Starbucks is fighting to squash a unionizing movement, claiming it’s disruptive, but employees say the chain has fired over 85 pro-union workers.
A Starbucks in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood may look no different from any of the 15,000 other Starbucks stores in the U.S., but as a new union location, it’s part of a growing organizing movement.
The movement is growing so fast it’s prompting Starbucks to engage in what critics call an unprecedented union-busting campaign.
Jasper Booth-Hodges lives five minutes away from the union store in Hyde Park where he used to work.
“I have worked 40 hours a week for over two years at this company,” Booth-Hodges said. “I am one of the main openers.”
The former barista said he loved his job, for the most part.
“I had such good rapport with so many customers,” he said.
Then last month, Booth-Hodges said he was fired in retaliation for leading the union push.
“The fact that I was a really active part of the union organizing committee meant that they were going to find anything they could to get rid of me,” he said.
Starbucks denies that, telling Newsy that Booth-Hodges was terminated for violations of the company’s time and attendance policies.
Related StoryStarbucks Asks Labor Board To Halt Union Votes Temporarily
Nationwide, more than 230 locations have voted to join the Starbucks Workers United union since last December, with six of them being in Chicago.
In total, nearly three-quarters of all votes cast have been in favor of unionizing.
Labor experts say the speed and success of the movement is unheard of.
“There’s just no historical comparison to what they have achieved by winning election after election after election,” said John Logan, professor of labor studies at San Francisco State University.
But Starbucks is fighting tooth and nail to squash it, arguing that unions are disruptive to its relationship with employees.
Meanwhile, Starbucks Workers United tells Newsy the coffee chain has fired over 85 pro-union workers.
“I remember saying, ‘I’ve been here for 13 years. You can’t even explain to me why I’m being separated or provide me any details?'” said Sam Amato, former Starbucks employee.
When Amato was fired last month after 13 years on the job, all of his colleagues at his store near Buffalo, New York walked out in solidarity. A TikTok video of the incident, posted by the Union, has been seen nearly 30 million times.
A month later, Amato and his former colleagues are still on strike, picketing at the store every day.
“It just makes me a little emotional thinking about it,” Amato said. “But they’ve been so incredibly supportive, and I know that they they’re behind me 100%.”
Related StoryFeds: Starbucks Engaged In Unfair Labor Practices In Phoenix
Starbucks has racked up hundreds of labor violation complaints at the National Labor Relations Board, a federal enforcement agency.
Last week, the NLRB said Starbucks has been illegally withholding wages and benefits from thousands of union workers. In response, Starbucks is accusing the agency of being biased and colluding with union organizers to rig elections.
For labor expert John Logan, the problem lies with weak union protection laws that are too easy for giant corporations to ignore.
“The penalties for violating the law are not sufficient punishment for companies who are egregious lawbreakers like Starbucks,” Logan said.
Back in Chicago, Booth-Hodges is appealing his termination, while open to the possibility of getting his job back.
“I do plan on going back if I get reinstated, but regardless of that, this is so much bigger than just me getting reinstated or not,” Booth-Hodges said. “This is about letting corporations know that they can’t get away with this, that they need to be held accountable when they break labor laws.”
Starbucks alleges St. Louis labor board officials made special arrangements for pro-union workers to vote in person at its office.
Starbucks on Monday asked the National Labor Relations Board to temporarily suspend all union elections at its U.S. stores, citing allegations from a board employee that regional NLRB officials improperly coordinated with union organizers.
In a letter to the board chairman, Starbucks said the unnamed career NLRB employee informed the company about the activity, which happened in the board’s St. Louis office in the spring while it was overseeing a union election at a Starbucks store in Overland Park, Kansas.
The store is one of 314 U.S. Starbucks locations where workers have petitioned the NLRB to hold union elections since late last year. More than 220 of those Starbucks stores have voted to unionize. The company opposes the unionization effort.
Related StoryStarbucks Employees Push To Unionize
The Seattle coffee giant alleges that St. Louis labor board officials made special arrangements for pro-union workers to vote in person at its office when they did not receive mail-in ballots, even though Starbucks and the union had agreed that store elections would be handled by mail-in ballot.
In its letter, Starbucks referred to memos the regional office sent confirming that workers were allowed to come to the office and vote in person after the union told the regional office that some workers had not received ballots in the mail. The memos, citing “board protocol,” said the workers voted alone in an empty office, according to Starbucks.
“Because observers were not present, no one can be sure who appeared to vote, whether NLRB personnel had inappropriate communications with the voters, told them how to vote, showed them how to vote or engaged in other undisclosed conduct,” Starbucks wrote in its letter.
Starbucks said regional board officials also disclosed confidential information to the union, including which workers’ ballots had arrived in the mail to be counted.
Starbucks Workers United, the group seeking to unionize U.S. Starbucks stores, accused the company of trying to “distract attention away from their unprecedented anti-union campaign, including firing over 75 union leaders across the country, while simultaneously trying to halt all union elections.”
“Workers have spoken loud and clear by winning 82 percent of union elections,” the group said in a statement. “Ultimately, this is Starbucks’ latest attempt to manipulate the legal process for their own means and prevent workers from exercising their fundamental right to organize.”
A spokesperson for the NLRB said Monday that the agency doesn’t comment on open cases.
Press secretary Kayla Blado said the NLRB will “carefully and objectively” consider any challenges that Starbucks raises through “established channels.” Starbucks can also seek expedited review in the case, Blado said.
Workers at the Overland Park store petitioned the NLRB to hold a vote in February. In April, workers voted 6-1 to unionize, but seven additional ballots were the subject of challenges from Starbucks or the union. A hearing on those challenges is scheduled for Tuesday; Starbucks has asked for that hearing to be delayed.
Starbucks said there is evidence of misconduct in other regions as well. The company wants the NLRB to thoroughly investigate other Starbucks union elections and make public a report on its findings. The company said the board should also implement safeguards to prevent regional officials from coordinating with one party or another.
Starbucks also asked the NLRB to issue an order requiring all pending and future elections to be conducted in person with observers from both sides.
“If the NLRB does not respond by investigating and remedying these types of actions, we do not see how the board can represent itself as a neutral agency,” the company said in the letter.
Starbucks has long opposed unionization, dating back to CEO Howard Schultz’s acquisition of the company in the late 1980s. The current unionization effort has been riddled with accusations and lawsuits on both sides.
Starbucks Workers United has filed 284 unfair labor practice charges with the NLRB against Starbucks or one of its operators, according to the labor board. Starbucks has filed two charges against Workers United.
Earlier this month, the labor board dismissed one of the charges filed by Starbucks, saying the company failed to prove that pro-union workers blocked store entrances or intimidated customers during a spring rally.
In June, the NLRB asked a federal court in western New York to order Starbucks to stop interfering with unionization efforts at its U.S. stores. It also asked the court to order Starbucks to reinstate seven Buffalo employees it says were unlawfully fired for trying to form a union. That case is pending.
But the NLRB’s actions against Starbucks haven’t always been successful. In June, a federal judge in Phoenix ruled that Starbucks didn’t have to rehire three workers who claimed that the company had retaliated against them for organizing a union.
Starbucks isn’t the only large company facing a unionization effort that has attacked the voting process.
Related StoryFeds: Starbucks Engaged In Unfair Labor Practices In Phoenix
Amazon has also levied accusations of improper conduct against the NLRB’s regional office in Brooklyn in its attempt to re-do a historic labor win at a warehouse on Staten Island, New York. Among other allegations, Amazon said the agency tainted the voting process by seeking reinstatement of a fired Amazon worker in the weeks leading up to the March election.
Attorneys representing the e-commerce juggernaut argued their case in an agency hearing during the summer. Attorneys for the agency have pushed back. A regional director for an NLRB office in Phoenix is expected to issue a ruling on that case in the coming weeks.
Most weekend mornings, Jaz Brisack gets up around 5, wills her semiconscious body into a Toyota Prius and winds her way through Buffalo, to the Starbucks on Elmwood Avenue. After a supervisor unlocks the door, she clocks in, checks herself for Covid symptoms and helps get the store ready for customers.
“I’m almost always on bar if I open,” said Ms. Brisack, who has a thrift-store aesthetic and long reddish-brown hair that she parts down the middle. “I like steaming milk, pouring lattes.”
The Starbucks door is not the only one that has been opened for her. As a University of Mississippi senior in 2018, Ms. Brisack was one of 32 Americans who won Rhodes scholarships, which fund study in Oxford, England.
in public support for unions, which last year reached its highest point since the mid-1960s, and a growing consensus among center-left experts that rising union membership could move millions of workers into the middle class.
white-collar workers has coincided with a broader enthusiasm for the labor movement.
In talking with Ms. Brisack and her fellow Rhodes scholars, it became clear that the change had even reached that rarefied group. The American Rhodes scholars I encountered from a generation earlier typically said that, while at Oxford, they had been middle-of-the-road types who believed in a modest role for government. They did not spend much time thinking about unions as students, and what they did think was likely to be skeptical.
“I was a child of the 1980s and 1990s, steeped in the centrist politics of the era,” wrote Jake Sullivan, a 1998 Rhodes scholar who is President Biden’s national security adviser and was a top aide to Hillary Clinton.
By contrast, many of Ms. Brisack’s Rhodes classmates express reservations about the market-oriented policies of the ’80s and ’90s and strong support for unions. Several told me that they were enthusiastic about Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, who made reviving the labor movement a priority of their 2020 presidential campaigns.
Read More on Organized Labor in the U.S.
Even more so than other indicators, such a shift could foretell a comeback for unions, whose membership in the United States stands at its lowest percentage in roughly a century. That’s because the kinds of people who win prestigious scholarships are the kinds who later hold positions of power — who make decisions about whether to fight unions or negotiate with them, about whether the law should make it easier or harder for workers to organize.
As the recent union campaigns at companies like Starbucks, Amazon and Apple show, the terms of the fight are still largely set by corporate leaders. If these people are increasingly sympathetic to labor, then some of the key obstacles to unions may be dissolving.
suggested in April. The company has identified Ms. Brisack as one of these interlopers, noting that she draws a salary from Workers United. (Mr. Bonadonna said she was the only Starbucks employee on the union’s payroll.)
point out flaws — understaffing, insufficient training, low seniority pay, all of which they want to improve — they embrace Starbucks and its distinctive culture.
They talk up their sense of camaraderie and community — many count regular customers among their friends — and delight in their coffee expertise. On mornings when Ms. Brisack’s store isn’t busy, employees often hold tastings.
A Starbucks spokesman said that Mr. Schultz believes employees don’t need a union if they have faith in him and his motives, and the company has said that seniority-based pay increases will take effect this summer.
onetime auto plant. The National Labor Relations Board was counting ballots for an election at a Starbucks in Mesa, Ariz. — the first real test of whether the campaign was taking root nationally, and not just in a union stronghold like New York. The room was tense as the first results trickled in.
“Can you feel my heart beating?” Ms. Moore asked her colleagues.
win in a rout — the final count was 25 to 3. Everyone turned slightly punchy, as if they had all suddenly entered a dream world where unions were far more popular than they had ever imagined. One of the lawyers let out an expletive before musing, “Whoever organized down there …”
union campaign he was involved with at a nearby Nissan plant. It did not go well. The union accused the company of running a racially divisive campaign, and Ms. Brisack was disillusioned by the loss.
“Nissan never paid a consequence for what it did,” she said.(In response to charges of “scare tactics,” the company said at the time that it had sought to provide information to workers and clear up misperceptions.)
Mr. Dolan noticed that she was becoming jaded about mainstream politics. “There were times between her sophomore and junior year when I’d steer her toward something and she’d say, ‘Oh, they’re way too conservative.’ I’d send her a New York Times article and she’d say, ‘Neoliberalism is dead.’”
In England, where she arrived during the fall of 2019 at age 22, Ms. Brisack was a regular at a “solidarity” film club that screened movies about labor struggles worldwide, and wore a sweatshirt that featured a head shot of Karl Marx. She liberally reinterpreted the term “black tie” at an annual Rhodes dinner, wearing a black dress-coat over a black antifa T-shirt.
climate technology start-up, lamented that workers had too little leverage. “Labor unions may be the most effective way of implementing change going forward for a lot of people, including myself,” he told me. “I might find myself in labor organizing work.”
This is not what talking to Rhodes scholars used to sound like. At least not in my experience.
I was a Rhodes scholar in 1998, when centrist politicians like Bill Clinton and Tony Blair were ascendant, and before “neoliberalism” became such a dirty word. Though we were dimly aware of a time, decades earlier, when radicalism and pro-labor views were more common among American elites — and when, not coincidentally, the U.S. labor movement was much more powerful — those views were far less in evidence by the time I got to Oxford.
Some of my classmates were interested in issues like race and poverty, as they reminded me in interviews for this article. A few had nuanced views of labor — they had worked a blue-collar job, or had parents who belonged to a union, or had studied their Marx. Still, most of my classmates would have regarded people who talked at length about unions and class the way they would have regarded religious fundamentalists: probably earnest but slightly preachy, and clearly stuck in the past.
Kris Abrams, one of the few U.S. Rhodes Scholars in our cohort who thought a lot about the working class and labor organizing, told me recently that she felt isolated at Oxford, at least among other Americans. “Honestly, I didn’t feel like there was much room for discussion,” Ms. Abrams said.
typically minor and long in coming.
has issued complaints finding merit in such accusations. Yet the union continues to win elections — over 80 percent of the more than 175 votes in which the board has declared a winner. (Starbucks denies that it has broken the law, and a federal judge recently rejected a request to reinstate pro-union workers whom the labor board said Starbucks had forced out illegally.)
Twitter was: “We appreciate TIME magazine’s coverage of our union campaign. TIME should make sure they’re giving the same union rights and protections that we’re fighting for to the amazing journalists, photographers, and staff who make this coverage possible!”
The tweet reminded me of a story that Mr. Dolan, her scholarship adviser, had told about a reception that the University of Mississippi held in her honor in 2018. Ms. Brisack had just won a Truman scholarship, another prestigious award. She took the opportunity to urge the university’s chancellor to remove a Confederate monument from campus. The chancellor looked pained, according to several attendees.
“My boss was like, ‘Wow, you couldn’t have talked her out of doing that?’” Mr. Dolan said. “I was like, ‘That’s what made her win. If she wasn’t that person, you all wouldn’t have a Truman now.’”
(Mr. Dolan’s boss at the time did not recall this conversation, and the former chancellor did not recall any drama at the event.)
The challenge for Ms. Brisack and her colleagues is that while younger people, even younger elites, are increasingly pro-union, the shift has not yet reached many of the country’s most powerful leaders. Or, more to the point, the shift has not yet reached Mr. Schultz, the 68-year-old now in his third tour as Starbucks’s chief executive.
She recently spoke at an Aspen Institute panel on workers’ rights. She has even mused about using her Rhodes connections to make a personal appeal to Mr. Schultz, something that Mr. Bensinger has pooh-poohed but that other organizers believe she just may pull off.
“Richard has been making fun of me for thinking of asking one of the Rhodes people to broker a meeting with Howard Schultz,” Ms. Brisack said in February.
“I’m sure if you met Howard Schultz, he’d be like, ‘She’s so nice,’” responded Ms. Moore, her co-worker. “He’d be like, ‘I get it. I would want to be in a union with you, too.’”
Starbucks Chairman and CEO Howard Schultz delivers remarks at the Starbucks 2016 Investor Day in Manhattan, New York, U.S. December 7, 2016. REUTERS/Andrew Kelly
Register now for FREE unlimited access to Reuters.com
April 15 (Reuters) – Starbucks Corp (SBUX.O) Chief Executive Officer Howard Schultz said there have been “a lot of false promises over the last few years” and assured his employees that those “days are over” in a video addressed to the company’s employees on Monday.
“We are going to make promises that we will keep, promises that are real and going to solve the problems that exist in your stores,” Schulz said in the video released to Reuters on Friday.
Schultz, who returned to lead the company for the third time last month, is in the midst of dealing with a growing union drive at U.S. cafes. read more
Register now for FREE unlimited access to Reuters.com
He added that he plans to focus on issues raised by employees in their “co-creation sessions” such as need for more training, need for guaranteed hours, problems with ice machines breaking, maintenance and repairs not coming in a timely manner.
“I have realized there have been many short term decisions that have had an adverse affect. We are going to reverse that,” the CEO who has been practically synonymous with the company he took over in 1987 said.
Baristas at more than 170 U.S. Starbucks locations have asked the NLRB for union elections since August, with at least 10 locations voting in favor of the Workers United union. read more
Last month, a federal labor board accused Starbucks of unlawfully retaliating against two employees in a Phoenix, Arizona, cafe for trying to unionize their store.
The same day, a group of investors with $3.4 trillion under management urged the company to stop sending anti-union communications to its employees and to adopt a neutral policy towards unions.
Register now for FREE unlimited access to Reuters.com
Reporting by Kannaki Deka in Bengaluru
Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.
Starbucks allows employees who work at least 20 hours a week to obtain health coverage, more generous than most competitors, and has said it will increase average pay for hourly employees to nearly $17 an hour by this summer, well above the industry norm. The company also offers to pay the tuition of employees admitted to pursue an online bachelor’s degree at Arizona State University, helping it attract workers with college aspirations.
The Status of U.S. Jobs
Such people, in turn, tend to be sympathetic to unions and a variety of social activism. A recent Gallup poll found that people under 35 or who are liberal are substantially more likely than others to support unions.
Several Starbucks workers seeking to organize unions in Buffalo; Boston; Chicago; Seattle; Knoxville, Tenn.; Tallahassee, Fla.; and the Denver area appeared to fit this profile, saying they were either strong supporters of Mr. Sanders and other progressive politicians, had attended college or both. Most were under 30.
“I’ve been involved in political organizing, the Bernie Sanders campaign,” said Brick Zurek, a leader of a union campaign at a Starbucks in Chicago. “That gave me a lot of skill.” Mx. Zurek, who uses gender-neutral courtesy titles and pronouns, also said they had a bachelor’s degree.
Len Harris, who has helped lead a campaign at a Starbucks near Denver, said that “I admire the progressivism, the sense of community” of politicians like Mr. Sanders and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Democrat of New York. She said that she had graduated from college and that she was awaiting admissions decisions for graduate school.
And most union supporters have drawn inspiration from their colleagues in Buffalo. Sydney Durkin and Rachel Ybarra, who are helping to organize a Starbucks in Seattle, said workers at their store discussed the Buffalo campaign almost daily as it unfolded and that one reached out to the union after the National Labor Relations Board announced the initial results of the Buffalo elections in December. (The union’s second victory was announced Monday, after the labor board resolved ballot challenges.)
Ms. Ybarra said the victory showed workers it was possible to unionize despite company opposition. “The Buffalo folks became superheroes,” she said. “A lot of us spent so much time being afraid of retaliation — none of us could afford to lose our jobs, have our hours cut.”