Starbucks unionizing heats up

Overworked and underpaid baristas propel national drive

“Stop union busting!” — Beto Sanchez, one of the "Memphis 7" workers who was fired in Tennessee, speaks at a rally of baristas and allies outside Starbucks corporate headquarters in Seattle on February 15, 2022. PHOTO: Doreen McGrath / FS
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“I would really like to see Starbucks back up their claim that we’re partners by sharing some of the multi-billion-dollar profit that our hard work gives to them.” This from Brent Hayes, Seattle barista and vocal supporter of the Starbucks Workers Union’s (SWU) national drive to organize the coffee drink behemoth. He and co-workers want this drive to help fight the poverty wages and constant erosion of workplace safety standards, made worse by Covid.

The current campaign began when three Buffalo, New York, stores petitioned for union elections. Two stores won their elections. The third lost because management challenged who could vote. A pair of additional stores withdrew their petitions but refiled them this year. There are now four unionized stores in the Buffalo area. At last count, stores seeking union protection topped 100 in over 20 states.

Pressure builds. This explosion of organizing in the workforce of the worlds’ biggest multinational coffeehouse chain was completely predictable. Tensions had grown long before the Covid-19 pandemic intensified the pressure on Starbucks and other low-paid workers. Complaints by SWU and supporters include abusive work environments plagued by chronic understaffing, unpredictable schedules, unaffordable monthly premiums for health insurance, and arbitrary refusals of sick time. As if that weren’t enough, when the pandemic hit, the partners (as Starbucks calls their employees) were forced to do more work with less time and staff in order to increase profits. Covid sanitation measures were added to workers’ already hectic days, again with no added help or pay.

Hayes, who works at the Westlake drive-through location, said unionization “is largely so that we can implement policies and benefits that look out for partners over profit. We’ve seen unionized locations walking out and fighting for Covid rights — because they have protections.”

Some workers hoped it might get better. Instead, Starbucks’ management practices created the perfect breeding ground to fuel this brewing worker revolt. One look at Starbucks’ anti-union history shows why.

Union buster vs. workers. Howard Schultz, who stepped down as Starbucks CEO in 2008, made his career fighting unionization efforts. Schultz became president of the Seattle-based company in 1987. He then immediately broke faith with Starbucks’ first union. Its 1985 contract provided healthcare coverage, paid vacation, and sick leave. This win was secured by nearly 120 Starbucks workers, represented by United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1001.

During the forced negotiations, Shultz demanded the addition of 11 coffee shops in the hope they would reject the union. Instead, they supported it. Schultz demanded contract cuts to healthcare and protections against unjust firings, and for his right to change working conditions unilaterally. The union refused so Schultz stalled negotiations and promoted a decertification petition. All the unions’ Seattle shops were decertified by the end of 1987.

Schultz, named interim CEO in March 2022, is following a familiar playbook. Currently, the tactics range from retaliation against employees for attempts to unionize, to attempts to force voting by district instead of by individual stores. In Memphis, Tennessee, all the organizers were fired over trumped-up charges of incorrectly applying Covid masking guidelines. In Mesa, Arizona, management forced a supervisor who has leukemia to work long shifts with no help, denied her sick leave, then fired her for going home ill. The union publicized the incident, and management was forced to rehire her. And the workers overwhelming voted to join the union.

The company has also opted to hire over 30 attorneys from a big union-busting law firm. Schultz flew to New York to speak at a partner event just days before the stores were set to vote on the union. Afterwards, in a letter addressed to employees “with love,” Schultz wrote that “No partner has ever needed to have a representative seek to obtain things we all have as partners at Starbucks.”

The company’s attempts to paint a picture of collaboration and problem solving is a desperate attempt to cover up Starbucks’ own anti-union history and comes as no surprise. The gloves have come off in this fight for workplace democratization. Continued solidarity for local workers is more meaningful than ever. For more information on this important fight, go to Starbucks Workers United at

Hitchcock works in energy technology and wants international solutions to uncontrolled corporate growth. Send feedback to

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