On Aug. 30, employees at three Starbucks locations in the Buffalo, New York, area celebrated a milestone — it’s been one year since they formally announced plans to form a union.

In the months following the announcement, a majority of workers at two of those stores voted to unionize, setting off a wave of momentum that subsequently spread to hundreds of U.S. locations. But organizing employees allege that the company has responded with firings, store closures and other retaliatory behavior, allegations the company denies.

Now, as the union’s focus shifts to the courts, the initial momentum is beginning to taper off. In July, petitions to organize new Starbucks stores fell 80% from a March high.

 A spring surge

Through July, the most recent month with complete National Labor Relations Board data, employees at 326 Starbucks locations have filed union election petitions.

Starbucks employees who spoke with Bloomberg News emphasized that they loved their jobs, their colleagues and their stores. But the employees said a union could help increase wages, promote health and safety conditions at the stores and protect employees from chronic understaffing situations. In a statement to Bloomberg News, Starbucks spokesperson Reggie Borges said that unions are not a good fit for the company and Starbucks prefers to work directly with workers to make changes.

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The group supporting the movement, Starbucks Workers United, has faced a challenge in organizing hundreds of shops with fewer employees than a typical workplace. Organizers have relied on strong networks between Starbucks employees spread across the country.

When Alisha Humphrey, a barista in Oklahoma City, saw the New York stores organize, she reached out to Starbucks employees involved in the union drive. She was soon learning over Zoom how to facilitate organizing conversations. “Even before we won our election, I was kind of helping out in other stores that were interested,” Humphrey said. 

The ensuing ramp-up began in urban centers in the Northeast and Midwest, where Starbucks employees have been roughly twice as likely to organize as company workers elsewhere. Less than 2% of Starbucks locations in rural areas have officially requested representation.

The push has been particularly strong in college towns, like Ann Arbor, Michigan, and Eugene, Oregon. Locations that have filed to unionize were typically 1.75 miles from the nearest college or university campus, with nonpetitioning stores nearly twice as far away. Ithaca, New York — home to Cornell University — is the only city where every store has voted to unionize.

“[Starbucks] cultivated this image that we know of coffee shops, college towns, they calculated that. And now it’s come back to bite them,” said Nelson Lichtenstein, the director of the Center for the Study of Work, Labor, and Democracy at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Casey Moore, a barista in Buffalo and a member of the National Starbucks Workers United Communications Committee, said the leaders of the movement lean younger, more progressive and more LGBTQ. For transgender workers, Starbucks is one of the only part-time jobs that offers gender-affirming health care. But this more liberal workforce has also shown a recent interest in labor organizing, something Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz has said is unneeded at the company.

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“That’s great that you’re offering these benefits,” said Moore. “But then you’re threatening to take them away. So how progressive are you really?”

Borges denied the company is threatening to take away benefits.

A bitter response

As the union push has grown, union organizers say Starbucks has increasingly turned to anti-union tactics, like closing stores and firing workers. Employees at the company have submitted 283 unfair labor practice filings with the NLRB in the last year. The filings contain more than 600 allegations that Starbucks has violated labor laws. The volume of complaints is the most of any private employer in the U.S. during that period and 30% more than its closest peer UPS, which has nearly twice the number of employees as Starbucks.

“This is the most retaliatory campaign I have seen in 40 plus years — by far,” said Richard Bensinger, a senior adviser for Starbucks Workers United and a former organizing director for the AFL-CIO. Borges denied the claims of anti-union activity. In a statement to Bloomberg News he said that closures were due to safety concerns and that fired employees had violated company policies. 

In May, the NLRB formally accused Starbucks of over 200 labor violations and has sought four injunctions against the company this year; no other US company has more than one. One of those injunctions was rejected in June. On Aug. 18, a federal judge ruled Starbucks must offer reinstatement to seven fired pro-union employees at a Memphis, Tennessee, location.

“Starbucks is making these stores, especially unionized stores, really stressful places to work. So my staff comes into work every day and we’re scared,” said Sam Amato, a shift manager recently fired from a Buffalo store. “We’re scared that one small mistake is going to get us sent home or get us fired.” 

When Starbucks recently closed 19 stores — largely citing safety issues — the locations were disproportionately pro-union. According to Starbucks Workers United, 42% of the closed stores had union activity, compared to 4% of locations nationwide that have petitioned to unionize.

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“There was no union consideration when it came to those closures,” said Borges last month.

The closures and accusations come amid a growing number of strikes by Starbucks employees. According to work stoppages data tracked by Bloomberg Law, one in every five strikes this year came from Starbucks employees and many cite retaliatory action by the company as a reason for striking.

As of Aug. 29, none of the stores where employees voted to unionize had secured collective bargaining contracts with the company. Labor experts say this may curtail union momentum. “Just delay and these unions wither on the vine and the penalties seem to be not very strong — even the public relations penalty would seem not that great.” said Lichtenstein.

Slowing petitions, tighter elections

Now, in addition to the growing legal situation, the union must also deal with a recent slowdown in representation filings. In July, employees at 14 new stores petitioned to organize, the lowest volume in a given month in 2022. This month, only seven new petitions have been filed through Aug. 29.

The union still turns most of those petitions into successful elections but the votes are becoming tighter and losses have become more common. As recently as April, the union typically won elections with 80% of employees voting in favor of organizing. In July, that rate fell to 63% as the union lost 12 of 34 elections with certified results. It was also the first month where multiple elections had a turnout rate below 60%.

These patterns raise questions about what’s next for the union — whether it can reignite the spring wave or if the slowdown may be part of the natural pattern of union organizing. “You organize the easiest ones first and then others will come,” said Lichtenstein.

Organizers say they are determined to continue even as the attention shifts to the firings and store closures, as well as the important next step of negotiating contracts with Starbucks for the unionized stores. “Organizing is continuing and it will continue because the workers want and deserve the right to have a voice,” said Bensinger. “We are fighting for the right of all Starbucks workers to organize without fear, intimidation and threats.”