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Workers at First Unionized Starbucks Walk Off Job to Protest Working Conditions

The workers are protesting unsafe working conditions, especially management’s failure to address COVID-related concerns.

Workers from the Elmwood Starbucks are pictured on day 2 of their walkout on January 6, 2022.

On Wednesday, workers at the Elmwood Starbucks location in Buffalo, New York, walked off the job to protest working conditions, citing the company’s failure to address COVID-related safety issues.

According to the union, workers are protesting because they have been forced to work through “unsafe working conditions,” facing health concerns and understaffing.

Elmwood organizer Michelle Eisen called the walkout a “necessary stand.”

“Starbucks would rather let loyal employees walk than address critical issues regarding COVID,” Eisen wrote. “Corporate continues to put profits over partners. We’ve had enough.”

Eisen said in an interview with More Perfect Union that employees were stonewalled after sharing their concerns about COVID with the company over the past week.

“They said under no uncertain terms that as long as there are enough employees to meet the needs of the business then everything was being taken care of,” she said. “We’re not going to go back into the store until we feel that we’re safe.”

Starbucks workers have highlighted COVID-related concerns in the past. Workers say that they have been forced to come in while sick – a problem exacerbated by understaffing issues which have resulted in the company pressuring employees to come to work.

The protest comes weeks after the workers voted to form the first-ever union at a corporate-owned Starbucks location. Elmwood workers have reported receiving gifts from all over the country expressing solidarity with their union, including handwritten letters, tips and even an engraved plaque from the New York State Public Employees Federation.

Their win has inspired other Starbucks locations across the country to organize and even file petitions to unionize, sparking what could potentially become a wave of unionizations across some of the company’s 9,000 corporate-owned locations.

The unionization came amid a major resurgence of the labor movement, with workers across the country waging strikes and organizing their workplaces despite facing massive opposition. Though workers at Kellogg and John Deere recently ended long strikes after agreeing on contracts, some strikes that began last year are still ongoing; steelworkers in West Virginia, for instance, have been striking for higher wages and better benefits since October.

The Elmwood workers were joined by McDonald’s workers in Palmdale, California, who walked off the job on Wednesday to demand safer working conditions. Workers say that the company has failed to fix crucial equipment in the store like air conditioning, drainage and ventilation.

“Short staffing and the breakdown of kitchen equipment make it harder to do our jobs; we get yelled at while [McDonald’s] continues to profit,” wrote Fight for $15 LA on Twitter.

The renewed labor activism that has been springing up across the country has caught the attention and support of influential figures like Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont), who held a town hall on Wednesday to mark 2022 as “the year of solidarity.” During the town hall, Sanders reminded striking steel and coal workers that they are not just fighting for themselves, but for workers across the country.

“If they get away with slashing your health care – you’ve got strong unions, great unions – what do you think they’re gonna do to the guy who doesn’t have a union? If they’re able to slash wages and not keep up with inflation, what do you think they’re going to do to people who don’t have a union?” Sanders asked. “So by standing strong, you are representing not only your own membership, but also workers across this country.”

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