More Starbucks Workers Are Pushing for Union Votes

Last week, a Buffalo location became the first corporate-owned store to vote in favor of a union.

Last week, the workers at the Elmwood Avenue Starbucks store in Buffalo, New York voted 19-8 in favor of unionizing, becoming the first of Starbucks' corporate-owned stores to take that step. Three additional Buffalo-area locations and one store in Mesa, Arizona have since filed paperwork asking for permission to hold their own unionization votes, and it seems like that list may keep getting longer.

A Starbucks location in Moraga, CA
Smith Collection / Gado / Getty Images

On Monday, two Starbucks stores in Boston filed to hold union elections as well. According to the New York Times, the 50-plus Boston employees have petitioned to join Workers United, which is an affiliate of Service Employees International Union. That is the same union that the Elmwood Avenue workers will be associated with. "We at Workers United, and our Buffalo partners are here to assist any Starbucks store that wants to form a union," Richard Minter, the International Organizing Director for Workers United, said in a statement.

In a letter sent to Starbucks President and CEO Kevin Johnson, the Boston workers explained their decision. "Like the partners in Buffalo, Arizona, and beyond, we believe that there can be no true partnership without power-sharing and accountability," they wrote. "We are organizing a union in Boston because we believe that this is the best way to contribute meaningfully to our partnership with the company. We want to ensure that our voices are heard, and that we have equal power to affect positive change for our store, district, and company."

Labor analysts consulted by the Boston Globe believe that several factors have contributed to food and beverage workers' renewed push to organize and unionize, including the risks that they, as front-line workers, have faced during the ongoing pandemic, and because they know that their employers may not be able to risk losing staff members after the challenges of the past two years.

"This generation of service-sector workers are going to do what the industrial workers in the '30s and '40s did and [...] rise up against these big corporations," union organizer Richard Bensinger told the outlet. "These workers are going to energize and rebuild the labor movement."

Labor shortages have put increasing pressure on current workers — especially baristas and other service-industry personnel, who may have fewer colleagues to share the time- and customer-sensitive demands of food service with.

"It's hard to be the person working extra and doing two to three people's jobs for the same amount of money you made three years ago, but the company is really thriving and giving million-dollar bonuses to people," Liz Alanna, a shift supervisor at the Mesa, Arizona Starbucks that is petitioning for a union election said. "It seems very unappreciative and disrespectful to the baristas who have worked so hard during the pandemic."

It will be interesting to see how Starbucks reacts as an increasing number of stores consider unionizing; they were accused of orchestrating "a campaign of threats, intimidation and surveillance in response to the union push" in Buffalo, an allegation that they have denied. In addition, both Starbucks and the union contested seven of the 20 votes that were cast at a Buffalo store that voted against unionizing. (The union alleges that some of the workers who cast ballots didn't work at that location.)

"We respect our partners' rights to organize and have been consistent in sharing that," Starbucks spokesperson Reggie Borges told the Arizona Republic. "Having said that, we believe that the way that we operate, the way that we function, we're pro-partner. We shouldn't have a third party in between us when it comes to working together to develop the best experience that our partners can have."

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