Starbucks Promises To Bargain With New Employee Union

The coffee chain's workers have union elections brewing at a whole latte stores, but the road to a first union contract could be a bitter one.
Workers won a recent union election at a store in Buffalo with plans to hold several more.
Workers won a recent union election at a store in Buffalo with plans to hold several more.
Justin Sullivan via Getty Images

Starbucks posted a letter to its employees Monday saying it intended to bargain “in good faith” with the workers who recently voted to unionize in Western New York.

Rossann Williams, head of the coffee chain’s North America operations, said the company did not want a union inside its workforce but would “respect the legal process.”

“This means we will bargain in good faith with the union that represents partners in the one Buffalo store that voted in favor of union representation,” Williams wrote.

Workers in the Buffalo area held a trio of elections earlier this month to determine whether they would unionize. The union won the election at one store, on Elmwood Road in Buffalo, and lost at another, on Camp Road in Hamburg.

The results of the third election, for a store on Genesee Street in Cheektowaga, haven’t yet been finalized due to challenged ballots, but the count is leaning in the union’s direction following the initial tally.

One question looming over the union’s recent victory is what sort of posture Starbucks will strike during bargaining. It can be notoriously difficult for newly unionized workers to secure a first collective bargaining agreement, due to the ability of employers to stall and drag out the process in hopes of wearing down union support. Research has shown that in a quarter of cases, workers still don’t have a first contract after three years of bargaining.

Williams said Starbucks intends to bargain earnestly, though no company would publicly broadcast its plans to bargain in bad faith.

“Our hope is that union representatives also come to the table with mutual good faith, respect and positive intent,” she said in her letter, which was first reported by The New York Times.

“We will bargain in good faith with the union that represents partners in the one Buffalo store that voted in favor of union representation.”

- Rossann Williams, president of Starbucks North America

Winning a strong agreement with solid gains will almost certainly require more organizing by the nascent union, Starbucks Workers United. The union is part of Workers United, an affiliate of the 2 million-member Service Employees International Union.

Jaz Brisack, a barista at the store that unionized, said after the vote count that the fight “isn’t over until we get a contract.”

“I’m optimistic that at the end of this Starbucks will listen to its partners if they vote for it, but who knows,” Richard Bensinger, a labor organizer working with the Starbucks employees, recently told HuffPost.

One certain way the union could increase its clout with the company is to win more elections and represent more employees. Starbucks Workers United has filed for three other elections in the Buffalo area, two more in Boston, and one more in Mesa, Arizona, although the National Labor Relations Board has not scheduled any votes yet.

Starbucks has 9,000 corporate-owned stores in the U.S., none of which were unionized until now. (Many of the workers at its licensed locations, such as at airports, are already covered by collective bargaining agreements.) The company went to great lengths to try to dissuade Buffalo workers from organizing, dispatching outside managers and even Williams, a top executive, to the stores where elections were being held.

The union filed objections with the NLRB fighting the preliminary results of the election it lost, claims the company waged an aggressive anti-union campaign that “dramatically and negatively affected the result of the vote,” according to a statement from the union. Starbucks has denied those allegations.

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