For The Starbucks Union Campaign, A Bruising Contract Fight Is Just Beginning

Recent statements by CEO Howard Schultz offer a glimpse of some of the hardball tactics that might lay ahead.

The organizing campaign at Starbucks has succeeded in unionizing nearly 20 of the coffee chain’s U.S. stores so far, a historic breakthrough for the labor movement. But the union effort is now in the early stages of an even heavier lift: negotiating a first contract.

Starbucks has every incentive not to offer the workers a satisfactory deal, since that would only encourage more workers to organize. From the perspective of the union, Workers United, securing solid gains in a collective bargaining agreement could turbocharge an already hot organizing drive, and bring many more of Starbucks’ 9,000 corporate-owned U.S. stores into the fold.

Both sides are now girding for what’s likely to be a bruising fight at the negotiating table, one that could ultimately determine the future of unions inside Starbucks.

“Developing a contract that meets or exceeds what we already offer to our partners is going to be difficult for them to do,” predicted Reggie Borges, a Starbucks spokesperson. “These contracts don’t start at the baseline of the benefits that our partners get. That is the full-stop rule. The contract negotiations start at zero.”

(After this story ran, Borges said he misspoke about contract talks “start[ing] at zero.” He said he meant to convey that “collective bargaining involves lots of variables, and nobody can predict the outcome.”)

Starbucks has already hinted at some of the hardball tactics that might lay ahead. CEO Howard Schultz suggested in a recent company forum that Starbucks could roll out new benefits that would apply everywhere but the unionized locations, since those stores are now negotiating their own work terms. “People who might be voting for a union don’t really understand,” Schultz said, according to The Wall Street Journal.

“Starbucks has every incentive not to offer the workers a satisfactory deal, since that would only encourage more workers to organize.”

One of the challenges for the union is consolidating its leverage against the company. The campaign, known as Starbucks Workers United, has been organizing the chain store by store, filing for elections at locations where union support is high. The company has pushed for larger elections that would encompass an entire market — like Buffalo, New York, which is home to the first store to unionize — but the National Labor Relations Board has rejected that argument and sided with the union.

The union’s store-by-store strategy is vastly more manageable than trying to unionize Starbucks nationally or market by market. But it technically leaves the union negotiating a contract for every store that joins.

Michelle Eisen, a union leader and barista at the first store to unionize, said the campaign views each Starbucks as distinct, and that applying the same exact contract to every outpost “would go against what we said we’ve wanted from the beginning.” Eisen said the union hopes to achieve what might be called a national framework for a union contract ― one that includes basic guarantees across union Starbucks stores, but allows individual shops to address their own concerns.

“There are aspects of the company that are consistent in these stores, but there are a lot of aspects that are not,” she said.

Michelle Eisen, fourth from right, speaks to members of the union campaign.
Michelle Eisen, fourth from right, speaks to members of the union campaign.
Via Associated Press

Eisen said she works at a small walk-in location, known as a cafe in company parlance, and that her store operates differently from a drive-thru store like the one in Mesa, Arizona, that recently unionized. Some contract language for one might not make sense for the other.

“We have to find the elements of stores that are consistent and that becomes a national framework ― but allowing for fluidity within the contracts that can cater to each individual store as well,” Eisen said.

Starbucks’ Borges said the company has no interest in hammering out national standards of any kind, no matter how many stores decide to unionize.

“From our perspective, the law and the NLRB granted the union their argument that each individual store is its own unit,” Borges said. “So now we move forward with individual contracts for each of those stores.”

Securing a first contract can be notoriously difficult in the U.S., in part because employers face no meaningful penalties for dragging out the process. It’s a common strategy for companies to bargain “in bad faith” and make no real progress at the table, in hopes union support will dwindle over time and perhaps the union will even be decertified, or purged from the workplace.

If only a handful of stores ultimately unionize, it would be easier for Starbucks to stifle the campaign. But the union has filed for elections at more than 200 stores, and so far they have lost only two of the more than 20 vote counts that have already occurred (the results have not been certified for some of them). At this pace, the union is likely to gain more leverage at the bargaining table and more public support.

“It’s clear that this is a very worker-led organizing drive, and the workers are in extremely good communication with each other,” said Rebecca Givan, an associate professor of labor studies at Rutgers University. “So we know that the workers that are already at the bargaining table at one store are going to try to get a broad understanding of what the workers everywhere want as they establish their demands.”

Borges assured the company would bargain in good faith: “We’re going to be respectful, we’re going to honor the process.” But achieving a contract could realistically take years, and will ultimately depend on the company’s willingness to reach one.

“It’s clear that this is a very worker-led organizing drive, and the workers are in extremely good communication with each other.”

- Rebecca Givan, Rutgers University

Starbucks has deployed dozens of lawyers from the union-avoidance law firm Littler Mendelson to slow the pace of union elections, and has dispatched Starbucks managers to persuade workers to vote against the union. But Givan said fighting a union effort at each store becomes less tenable as the campaign grows.

“It will be hard to maintain that strategy at potentially dozens of bargaining tables, especially when workers are fully aligned and in coordination with each other,” she said.

Starbucks has also fired a number of known union supporters. The company maintains that these terminations were all for legitimate reasons, but labor board officials have already determined that seven firings in Memphis were in response to union activism and therefore illegal. Bloomberg recently reported that the labor board will pursue a case against Starbucks if it doesn’t agree to a settlement.

As workers speak out about the company’s handling of the union campaign, Starbucks could face a backlash from consumers that affects its bottom line. The stakes could be even higher in an ugly contract fight if the union enlists labor-friendly politicians and other high-profile supporters willing to criticize the company.

Sharon Block, a labor law professor at Harvard University and former official in the Biden White House, said the brand dynamic is “hard to quantify,” but reputable considerations must figure into Starbucks’ calculus.

“I imagine it weighs on their decision-making,” she said. “It isn’t just about doing the [financial] math.”

If workers can successfully organize hundreds of stores, there may be a point in which Starbucks finds it in the company’s interest to acknowledge itself as a union employer and bargain accordingly, rather than continue to wage a battle at every store where a union petition pops up.

Eisen said she thinks about that prospect often, and wonders how much organizing it would take to get there. She said unionizing a single store takes much longer than one might expect. She believes public support for the campaign might matter more in the end than how many stores wind up in the union’s column.

“We get stronger, obviously, with every petition that’s filed and every store that wins,” she said. “The hope is that if the company is really who they’ve professed to be for the last 50 years, that there’s still room for them to make changes and get onboard and become the corporation that truly is progressive and leads by example.”

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