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Baristas in Buffalo Are Poised to Unionize Using Starbucks’s Own PR Against It

Workers United members say their union drive may succeed tomorrow in part by turning Starbucks’s own PR against it.

Eleven-year Starbucks barista and union-drive organizer Michelle Eisen speaks during a virtual press conference on December 1, 2021, from Buffalo, New York.

Baristas with Starbucks Workers United’s organizing committee are cautiously optimistic one or more stores will soon become the first of the corporation’s locations to unionize in the United States. Results are expected tomorrow for three of six Starbucks stores in the Buffalo, New York, area that have filed for union elections with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB).

On Tuesday, the NLRB dismissed Starbucks’s request to impound ballots already cast in the union election and stop the pending vote entirely. In a victory for Workers United, the Board instead approved the counting of the ballots.

If one or more Buffalo area stores unionize tomorrow, they could prove the first dominoes in a broader Starbucks and cafe unionization wave that has already spread elsewhere in the country, including Arizona, where a store in Mesa filed for union election late last month. The victory is likely to reverberate across the coffee giant’s nearly 9,000 U.S. corporate-owned stores.

The potential victory on the part of the Service Employees International Union-affiliate Workers United would also come in spite of one of the most aggressive union-busting campaigns waged by a large, Fortune 500 multinational in the U.S. The company has done nearly everything in its power to crush the union drive, including delaying the union vote and holding captive-audience meetings ironically dubbed “listening sessions,” in which management has forced employees to listen to anti-union propaganda.

Not only that, but senior managers and corporate executives, including Starbucks North America President Rossann Williams and Chief Operating Officer John Culver, have descended on the Buffalo-area stores throughout the past two months. They’ve claimed their presence is necessary for an array of reasons, from fixing some of the years-long problems that initially prompted the unionization campaign, including staffing, sanitation, pest and storage issues at several area stores, to sweeping floors and taking out the trash. Starbucks Workers United organizing committee members, however, say the managers’ and executives’ obvious intention is to surveil employees and stop union talk in its tracks.

Colin Cochran, a barista at Buffalo’s Walden Avenue and Anderson Road store location, which has filed for union election but is not among the three stores whose ballots are being counted tomorrow, told Truthout that Starbucks executives temporarily shut down his store location and turned it into a training center just before the store’s initial filing with the NLRB. He says the move was in part designed to divide and disrupt the store’s majority pro-union voting unit by transferring them to disparate locations. “Instead of seeing all of my co-workers every week, I was seeing maybe a third of my store on a regularly basis,” Cochran tells Truthout. “There are still people I haven’t seen at all in the last two months, and that makes it difficult to organize.”

Starbucks Workers United filed an unfair labor practice charge with the NLRB on November 4 over the shut downs, which included another store in Cheektowaga, New York, in which all 21 employees had signed a union election petition. Workers United also filed charges over executives’ surveillance of employees and other coercive actions. Starbucks has characterized the closures as merely coincidental, but did not respond to Truthout’s specific request for comment.

According to the NLRB, union elections are supposed to be conducted under what’s called “laboratory conditions,” in which workers can vote in an election process that is free from employer intimidation and in which their working conditions are not drastically changed.

But, as Cochran puts it, “They changed everything about our store. I mean we weren’t seeing customers anymore, like how much of a bigger change could you possibly get? We weren’t making drinks anymore. I think that there’s no other way like possible that you could make a bigger change to our working conditions.”

Moreover, Angel Krempa, a shift supervisor at Buffalo’s Depew location, which has also filed but is not among the stores counting ballots tomorrow, tells Truthout that executives’ alleged excuse that they wanted to create a training center to bring more staffers on and help relieve stores’ chronic understaffing issues is laughable since, she says, she has had to retrain at least six people who were initially trained by corporate executives at the center. “[The new hires] should have been way more prepared at that location, and they all felt entirely lost,” Krempa says.

Of the corporate presence at her own store, she told Truthout, “It definitely is stressful…. It stresses me out even more because my employees are stressed out, because instead of just being able to do their job, they have to feel like they’re doing their job wrong because there’s [corporate executives] watching over them.”

Billionaire and former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz himself even showed up to the city last month to present a case against unionizing. In a monumental PR blunder, his speech analogized workers’ situation with a Nazi concentration camp, saying the chain’s benefits were his way of “sharing a blanket” with other prisoners, i.e., employees, which Starbucks dubs “partners.”

Gianna Reeve, a shift supervisor at the Hamburg, New York, Camp Road store location in the Buffalo area whose election results are expected tomorrow, interrupted Schultz during the speech in an attempt to get him to sign onto Workers United’s fair election principles. She told Truthout that before she even got a chance to say anything to him beyond her name, staffers whisked him out of the room and corporate executives surrounded her. “The fact that at a ‘partner experience event’ in which they did not let a single partner speak to [Schultz] said enough. It said plenty actually,” Reeve tells Truthout.

Shortly after the event, Reeve says she and another co-worker were denied access to one of two captive “listening sessions” at their own store location, despite being previously told they could show up to the earlier of the two meetings. Since then, she says, the level of intimidation from executives at her location has only intensified.

“They’ve been kind of lifting the veil of this kind of saccharin, sweet niceness that they’ve been giving since they came over, and it’s kind of been more passive-aggressive,” Reeve tells Truthout. “Just emotionally, it kind of, it hurts.”

Campaigning on Starbucks’s “Virtue-Signaling”

But Reeve and other Workers United members say their secret weapon against the coffee giant’s heavy-handed union-busting has been the positivity of members’ messaging and the ways in which they’ve been able to use Starbucks’s own supposed “values” against it. Starbucks and Schultz’s “virtue signaling,” as Reeve puts it, has been a key catalyst for the union drive.

“Starbucks has put itself in a position where it says, and it exudes, that it wants to be better to its partners and its customers while disproving that time and time again, especially with this union drive,” Reeve says. “Partners are standing up to say, ‘No, the company needs to be better. That’s why we came to this company in the first place, because it said it would be better.’ Essentially, put your money where your mouth is.”

Starbucks’s so-called “progressive values” are something Michelle Eisen, an 11-year employee currently working as a barista at the Elmwood Avenue location, which is counting ballots tomorrow, has seen deteriorate over her career with the company. When she first joined, she says she recalled district managers giving out perks including $500 bonuses for employees with excellent sales, or funds for store managers to throw parties to reward well-performing locations. Those are the kinds of things that have been stripped away over the years, she says. Then, the pandemic hit and revealed the extent to which the company views its “partners” as expendable.

“I started working for Starbucks because I have a job in the arts, and I needed health insurance. That’s what brought me to the company. It was a progressive company that had a great reputation, and I felt that they cared about their employees and they cared about their community,” Eisen says. “I still feel like, at heart, that that is there, but there’s been a very clear shift in the last few years where it has really become a profits-over-partners situation, and I felt my value as an employee just sink lower and lower and lower.”

Even though her particular store didn’t experience the kinds of severe understaffing, pest and sanitation issues that other stores attempting to unionize have, she says the final straw for her and many others was watching Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson receive a $1.86 million bonus in fiscal year 2020 in addition to a $50 million retention award and $14.7 million salary — all in the middle of the pandemic.

In a rare move, however, Starbucks shareholders voted against the company’s CEO pay proposal in March. Still, the company’s profit margins have only risen during the COVID-19 pandemic: In early October, Starbucks reported a fiscal fourth-quarter net income of $1.76 billion, up from $392.6 million a year earlier. Yet many workers remain severely underpaid.

“I’ve got partners who can’t pay their rent and put groceries in their fridge at the same time,” Eisen says. “For me, that was it. That was the deciding factor where I was like, ‘You know what? It’s clear we have absolutely no say in our working conditions and these record-breaking profits were made off of my labor, so there needs to be more of an equal say.’”

Starbucks executives have acknowledged staffing troubles during the pandemic and ongoing “Great Resignation” — a low wage-caused labor shortage — and announced in late October that it will hike its employees’ wages at least twice in 2022, bringing the pay floor to $15 an hour by summer. Roughly 70 percent of Starbucks’ hourly workers joined the company over the last year, another reason why Eisen and others believe unionization is so crucial, as it can provide protections for new and inexperienced workers who don’t yet know the ropes.

Eisen also points to the inherent hypocrisy in Starbucks’s supplier social responsibility standards, which the company requires its third-party suppliers to sign. The standards outline that suppliers “must recognize and respect the right of workers to freedom of association and to bargain collectively. Workers must not be subject to intimidation or harassment in the exercise of their right to join or to refrain from joining any organization.” If a supplier violates the standards without taking corrective action, Starbucks can pull its contract.

“So you are going to require your third-party suppliers to allow their workers to organize, but you are going to stand in the way of your workers who want to organize?” Eisen says. “If Starbucks really was the company that they proclaim to be, they would have signed our fair election principles the moment we had a majority to organize, and they would have allowed us to move forward with our vote, and then they would have gotten us to the bargaining table already.”

Eisen says this kind of messaging has been key to showing how the company’s union-busting tactics are more than just the predictable behavior of typical corporate behemoths, and that it’s even more sinister because it’s a clear contradiction of the company’s own supposed “ethos” — one that the baristas say they still want to be a part of. “Our whole goal has been to express that we love where we work, or else we wouldn’t be trying to make changes from the inside out,” she says.

But, as In These Times has reported, the makeup of Starbucks’s board of directors is decidedly anti-union: It’s chock-full of anti-union executives who represent some of the nation’s biggest union-busting corporations as well as industry groups like the Retail Industry Leaders Association that have spent millions lobbying to roll back labor rights and against the Protecting the Right to Organize Act. At least 8 of the 11 board members, including CEO Johnson, have represented companies with anti-union track records or have worked with companies or groups facing allegations of workers rights’ violations.

Yet Buffalo baristas say they are poised to overcome the corporate board’s anti-union tactics and resources. The union drive built momentum this week as Starbucks Workers United organizing committee members held a livestreamed town hall-style event with Independent Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders on the senator’s website. Senator Sanders met with organizing committee members last week after tweeting his initial support for the union drive.

Independent Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders listens during a virtual town hall-style event with Starbucks Workers United organizing committee members on December 6, 2021.
Independent Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders listens during a virtual town hall-style event with Starbucks Workers United organizing committee members on December 6, 2021.

Sanders told organizing committee members that they’re an “inspiration” to him, saying that, “After a day at the United States Senate, it is a pleasure to see folks stand up and fight for what’s right, for justice, for workers’ rights.”

Workers committee organizing members say they are already planning for what comes next, after they win their first unionized corporate location. They say that, rather than fearing the company could take the drastic and illegal step of shuttering locations that may vote to unionize tomorrow, they expect more problems from bargaining their first contracts, in which workers will seek higher seniority pay and a voice in the company’s policies and procedures, including potentially even representation for hourly baristas at board meetings.

“We’re expecting delays, any sort of loopholes or workarounds,” Camp Road shift supervisor Reeve says, noting that continued public support will be key once the more high-profile union fight fades from national headlines. “This isn’t fizzling out any time soon. We won’t rest until every Starbucks in the country that wants a union can have one without any sort of interference.”

For many of the company’s more than 9,000 corporate locations that are eyeing their own campaigns after tomorrow’s results, organizing committee members say a positive message will remain key for the next wave of fights. In fact, organizing committee members already networking with workers at several other locations across the country who have reached out for advice about how to unionize their stores. The union wave has already spread to the Greater Boston area, with three Somerville coffee houses recently announcing plans to unionize with the New England Joint Board UNITE HERE this week.

“We’re not anti-Starbucks. We are extremely pro-Starbucks, and we want Starbucks to hold out on the accountability that they say they’re trying to give to us, and they say they have given to us the entire time they’ve been a company. We haven’t seen it, and this is the only way we feel we can guarantee accountability coming back into the company. We just want Starbucks to be better,” says shift supervisor Krempa from Buffalo’s Depew location.