Starbucks Baristas Declare Victory in Historic Union Election

A Starbucks in Buffalo is the coffee giant's first corporate-owned store in the U.S. to officially unionize.
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Photo by ELEONORE SENS/AFP via Getty Images
On the Clock is Motherboard's reporting on the organized labor movement, gig work, automation, and the future of work.

A group of baristas at the Elmwood Starbucks store in Buffalo, New York voted to unionize, becoming the first of the coffee chain giant’s 9,000 corporate-owned stores in the country to do so. 

The election was a landslide victory for the union with 19 workers voting in favor and eight workers voting against unionizing at the Elwood Starbucks store in Buffalo. The union lost the election at a second location, known as Camp Road, where workers voted 12-to-8 against unionization.

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A third election at the Starbucks’ airport location in Buffalo has not been called yet. Fifteen workers voted in favor of unionizing and nine workers voted against the union, but seven votes were challenged by the parties and will be reviewed by the National Labor Relations Board. The union needs a majority of votes to win that store.

The union drive has attracted national attention  amid resurgent enthusiasm for organized labor in the United States. In recent days,  Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and New York representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have visited the stores.

Workers hope to begin bargaining with Starbucks for seniority pay, lower healthcare costs, credit card tipping, sick pay, an accountability system for grievances, and improved health and safety protocols. 

The victory for the union sends a message not only to Starbucks workers around the country, but also to workers in low-wage, high turnover industries such as restaurants, fast food, and retail that have long evaded unionization in the United States. 

“It feels surreal and incredibly exciting,” Casey Moore, a barista at one of the unionizing Starbucks, told Motherboard. “I’m so excited to see other baristas at Starbucks and across the service industry say ‘if they can do it, we can do it here too.’ We can change the service industry.”

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Workers will join SB Workers United, which is part of Workers United, an affiliate of the Service Employees International Union, one of the largest unions in the United States. 

Meanwhile, Starbucks launched an aggressive counteroffensive to hamper pro-union sentiment, intimidate workers, and interfere with daily operations. The company held weekly mandatory anti-union meetings, temporarily closed unionizing stores, flooded stores with corporate executives, raised wages, and brought in Howard Schultz, the former CEO of Starbucks, to give an anti-union speech to workers in a hotel ballroom, as Motherboard previously reported. 

Workers say Starbucks has taken major steps to improve its relations with workers at the unionizing stores. Workers at one store complained about getting stung by bees from a beehive lodged in the store for months, but it wasn’t until they filed for a union election that Starbucks sent in an exterminator. 

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In a letter addressed to Starbucks baristas shared with Motherboard, Rosann Williams, the president of Starbucks North America responded to the news, “Partners in three Buffalo stores voted on union representation and the ballots were counted today. We had a split vote: one store voted to keep working directly together, one store voted to be represented by a union, and the third store doesn’t have a final result because some unopened “challenged” ballots can determine the tally. It may be some time before we know if or when those ballots can be opened and counted.”

“So what happens from here? Put simply, we continue on as we did today, yesterday and the day before that,” Williams continued. “These are preliminary results with no immediate changes to our partner relationship as the [National Labor Relations Board] process continues. Most important, the vote outcomes will not change our shared purpose or how we will show up for each other. We want to protect partner flexibility, transferability and benefits across all stores in a market or a district because we know that’s important to partners.”

For months—including on Thanksgiving Day—Williams, the president of Starbucks North America, was stationed in unionizing stores, pulling workers aside for one-on-ones, sweeping floors, and generally creating the impression of surveillance, workers told Motherboard. Other regional managers and Seattle-based executives have rolled up their sleeves to wash dishes and make lattes in unionizing stores. 

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These anti-union tactics have a long history of scaring and deterring workers from unionization, and Thursday’s victory comes against great odds. Earlier this year, Amazon warehouse workers voted against unionization at a warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama, in another high-profile union campaign. 

“This is a stunning victory that proclaims that Gen Z is Generation Union,” Richard Bensinger, a veteran labor organizer and a lead on the Starbucks campaign told Motherboard. “This victory will go down in labor history as a turning point in the decades-long decline of unions. It is a signal to other workers in the service sector that David can defeat Goliath.”

“These workers are following in the footsteps of previous generations of workers who unionized the auto factories and steel mills,” Bensinger continued. “If we are to rebuild the middle class, it will happen store by store, community by community, when workers seize back power from the corporate elites.”

The momentum began to spread even before election results were tallied. In November, three additional Starbucks locations in the Buffalo area filed for union elections, as as did a Starbucks in Mesa, Arizona. 

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“Although it’s a small number of workers, the result has huge symbolic importance and symbols are important when it comes to union organizing,” said John Logan, a labor expert at San Francisco State University. “Workers who want to form a union in the United States are forced to take a considerable amount of risk, and it helps if they can see others who have taken that risk and it has paid off. Thus, a victory at Starbucks is hugely important. Under the correct conditions, organizing, it appears, is contagious. And this has come when an expanding number and variety of workers are talking union.”

Starbucks also worked with the notoriously anti-labor law firm Littler Mendelson to delay and attempt to defeat the union drive. A National Labor Relations Board judge denied Starbucks’ request to delay the election at the three stores, where votes were tallied on Thursday. 

Anticipating a victory, Starbucks’ workers began celebrating on Wednesday on Twitter. “Today is the last calendar day without a unionized corporate Starbucks location in the United States of America,” they wrote. The post received thousands of likes.   

Starbucks has faced union drives before, including two efforts in the early 2000s in New York City, and a recent campaign in Philadelphia. A Starbucks store in Canada also recently unionized. 

There is a long road ahead for Starbucks workers to win a union contract that could improve their working conditions, and many opportunities for Starbucks to stall on negotiations. Starbucks workers say they are eager and ready to bargain with Starbucks management.