Starbucks baristas organize in Buffalo, New York

Starbucks baristas in upstate New York aim to unionize with Workers United. They criticize management for responding with heavy-handed union-busting tactics. PHOTO: SBWorkersUnited
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A trend of labor activism is emerging from the pandemic. Like the audacious unionization drive launched this August at three Starbucks stores in Buffalo, New York. Overworked and understaffed, baristas there are brewing a strong cup of workers’ rights.

The organizing team, Starbucks Workers United (SWU), gained national publicity and the backing of AFL-CIO president Liz Shuler. Issues of chronic understaffing, access to sick leave and erratic hours have simmered at the coffee roaster for some time. Then, anger boiled over when baristas had to add Covid sanitation measures to their hectic days with no additional staff or added pay.

Should they succeed, SWU would win the only union in any of the 8,000 Starbucks-owned locations in the United States. Lack of labor representation is no accident. Former CEO Howard Schultz built the company on the belief that “If they (employees) had faith in me and my motives, they wouldn’t need a union.”

His model was to squash unionization drives, and it remains company policy. As recently as this summer, Starbucks was found guilty of unfair labor practices. It had illegally fired two Philadelphia workers in retaliation for union organizing and spied on conversations that one of them had with colleagues.

Starbucks has hired a union-busting law firm and sent top management to Buffalo — including Schultz. It also asked the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), the federal agency overseeing the unionization battle, to include all 450 staffers in the 20 Buffalo-area stores in the vote. This is the same tactic used by Amazon to defeat a union drive in Bessemer, Alabama. Worker organizers accused Starbucks of delaying the vote. The NLRB set a hearing to discuss this issue on Sept.22, as this article goes to print.

The corporate execs corner people for chats, pander to staff by fixing a few long-standing problems and hold so-called “listening sessions.” Rossann Williams, president of Starbucks North America, told people in one session, “We don’t believe our partners need unions to speak on their behalf.” “Partners” is what Starbucks management calls their overworked staff.

Buffalo baristas told Motherboard they feel surveilled, distracted, and intimidated by the top-heavy management presence.

Labor rising. The plight — and courage — of frontline workers during the pandemic has boosted pro-labor sentiment in the U.S. to a high of 65%. At a time when many corporations are making out like bandits, workers with longstanding grievances are ready to fight back.

As of mid-September, the workers in Nabisco plants in five states were in the second month of a strike. The issues are schedules and proposed pay cuts. Alabama miners walked out to demand benefits and pay they lost in concessions in 2016.

Worksites like Starbucks, that have never been unionized in the U.S., are seeing new and innovative collective bargaining attempts. In early 2021, 800 Google engineers and others announced their union, the Alphabet Workers Union. This is a first in the labor-desert of Silicon Valley.

Amazon is vehemently anti-union. Yet worker activism has escalated around the country during the pandemic (see “Black workers lead safety fight at Amazon”).

Service workers at restaurants and coffee shops, which tend to have low rates of unionization, are among the hardest hit by Covid. Now they are some of the most energetic to seek union protections.

Last May, New Orleans baristas at Still Perkin’ struck for over 10 weeks. They wanted Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), safety measures and increased pay. This spring in San Francisco, Tartine Bakery staff won the right to union representation after a year-long battle. Baristas at another Buffalo-based coffee chain, SPoT, unionized those shops in August 2019 — before the pandemic.

A new generation of young activists is giving labor a boost. Many connect social injustice to workplace injustice. One member of Starbucks Workers United told the Christian Science Monitor, “We work for a company that touts itself as a leader in supporting [Black Lives Matter] and LGBTQ rights — but they union-bust.”

Explaining her involvement, Alexis Rizzo, a founding member of Starbucks Workers United, told the Guardian, “We’re the ones who are the face of the company doing this job every single day. We know better than anyone what we could do to make it better.”

Workers the world over know the truth of this.

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