At Starbucks regional headquarters in Manhattan on May 1, staff were setting up an office pizza party when they heard a chant coming from the hallway of their fifteenth floor glass-enclosed office.
“Who are we? We are partners! Who are we? We are workers!” chanted a dozen Starbucks workers as they filled the reception area, many wearing shirts saying “Partners? Prove It. WE are Starbucks.”
Headquarters staff fled into back offices as the café workers traded off reading sections of a written statement with their demands — the chief one being that the company negotiate with the union and stop retaliating against workers for organizing.
Two managers, one of them identified by workers as Partner Relations Manager Rhesa Welch, poked their heads out in time to hear most of the statement. Once she was spotted, the workers made impromptu additions.
“Why are you spending so much money on union-busting? What’s the point of it?! Just come and negotiate!” said Laura Rosario, a member of Starbucks Workers United who works in Montclair, New Jersey.
Other workers put in: “Twenty hours minimum for benefits? Really?” “Dangling transgender health benefits over our heads, you sick freaks, why would you do that?” “You all wouldn’t be here if we weren’t in the stores!” “We’ve got workers and customers harassing us, sexually, in the stores. We file complaint after complaint and nothing is done.” “You need to negotiate with us, for real. You can’t run from this forever.”
“You’re killing the younger generation of people! I’ve been working for this company for two years, going to school full time… I’ve wanted to kill myself three times already,” said Elizabeth Kurchak, who works at the Caesar’s Bay shopping center store in Brooklyn.
They tried to hand the statement to Welch, who refused it. It was signed by 54 area Starbucks workers and 22 city, state, and federal elected officials including New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, who attended the protest.
Starbucks Workers United organized simultaneous actions at Starbucks offices in Chicago and Atlanta, while five more stores filed for union elections.
Later, on the sidewalk, Kurchak said that her Brooklyn store is chronically understaffed, despite workers wanting more hours. A vocal union supporter, she said she was cut to 19-and-a-half hours, just below the 20-hour cutoff to receive benefits.
Broken equipment adds to the chaos, she said. A dishwasher has been broken for months, and they’re down to one blender. When they call to report problems, managers don’t pick up the phone. Half the store had no electricity that morning, she said.
Why the short-staffing and lack of maintenance? “A year ago I would have said it was to save money,” said Kurchak. “Now, I’d say union-busting. The goal is to close the store.” She pointed out that company policy is to renovate every three years, but while non-union stores get updates, hers has languished.
That seems to be a corporation-wide strategy. The union says 25 stores have been closed to hamper organizing efforts. In an unusual move, on March 1 a New York judge ordered Starbucks to reopen one Buffalo mall kiosk that was closed to retaliate against unionizing and deter workers in other stores from organizing. The judge cited “egregious and widespread misconduct demonstrating a general disregard for the employees’ fundamental rights.”
Another recent court case revealed emails showing that managers lied to workers about a store closure in Ithaca, New York. Managers told workers at the College Avenue store that it would close permanently in June 2022, just two months after they voted 19-1 to unionize.
After the vote, workers walked out to protest being required to work in hazardous conditions when a grease trap with chronic issues overflowed and coated the floor with slippery sludge and filled the store with a putrid odor.
But emails between Starbucks higher-ups showed that the closure was not permanent and they planned to “go dark and reinvest/reopen in 1-2 years.” Managers noted that the store was a lucrative location that the company wanted to hang onto, while they fretted over negative publicity due to the union walkout over the grease trap flood. Rather than maintain the store and negotiate with the workers, managers seemed to think the union was the problem.
Understaffing continues to be rampant. Workers in Aurora, Ohio, sent a letter to the new CEO, Laxman Narasimhan, writing that management assumes that “we simply do not try hard enough and that if we really pulled ourselves up by our non-slip bootstraps we would be able to get the work of five employees done by two.”
Last September, the union made a range of non-economic proposals, but Starbucks has yet to respond. In a normal bargaining process, the company would have tentatively agreed to one or more of these, or made a counter-proposal. But it hasn’t done either.
Instead, the company accused the union of 73 charges of failure to bargain, all of which were eventually dismissed by the National Labor Relations Board. The Board has repeatedly found that Starbucks has failed to bargain in good faith.
On April 19, SBWU unveiled its economic proposals, including $20 an hour to start, 5 percent annual raises, annual cost of living adjustments, healthcare for full and part-timers, and expanded sick and personal leave.
The union is also proposing guaranteed and consistent scheduling, in-store health and safety committees, and that Starbucks not be able to cut wages or benefits, or change working conditions, without the consent of the workers.
Many of these proposals would help with the persistent turnover and erratic scheduling that exacerbate the understaffing crisis.
Niah Baker, another Montclair, New Jersey, worker at the protest, said he was “super annoyed” at Starbucks’ refusal to bargain. During the protest, manager Rhesa Welch claimed she had been at New Jersey bargaining sessions, but Baker said he had not seen her there.
Starbucks has refused to continue bargaining at meetings because they are “hybrid,” that is, some workers attend on Zoom. “Rhesa wasn’t there. Unless she was on Zoom,” Baker quipped.
This story was originally published by Labor Notes.
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