Organized labor could gain a long-sought toehold inside one of the world’s largest restaurant chains this week when federal officials are expected to count the votes in a series of union elections at three Starbucks locations in upstate New York.
A victory for the union, named Starbucks Workers United, would create the very first unionized corporate-run Starbucks in the U.S.
The company owns nearly 9,000 stores across the country. (It also licenses thousands more, some of which are already unionized.) While the three stores in and around Buffalo cover only around 100 workers combined, a union at just one Starbucks-owned store may lead to campaigns at many more. It could also give U.S. unions a public boost after losing a closely watched election at an Amazon warehouse in Alabama earlier this year.
In a sign of how much the company believes is at stake, Starbucks has been sending outside managers and executives to the upstate stores for weeks, telling “partners,” as the company calls its employees, that it wants to fix whatever led them to file union petitions. The company even dispatched chain co-founder and near-presidential candidate Howard Schultz to Buffalo, where he spoke to workers at a hotel and delivered an ill-advised Holocaust analogy last month.
For Casey Moore, a barista involved in the organizing effort, all the attention from corporate headquarters in Seattle suggests how much power a union could wield. Merely filing for an election, she said, has prompted Starbucks to scramble in an effort to improve things.
“It just goes to show they’re so scared of what we can potentially do with just the threat of a union,” said the 24-year-old Moore, whose Buffalo Starbucks has not yet petitioned for an election. “Imagine what we could get them to agree to if we actually had a union.”
A Starbucks spokesperson referred HuffPost to a public letter in October from Rossann Williams, president of the company’s North America operations. Williams said it was “heartbreaking” that some workers in New York “don’t feel the partnership we pride ourselves on having.”
“We are asking partners to vote ‘no’ to a union — not because we’re opposed to unions but because we believe we will best enhance our partnership and advance the operational changes together in a direct relationship,” Williams wrote.
The company has also filed motions with the National Labor Relations Board trying to enlarge the size of the bargaining unit, which would require the union to organize more workers. The board has not yet ruled on the company’s latest effort to stop the ballots from being counted, so it’s not certain that the votes from the four-week mail-in elections will be tallied on Thursday as scheduled.
Last month, the union filed an unfair labor practice charge against Starbucks, alleging the company illegally surveilled and intimidated workers. The company denies the claims.
“They’re so scared of what we can potentially do with just the threat of a union.”
Meanwhile, the union has already filed for elections at three additional Buffalo-area stores. The union has also petitioned for an election at a location in Mesa, Arizona, suggesting momentum behind the nascent campaign.
The Starbucks union would be part of Workers United, an affiliate of the Service Employees International Union. (Starbucks has a unionized corporate-owned store in Victoria, British Columbia, where workers joined the United Steelworkers and recently ratified their first contract.)
A union needs at least 30% of workers in an expected bargaining unit to sign cards authorizing an election, and more than 50% of workers must vote in favor of the union for it to win. Richard Bensinger, a longtime labor organizer and former organizing director at the AFL-CIO helping the Starbucks workers’ campaign, said the union gathered union cards from at least 80% of employees at any store where it has filed for an election.
Such a supermajority normally bodes well for a union, but is far from a guarantee of victory — especially when the company carries out an aggressive counter-campaign.
Starbucks has hired Littler Mendelson, a premier law firm that helps employers facing organizing drives, to handle litigation before the NLRB. While the company hasn’t brought in anti-union consultants to pressure employees in face-to-face meetings, workers say managers have been holding group meetings and one-on-one talks aimed at dissuading unionization. One worker said he ended up alone in such a meeting with nine managers.
Williams, the president of Starbucks North America, has not only been a steady presence in Buffalo, but has been seen sweeping the floors, as a September photo from the union showed.
“That would be like Jeff Bezos going to [an] Amazon [warehouse] for three months. It’s loony,” said Bensinger. “It’s a false narrative that they came here to help. They came here to disrupt. It’s not very honorable.”
Jaz Brisack, a union supporter voting in one of the elections this week, said the presence of additional managers made it trickier to discuss the union openly at work, since some employees wouldn’t want supervisors to know they support organizing.
“There’s always someone from corporate or one of these support managers that was flown in,” Brisack, 24, told HuffPost in October as the campaign was heating up. “It’s just created an atmosphere of intimidation.”
A Starbucks spokesperson said it was common for executives to visit regional stores and for managers to fill in at other locations that need help. The spokesperson denied that the visits were meant to intimidate anyone and said the company respects its workers’ right to organize.
The workers have drawn plenty of political star power to their cause. Both Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) sat down with pro-union Starbucks workers in Buffalo for roundtable talks. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) held a town hall livestream with Starbucks workers Monday night.
“If these Starbucks workers succeed in their organizing effort, it will be a major breakthrough — not only for Starbucks employees, but for all workers in the low-wage service industry as a whole,” Sanders said.
Bensinger said the attention the campaign has drawn shows “it’s going beyond Buffalo,” though he declined to discuss other areas of the country where Starbucks Workers United hopes to file for elections. He said winning at least one of the votes in Buffalo would show other union supporters within Starbucks that an election victory under the NLRB is possible.
“We’re really focused on Buffalo and trying to win one,” Bensinger said. “The fact that there would be a union in the company is really important.”
“It’s a false narrative that they came here to help. They came here to disrupt.”
Colin Cochran, whose Starbucks store is part of the second batch of three locations that have filed for an election, said the campaign has put him in touch with workers far from Buffalo. He recently spoke with workers at the Arizona store about shared complaints like staffing, scheduling and the number of bees that turn up in their stores.
“They literally have the same exact experience we do,” Cochran said.
He expects that following the elections some things will return to normal, “like the number of managers in our store.” But he hopes what started in upstate New York will spread to stores in other states.
“There’s a general level of excitement and comradery and getting to know our partners at a deeper level,” Cochran said. “There are a lot of good things that have come out of the union campaign already.”
Correction: This story originally misspelled the name of law firm Littler Mendelson.