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Unionization Wave Spurred by Starbucks Workers Is Spreading Across Buffalo

Workers at Elmwood Taco and Subs, an iconic local food shop, are continuing the wave of worker-led organizing.

Elmwood Taco and Subs workers standing in front of their Buffalo, New York, store.

Buffalo, New York, has been a key hub within the current uptick of worker-led, store-level union organizing, especially among baristas and food service and grocery workers. From SPoT Coffee to Starbucks, the Lexington Co-op to Remedy House, the city has generated a collection of inspiring union victories and a growing layer of skilled labor organizers.

Now, another well-known Buffalo shop may be joining the union ranks. Around two dozen workers at Elmwood Taco and Subs (ETS), the city’s popular food shop, are voting on a union tomorrow. Workers went public with their union on October 23, citing a range of grievances and a desire for better treatment from management.

Since announcing their union, ETS workers told Truthout that they’ve faced numerous instances of employer retaliation and have been subjected to a captive-audience meeting. Workers United, the union representing the ETS workers, has filed a charge with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) that alleges 17 unfair labor practices.

Despite the pushback, workers have remained determined and confident in victory, boosted by their own culture of friendship and solidarity, and supported by others in the Buffalo-area labor movement.

“I really feel like we’ve got an amazing chance here to turn things around and make sure that people are paid living wages and not struggling,” said ETS Shift Supervisor Zach Eyler. “We’re fighting for what’s right for everybody.”

“It’s Just a Systemic Problem”

If you’re a Buffalonian, you almost certainly know about Elmwood Taco and Subs, a mainstay in the heart of the city’s iconic Elmwood Village. You’ve probably even stopped by ETS after a late night out or to soothe a morning hangover. It’s a fun place for customers.

But behind the counter, workers say it’s a different story. Truthout spoke with several unionizing ETS workers who described a deeply stressful work environment and major grievances around everything from hours and wages to sick pay policies.

Workers say they were promised raises over the summer that they never received. They say they are penalized for missing a shift even if they find a replacement, and that their hours can change significantly from week to week, leaving them struggling to pay their bills. They say their shifts are moved around without proper communication.

Workers said that owners only give them a half day of sick pay even when they take a full day off because they are sick. One worker, Abel Lopez, said the owners have asked for a doctor’s note when workers call in sick. “That really made everyone upset,” Lopez told Truthout. “Some people just get a common cold.”

Workers Truthout spoke with added that these workplace issues stem from a larger problem at ETS: the management style of the co-owners. Workers overwhelmingly spoke of a stressful work environment, created by the two sibling co-owners who manage ETS, marked by fear, anxiety and micromanagement.

Workers say management controls and intimidates workers through a write-up system. Some expressed fear of being ridiculed or yelled at by the owners. “They just give a lot of people anxiety,” said Lopez. “We all fear that we will lose our jobs.”

Since the union was announced, workers say the hyper-control has gotten worse, with the owners now constantly in the store, closely watching them. It makes work “50 times more difficult” when they’re there, said Shift Supervisor Violet Seguin.

ETS is owned and run by the Lucchino family. Ron Lucchino opened the store in 1975, and his children, Jackie Kooshoian and Mike Lucchino, now run ETS. The Lucchinos have extensive property holdings in Buffalo, having accumulated parcels for nearly a half-century. They own the bulk of the coveted Elmwood Avenue block that ETS calls home.

ETS workers told Truthout the owners have made comments about their appearances that they feel are inappropriate. Many are upset over recent firings of cherished coworkers that they feel were unjustified.

“It’s just a systemic problem,” said ETS worker Ash Shanahan.

“I’m Going to Fight for My Coworkers and My Friends”

In early September 2023, a few ETS workers met with some organizers from Workers United Upstate New York, whose ranks include former Starbucks baristas who, in 2021, initiated the current union drive at the retail coffee giant. They spoke for hours. ETS workers were unsure about trying to unionize for fear of retaliation, but the conversation with Workers United convinced them that something had to be done.

“They really helped us all understand what the point of the union is,” said Seguin. “It’s to help workers get our voice out.”

Buffalo offered a supportive setting for ETS workers. The first Starbucks to unionize in late 2021 is literally right next to ETS. Workers knew about other local food and coffee stores that have unionized — SPoT Coffee, the Lexington Co-op, Remedy House — and have friends who work in those places. Workers United, and its embrace of worker-led, store-by-store organizing, has a growing presence in Western New York.

Some workers remember seeing the first Starbucks store unionize in December 2021, right next to ETS. “We saw them unionizing,” said Eyler, “and we were like, ‘God, we wish that were us.’”

Eyler knew about unions from reading about the struggles of coal miners a century ago. “They fought for their rights, and they got them,” he said. “Who says we can’t?”

By mid-September, the union drive was on. ETS workers met in each other’s apartments. They joined group chats. There was a lot of enthusiasm about the union, even if it was coupled with some nervousness.

Shanahan, who had become increasingly frustrated with management decisions, heard about the union in early October. “I was like, ‘I’m totally down to do that,’” she said.

The friendships between many ETS workers were a major factor in the union’s growth. They care about each other. Some socialize outside of work. A union, they say, would mean stronger protections and better working conditions for their coworkers.

When Lopez heard about the union drive, he was immediately interested. “I love everybody at my job,” he said. “I was like, ‘Yes, I’m going to do it. I’m going to fight for my coworkers and my friends.’”

Shift Supervisor Seguin agrees. “I feel like the union brought us a lot closer,” she told Truthout. “We’re actually talking about our struggles together.”

The decision to go public with the union came quickly after the owners learned that workers were organizing. On October 23, a group of workers handed one co-owner a letter stating their intent to unionize. “We represent a majority of our coworkers and are requesting to bargain,” it said. It states grievances around firings, a write-up system, shift changes and the need for a raise.

“We stand together, and shall advance with the utmost confidence, professionalism and love for craft into the future of ETS,” the letter reads.

“I Feel Like They’re Working Me Twice as Hard”

ETS workers have been energized by their union drive. Many now sport union pins on the job. They have been making signs together and handing out leaflets in front of their store. They’ve been buoyed by the support in Buffalo, a region with 23.5 percent union density. They feel confident going into the November 28 NLRB vote.

At the same time, the lead-up to the vote has also been stressful. Workers tell Truthout they are experiencing retaliation for unionizing and facing numerous employer anti-union tactics.

The owners have constantly been in the store since they learned about the union, whereas before they were present much less, workers told Truthout. Some workers say their hours were cut after the union announcement, and organizers set up a GoFundMe to support them.

Workers say rules that were hardly mentioned or enforced before the union announcement, such as around phones and uniforms, are now strictly monitored. (Starbucks workers who have unionized have alleged similar management tactics.)

“It’s been pretty stressful the past couple of weeks because they’re over-supervising everyone now,” said Seguin. “I feel like they’re working me twice as hard.”

Truthout reached out to ETS for comment but did not receive a response.

Workers United has filed an unfair labor practice charge against ETS that they shared with Truthout. The charge includes 17 alleged unfair labor practice violations such as “surveilling employees using security cameras in the store,” “interrogating employees about their union activity,” and “threatening employees that the employer is going to change the schedules and restructure the workplace,” all “in response to union activity.”

The union says that ETS also held a captive audience meeting with workers to discourage unionization. The union showed Truthout photographs of a multipage handout that workers received that contains numerous anti-union talking points.

For example, it asks “Can the union actually deliver what it promises?” and then cites the lack of a contract, so far, for Starbucks Workers United — but fails to mention Starbucks’s historic union-busting campaign that has resulted in hundreds of unfair labor practices charges and numerous rulings that Starbucks has violated federal labor law.

The handout also states that “ETS Does Not Believe That a Union Is Necessary For Employees To Be Heard For Your Work In a Small Family Business.”

John Logan, an expert on the anti-union industry at San Francisco State University, told Truthout that employers use captive audience meetings to inundate workers with “anti-union propaganda” and foster fear and intimidation about unionization.

“Their purpose is really to terrorize employees. They want to create an incredibly tense, stressful atmosphere,” he said. “But of course, the thing that’s causing the stress for workers is the employer’s anti-union campaign and their captive meetings — it’s not the union.”

Logan notes that NLRB General Counsel Jennifer Abruzzo has pushed to make employer-run captive audience meetings illegal.

Workers say the ETS owners are also claiming that shift supervisors shouldn’t be included as part of the union’s bargaining unit because of their “supervisor” roles. ETS’s handout from the captive audience meeting says that it “reserves the right to challenge any vote by any supervisor in the election, or any attempt to include any supervisor in the union.”

But ETS workers that Truthout spoke with say shift supervisors don’t possess real managerial authority, including hiring and firing power, and mostly do the same work as everyone else.

“Employer manipulation of the bargaining unit has long been a strategy in NLRB elections,” said Logan. Trying to cast workers as “managers” is “more common in smaller workplaces,” he said, “and it’s obviously particularly true if those workers are likely to be pro-union.”

All this has caused stress for some ETS workers. “I’ve lost a little bit of sleep over it,” Eyler told Truthout. But he remains undaunted in his support for the union.

“In the end it’s going to be worth it,” he said. “We’re doing the right thing.”

“We Just Want a Healthy Work Environment”

Workers hope a union will improve bread-and-butter issues for them. They want better wages, stable and sufficient hours, and better sick day policies, among other things.

But perhaps most of all, they want to transform their work environment to feel more supportive and safe. They believe a union will give them the power, voice and protection to do that.

“The biggest thing would be being able to go into work and just not be afraid of being punished or reprimanded,” said Eyler.

“The union will help to negotiate better working conditions,” said Lopez. “We finally have a team to back us up. My coworkers aren’t scared anymore.”

ETS workers told Truthout that their goal in unionizing isn’t to damage ETS but to make the store a better place for everyone.

“I hope that our bosses understand that we’re not trying to hurt the business,” said Lopez. “We just want a healthy work environment and we just want the workers to be treated like normal human beings.”

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