,000 company-owned stores.
Investors are more worried about Starbucks’ performance in China amid the restrictive, ongoing COVID-19 lockdowns, Bowman said.
Still, Starbucks has reported strong sales for two consecutive quarters this year despite a China slowdown. Interim CEO Schultz said at the latest earnings call with investors in November the strong results were an “early evidence of the success of our U.S. ‘Reinvention’ investments.”
“Reinvention” is a $450 million plan that includes steps to improve employee relations and a new focus on drive-thru stores rather than cafes. Starbucks executives unveiled the plan in September during the company’s Investor Day.
Schultz said the better-than-expected results are the result of strong demand for the company’s highly customizable Frappuccinos. Cold beverages, which include Frappuccinos, made up 76% of the total beverage sales in U.S. stores in the last quarter.
Looking ahead into the next year, Starbucks’ Wall said the company will focus on what’s critical, including “listening to our partners and working alongside them to reinvent the partner experience and the future of Starbucks.” (Starbucks refers to workers as partners.)
Despite the clashes with union workers, Bowman said Starbucks has been seen historically as employee-friendly. He added that the benefits from the $1 billion investment will help maintain Starbucks’ reputation as an employer.
The future might bring new challenges for the workers who are organizing. The movement is now shifting from new petitions to form a union to a slow contract negotiation process, Eidlin said.
“Winning the recognition election is just the first step,” Eidlin said. “There’s multiple other points where the company can intervene in ways that can prevent workers from getting collective bargaining rights, by preventing them from ever getting a contract.”
Union workers said Starbucks is intervening in the contract bargaining process by opposing a “hybrid” negotiation model, in which people can join the session virtually. Starbucks claimed virtual attendees were recording the negotiations and filed an unfair labor practice against the union, but workers said there was no recording.
Meagher said the hybrid model would allow for organizers in other cities to join negotiations in Eugene and help with the proceedings.
“We don’t have a million-dollar company to bankroll intercontinental flights across the country or even flights just down from Seattle to Eugene,” Meagher said.
In Seattle, Ybarra has decided to stay with Starbucks and be reassigned to a different store to continue the fight, even in the face of possible retaliation.
“Starbucks can’t get rid of me,” Ybarra said. “I’m going to stay with this company until I can make it the company that it should be.”
The opinions expressed in reader comments are those of the author only and do not reflect the opinions of The Seattle Times.