Calgary’s Starbucks Union Drive may have failed, but the biggest battle has only just begun
A union campaign by Starbucks workers at the Chinook Center food court in Calgary, Alta., failed to win the votes needed to certify a bargaining unit. The campaign’s failure is another display of the $24 billion company’s hostility to the labor movement.
Starbucks Canada was quick to file an appeal when it learned of the union’s candidacy. Since Starbucks employees can be loaned from location to location, the company argued that only “work-at-home” employees at the Chinook Center location should be able to vote. On March 16, after a week of unopened ballots due to company stalling tactics, workers at the Chinook Center learned that their attempt to unionize with United Steelworkers (USW) had failed.
Reached for comment, USW organizer for Western Canada and Northern Territories Pablo Guerra said:
It was quite a lengthy process for these workers as they faced multiple delays with the Alberta Labor Relations Board and anti-union tactics from their employer. Starbucks’ actions show why these workers need a union now more than ever. We will continue to fight for Starbucks workers across Canada because every worker deserves better.
Guerra blamed the door of Alberta’s ruling United Conservative Party (UCP), which, since its formation from the ashes of the right-wing populist Wildrose and Progressive Conservative parties, has made no secret of its anti-working-class animosity.
Guerra is asking the government to restore card control, which does not require a vote if more than 65% of employees sign union cards. Restoring the card verification system would allow workers to organize without fear of intimidation from the employer.
In 2017, the leftist New Democratic Party (NDP) was in power and reintroduced card check syndicate certification in the province. The return of the practice led to a substantial increase in unionization in Alberta. Card checking was eliminated by the UCP – in its second law once in power – fulfilling an election campaign promise made by Prime Minister Jason Kenney.
Bob Barnetson, professor of labor studies at Athabasca University in Edmonton, writing for the Parkland Institute, notes that “certification by card verification eliminates the ability of employers to interfere in what should be free choice employees”. Starbucks workers in Alberta are thus caught between the pincers of the company’s anti-union tactics on the one hand and of an aggressively anti-union provincial government on the other.
Amid a flurry of pandemic-fueled Starbucks labor campaigns across the United States, the company has bid farewell to its CEO Kevin Johnson. As the New York Times reports, Johnson’s abrupt departure was explicitly tied to the company’s declining image following efforts to end unionization.
The reason for the change of custody was explained in a letter sent to Johnson before his resignation by a group of Starbucks investors representing more than $1 billion in company stock. “We believe that Starbucks’ reputation could be damaged due to the reporting of aggressive union busting tactics,” the investors wrote.
But Johnson’s replacement is not a young Turk from whom significant changes in company policy can be expected. Starbucks chose to choose Howard Shultz as interim CEO – a man whose deep-seated hostility to organized labor is well documented. Starbucks stores and the Seattle roastery were union stores when Schultz bought the company in 1987. Schultz made it clear that union organizers were not welcome at his Starbucks.
“He went and shouted at me telling me to get out of the factory,” said Pam Blauman-Schmitz, the local union representative for the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW). Times of his first visit to the roastery under Schultz’s ownership. “He followed me all the way.”
Over the next few years, workers would vote for decertification—first in the stores, then in the roastery—a decision Schultz claimed in his autobiography was the initiative of a lone worker who “researched through himself”. Schultz summed up his philosophy on unionization by complaining that “if [workers] trusted me and my motives, they wouldn’t need a union.
Blauman-Schmitz said she believes the one union-busting worker who was instrumental in Starbucks’ decertification campaign was “handpicked” by Schultz. Dave Schmitz, who was a UFCW organizer at the time, told the Huffington Post that the company used heavy-handed tactics during negotiations for a second contract. Schmitz points to efforts to cut health benefits, remove protections against arbitrary dismissal and give the company the ability to change working conditions without consulting the union. Schultz, for his part, recalls assuming that the need to crush the union was a necessary precursor for Starbucks to be ready to become the global brand we know today.
A 2004 effort by the Wobblies (Industrial Workers of the World) to organize Starbucks locations failed, but it resulted in several National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) hearings. Evidence presented at the hearings exposed the company’s anti-union tactics and confirmed that leaders were working in a coordinated fashion to thwart union organizing efforts. These coordinated efforts included interviewing workers to determine if they were anti-union — or, in company terminology, “pro-Starbucks” — to fight union organizing efforts by assigning them to stores being unionization.
As recently as March 15, 2022, an NLRB prosecutor determined that Starbucks’ firing of two workers at a unionized Phoenix store was retaliatory in nature. The board has filed a formal complaint against the company – the first since the union organizing wave began in December 2021.
According to the complaint, an employee, Laila Dalton, who raised concerns with management about wages, hours and understaffing, was written off and then suspended. Another employee, Alyssa Sanchez, was denied schedule preferences and then fired, solely because of her support for unionization. If the complaint is successfully pursued by an administrative judge, Starbucks will need to inform its workers that complaining about working conditions is a protected activity.
The NLRB is also set to hear charges related to Starbucks worker rights abuses at a Memphis store that laid off seven employees in February. The sackings took place after workers allowed a journalist into the store outside working hours to document their union campaign.
If the Chinook Center Starbucks had succeeded in its union application, it would not have been the first Canadian establishment. That accolade belongs to the Douglas Street drive-thru in Victoria, B.C., which signed its first union contract in June 2021 after voting to unionize in August 2020.
Although British Columbia is led by a New Democratic Party government that has successfully pledged to introduce card verification, it abandoned that promise in 2017 when it came to power in a coalition with the Party. British Columbia’s neoliberal green. That meant Starbucks workers had to hold a vote, running the same risk of losing as Calgary workers.
According to the USW, the three-year contract includes provisions protecting against violence and aggression in the workplace, allows up to ten days of paid leave for workers facing domestic violence and offers up to $2.47 the hour of salary increase based on seniority. the Globe and MailCanada’s leading national newspaper, called the deal “a rarity in an industry where union representation has traditionally been minimal.”
Izzy Adachi, a barista involved in the union campaign, told the World that workers would be abused by some customers “for weeks and weeks and weeks” without receiving any meaningful support from management. Adachi called a provision that allows workers to file grievances against management the contract’s “biggest win.”
Stephen Hunt, director of USW Canada, told the World cafes are generally difficult to unionize due to their small staff and high turnover. This fact seems confirmed by the events of the local election in Calgary, where there were only seventeen members, one of whom did not even vote.
However, high turnover also means that a failed union vote is not the end of organizing efforts. For the workers at Chinook Center Starbucks, it’s the start of a long process of challenging a huge corporation that is ready to throw its weight behind the scales against unionization.
While card checking is a valuable tool for organizing, successful votes in Victoria and elsewhere show that employer intimidation can be overcome. With an increasing number of Starbucks employees joining unions in the United States, the wave of Starbucks unionization in Canada is just beginning.