Starbucks employees organize themselves and management worries
In August, three Starbucks stores in Buffalo, New York, went public with their campaign to organize. They named their joint effort United Starbucks Workers.
In a classic anti-union strategy, the company responded by asking the National Labor Relations Board to force all other Buffalo Starbucks stores, twenty stores in total, to participate in a simultaneous vote – a move intended to catch workers in unattended locations. organizational. off guard and quickly foil the initiative. However, things did not go quite the way the company had planned. Since then, Starbucks Workers United has grown in popularity, with two more stores joining the organizing campaign in September. So this week, Starbucks raised the bar by announcing the closure of two of the Buffalo stores affiliated with the organizing effort.
While these aggressive tactics are new, anti-union campaigns and corporate messages are not. CEO Howard Schultz has meticulously created a culture at Starbucks with union deterrence in mind, with a strong emphasis on notions of “partnership” and “community” as a substitute for worker solidarity. Now Starbucks Workers United is using this inclusive and egalitarian language against the company. And this at a time when the trade union movement in the coffee industry is developing.
For decades, Starbucks has fought unionization through political strategies such as forming corporate groups opposed to changes in labor law. He has also consulted anti-union law firms on several occasions. But perhaps what the company relies on the most is the rhetorical strategy of insisting that Starbucks is a better place to work than other restaurant companies. All store employees are known as “partners” and the training material states that each cafe functions as a “third place”. Presenting Starbucks as a community to deter unions, or “the need for unions,” was an intentional move by Howard Schultz, CEO of the company since 1987. Schultz also began offering health benefits, which although certainly for the benefit of workers, were also designed to keep discussions on organizing at a distance.
The company likes to brag about its opportunities for advancement, but for baristas, it often comes down to little more than rhetoric. In 2019, the company implemented the Starbucks Coffee Academy program to replace the long-standing Coffee Master program. The Coffee Master Program was an almost entirely extracurricular activity with the stated intention of promoting the coffee expertise of the partners. Obtaining a certification as a coffee master demonstrated commitment to the business and, theoretically, made a given partner more likely to be promoted to team leader or manager. The reward for completing the coffee mastery program was a black apron (rather than the iconic green) and a title with no further raise or additional job protection.
The Coffee Academy program appears to train partners (and is open to non-partners) with essentially the same material as its predecessor. But as part of a new public-private partnership, the Coffee Academy program is offered online through Arizona State University and benefits from a tuition discount funded by Starbucks. (Uber has a similar deal with ASU.) Partial tuition fees are undeniably useful for workers who want to take college courses but struggle to pay for them. But as with the provision of health insurance, these benefits are being rolled out as an example of the company being so invested in the well-being of its workers that unionization, job security and better pay – enough pay. to cover, say, university courses – are unnecessary.
In mid-September, Starbucks senior executive Rossann Williams appeared in a widely disseminated image sweep the floor of a store in Buffalo. Williams’ performance was meant to symbolize her membership in the Starbucks community – to indicate that she, too, is a part of the team.
The narrative that all employees, regardless of rank and pay level, are contributing partners and are equally valued by the Starbucks community is little more than a brand-specific version of the often anti-union slogan. repeated “We’re family here.” As Ashley Rodriquez of the coffee industry newsletter Barista boss wrote, the “perks” offered and the “fun” environments in cafes are hanging in front of underpaid staff as bonuses that negate the need for a union.
As executives drop by to sweep the floors, management of individual Buffalo stores has also struggled to undermine the organizing effort by holding meetings with a captive audience, passing out. anti-union literature in the neighborhood, and sending mass texts ask partners to consult the online “hub partner” to read the same anti-union literature.
Starbucks Workers United is not the first effort to organize the company’s workforce. In 2004, some places in New York organized themselves with the International Workers of the World (IWW) under the name Starbucks Workers Union. The IWW then expanded the campaign to include stores in Chicago, Maryland, and Grand Rapids. The Starbucks workers union began organizing with grievances – over low wages, short notice for weekly hours, irregular hours – in the foreground. One of the organizers of the Starbucks workers’ union, Daniel Gross, was fired, resulting in a high-profile lawsuit.
Because the IWW works on the principle of solidarity unionism rather than employer recognition or towards contracts as an end goal, Starbucks Workers Union is not recognized by Starbucks. In addition to the IWW’s long-standing effort, an independent effort was launched in Philadelphia in 2019.
Starbucks employees in Buffalo don’t just carry on the legacy of the fight for a better Starbucks, they also represent a growing interest in organizing in the coffee industry in general. Upstate New York has a unique organizational heritage in the industry. Ahead of the Colectivo union election in September, SPoT Coffee in Rochester maintained the title of the nation’s largest coffee shop union, as its union had 130 employees across multiple stores. A year after having voted in favor of a union in 2017, the baristas of Gimme! Cafe in Ithaca, New York. voted unanimously to ratify their first contract. SPoT and Gimme! unionized through Workers United, the same union that Starbucks Workers United organized with.
The company has taken a keen interest in stopping organizing efforts in Buffalo, demonstrating that it sees the effort as a threat to the business in general. While this focused attention means Buffalo partners will face a more intense setback from businesses, the national focus on their efforts holds promise for Starbucks partners, as well as baristas working for others. companies.
Some baristas naturally felt anxious about the companies’ downturn, as the company succeeded in creating a “culture of fear” around the organization. This is a feeling familiar to other organizers of the coffee industry. On a 2018 panel of service industry grassroots organizers in 2018, barista Korbin Richards admitted it was intimidating to anticipate bullying from a company that claims to treat workers like family. , but she also noted that “fear is where most of the time in-depth work needs to be done”, and that “collective action is a way to dispel fear”.
Starbucks has more money, more lawyers, and more allies in big business and national media than any coffee shop or chain whose employees have attempted a similar campaign. Despite these challenges, Starbucks Workers United has a real chance of securing a major victory for itself, other Starbucks partners, workers in the coffee industry and the entire labor movement.
And whatever the outcome in Buffalo, the timeline of other union efforts in the coffee industry shows that despite increased animosity from management and business, the labor movement in the coffee industry is only growing.