Starbucks Workers in Buffalo Vote to Form a Union

Once certified, the single location will be the first company-owned store to unionize.

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Photo: Libby March for The Washington Post via Getty Images

On Thursday, the top post on the r/Starbucks subreddit involved just five words, written in all-caps. "THEY WON THE UNION VOTE," it read. The "they" in that sentence were the employees at a Starbucks store in Buffalo, New York, who voted 19-8 in favor of unionizing. After the results are certified by the National Labor Relations Board, the Elmwood Avenue location will become the first — and so far, the only — one of Starbucks' 8,000-plus company-owned U.S. stores to unionize.

According to the Associated Press, a second Buffalo-area store voted 12-8 against the union, but that result may be contested due to the union's concerns that all of the eligible votes had not been counted. A vote to unionize was also held at a third store, but seven votes were challenged by either Starbucks or the union. (The union alleges that some of the workers who cast ballots did not work at that store.)

"This is a historic moment in time," longtime Elmwood Avenue barista Michelle Eisen told CNN. "This win is the first step in changing what it means to be a partner at Starbucks, and what it means to work in the service industry more broadly. With a union, we now have the ability to negotiate a contract that holds Starbucks accountable to be the company we know it can be, and gives us a real voice in our workplace."

Vermont senator Bernie Sanders was among the first to applaud the Elmwood Avenue workers. "Congratulations to [Starbucks Workers United] on the HISTORIC achievement of organizing the first-ever union at a company-owned Starbucks in the US," he tweeted. "The company should stop pouring money into the fight against the union and negotiate a fair contract now."

The next step is for the National Labor Relations Board to certify the results from the Elmwood Avenue location. CNBC reports that a hearing might be held to resolve any objections that have been raised concerning the vote totals. And, as Eisen noted, after the results become official, the Elmwood Avenue employees will start negotiating with Starbucks on a contract.

In a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission, Starbucks wrote that if "a significant portion of our employees" unionized, the chain "could be negatively affected by other requirements and expectations that could increase our costs, change our employee culture, decrease our flexibility and disrupt our business." It added that if the company was perceived as being anti-union, then its "financial results" could suffer.

Last month, staffers at those Buffalo locations filed a federal labor charge alleging that Starbucks had engaged in "a campaign of threats, intimidation and surveillance in response to the union push." Starbucks has denied those charges.

Over 100 employees were eligible to vote in this week's election. Three additional Buffalo-area locations have filed paperwork seeking permission to hold their own unionization vote, as has one store in Mesa, Arizona.

In a self-described "holiday message" published on the Starbucks website, CEO Kevin Johnson addressed the push for unionization. "[I]ndependent of any outcome in these elections, we will continue to stay true to our Mission and Values," he wrote. "As they have through our 50-year history, our Mission and Values will guide us to lead and innovate in ways that are most meaningful to our partners."

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