Starbucks Workers Win Historic Union Election In Buffalo

The coffee chain may challenge the results, but it looks like Starbucks’ U.S. stores will no longer be 100% union-free.
A cup is handed through a Starbucks drive-thru window in Cheektowaga, a suburb of Buffalo, New York, on Dec. 8.
A cup is handed through a Starbucks drive-thru window in Cheektowaga, a suburb of Buffalo, New York, on Dec. 8.
Lindsay DeDario via Reuters

Starbucks workers in western New York notched a milestone union election victory on Thursday, voting to form the first union inside the coffee chain’s U.S. corporate-owned stores.

The new union, known as Starbucks Workers United, won the initial vote count in the first of three union elections held for a trio of stores in the Buffalo area, following a tally by the National Labor Relations Board. Workers voted 19-8 in favor of unionization at one store, and 8-12 against it at a second store.

The tally for the third store was inconclusive. Workers there voted 15-9 in favor of the union, but there were seven additional ballots challenged by either the union or the company. The NLRB, the federal agency that oversees union elections, must review those challenges and decide which of the ballots should count, and they are numerous enough to determine the outcome.

But the union’s apparent victory at the first store, which still must be certified by the board, suggests Starbucks will be expected to sit down and bargain with at least a couple dozen of its more than 200,000 U.S. workers. Starbucks employees who were part of the organizing effort celebrated at their union office in Buffalo and on Twitter.

“Today we did it, in spite of everything the company has thrown at us,” said Michelle Eisen, a barista at the store where the union won, on Elmwood Avenue in Buffalo. “We’d like to offer the olive branch to the company and say let’s put this behind us. ... Help us negotiate the best contract that the service industry has ever seen.”

The votes were the culmination of contentious dueling campaigns between the pro-union workers and company management. After the workers filed for elections this fall, Starbucks dispatched outside managers and executives to the Buffalo area for weeks. The company’s famous co-founder, Howard Schultz, even delivered a speech to workers at a local hotel where he tried to discourage them from unionizing.

“The coffee chain has roughly 9,000 corporate stores in the country, none of which have a union.”

Starbucks Workers United lambasted those eleventh-hour efforts as union-busting. The company’s counter-campaign certainly doesn’t appear to have accomplished its goal: to nip the nascent organizing effort in the bud. On top of the victory Thursday, the union has filed for elections at three additional Starbucks locations in the Buffalo area, and one more in Mesa, Arizona, although the NLRB has not scheduled votes for those stores yet.

Starbucks has roughly 9,000 corporate-owned stores in the U.S. It licenses out thousands more, some of which are unionized under employers other than Starbucks. But none of the stores operated by the company itself has a union until now.

Jaz Brisack, a barista at one of the Buffalo stores and an outspoken union supporter, predicted that Starbucks Workers United would make history on Thursday. She was highly critical of the company’s decision to send in outside management to the stores that were considering unionization, saying it was simply meant to pressure them to vote “no.”

“None of these elections, win or lose, were fair,” Brisack said Thursday.

Gianna Reeve, a shift supervisor at the store where the union lost, on Camp Road in Hamburg, New York, said she believed the union would have won there if not for the company’s campaign against it.

“My store was turned on its head by the union-busting tactics of Starbucks,” she said following the vote count.

The workers who’ve unionized represent just a tiny fraction of Starbucks’ workforce, but their campaign holds far more significance than the numbers would suggest. Starbucks is the most recognizable coffee chain in the world and hasn’t dealt with a U.S. union since its early days as a Seattle coffee brand. Supporters hope the organizing effort will spread not just to other Starbucks locations but to other service industry giants that have managed to stay union-free.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) summed up those aspirations in a town hall livestream he held with Starbucks workers earlier this week, saying an election victory would be “a major breakthrough — not only for Starbucks employees, but for all workers in the low-wage service industry as a whole.”

Union membership in the U.S. private sector has fallen to just 6.3%, though numbers are stronger in the public sector. In recent decades, companies like Starbucks have grown aggressive in countering organizing campaigns to keep unions out of their facilities. Starbucks Workers United filed charges with the NLRB accusing the company of illegally surveilling and coercing them, claims the company has denied.

Starbucks Workers United members meet at their office in Buffalo, New York, Dec. 7.
Starbucks Workers United members meet at their office in Buffalo, New York, Dec. 7.
Lindsay DeDario via Reuters

Starbucks hired the premiere management-side law firm Littler Mendelson to try to defeat the organizing effort. The company sought to enlarge the proposed bargaining unit by including stores throughout the Buffalo region, a move that, if successful, may have diluted the union’s support and forced it to broaden its organizing. Those legal efforts by Starbucks were shot down by the NLRB’s board, which now has a Democratic majority more friendly to workers.

If the election results are certified by the NLRB, then the workers who successfully unionized will face another looming battle: securing a first collective bargaining agreement. It can take years to win such contracts and not all workers are successful. In the case of Starbucks, the company would not want to offer workers significant pay hikes, better benefits and other improvements lest workers elsewhere unionize seeking the same.

Eisen said her goal was not to unionize every Starbucks in the country, or even to unionize a majority of them, but to win a solid contract that could serve as a “blueprint” for other Starbucks workers who want one.

“Unless we have a say and a democratic process … we will never have any sort of control over our own environment,” she said.

The Starbucks union will be part of Workers United, an affiliate of the 2 million-member Service Employees International Union, which orchestrated the Fight for $15 campaign that has raised wages in fast food and other low-wage industries. The core group of pro-union workers were advised by longtime organizer Richard Bensinger, a former organizing director for the AFL-CIO labor federation.

Bensinger told HuffPost ahead of the vote count that winning at least one of the elections was crucial, to gain a toehold inside the company and to show workers elsewhere it was possible to win.

“It’s going beyond Buffalo,” Bensinger predicted.