Starbucks Workers Just Unionized. Now The Real Fight Begins.

The battle for the first union contract at a U.S. Starbucks will require aggressive organizing — and could take years.
Starbucks workers in Buffalo celebrate their union election win on Thursday.
Starbucks workers in Buffalo celebrate their union election win on Thursday.
via Associated Press

Starbucks workers in Buffalo let loose shouts of joy on Thursday after winning a hard-fought election to form the first union in a corporate-owned Starbucks store in the United States.

But Jaz Brisack, a barista at the unionized location and public supporter of the union, had no illusions that the battle was finished.

“Our fight isn’t over until we get a contract,” the 24-year-old declared in a press conference after the win.

The election victory is just the first round in a potentially long struggle between the nascent union, Starbucks Workers United, and the biggest coffee chain in the world. Workers at Buffalo’s Elmwood Avenue store have earned their seat at the table with the company, but they won’t reap all the benefits of unionization until they secure a first collective bargaining agreement.

Meanwhile, Starbucks workers at another Buffalo-area store rejected the union, and the results of the election at a third store were inconclusive after an initial count, but the tally was leaning toward another win for the union.

Finalizing a first contract can be notoriously difficult, in large part because companies often drag out negotiations and hope union support will weaken over time. Starbucks has roughly 9,000 corporate-owned stores in the U.S., with 220,000 workers in them. Now that the union has a toehold, there is little incentive for the company to offer the Buffalo workers an attractive deal that could encourage other shops to unionize.

Most employers in Starbucks’ position would rather send a message to employees that a union gains nothing and organizing is futile; they want to reach a contract with only weak gains for the workers or, ideally, no contract at all. The most aggressive companies react to unionization at a single store or two by simply shutting those locations down and prompting a legal fight over the closures.

‘There Are Many Ways To Be Unreasonable’

For a company as high-profile as Starbucks, such a move would risk scandal. A less provocative strategy, experts said, would be to stall in negotiations, bargain in bad faith or barely bargain at all, hoping that turnover would naturally purge union supporters over time.

“One of the reasons that employers resist the first contract is there is nothing to force them to bargain. There are no penalties,” said Kate Bronfenbrenner, director of labor education research at Cornell University’s Industrial and Labor Relations School. “The worst that’s going to happen is there is going be a letter [from the labor board] telling them to bargain. There’s nothing to lose by just not cooperating.”

Bronfenbrenner’s research has shown that some employers spend years slow-walking a first contract. A paper she published in 2009 found that just under half of successful union campaigns resulted in a first contract within a year, and in a quarter of cases, workers still didn’t have one after three years.

A more recent analysis from Bloomberg Law showed an average of 409 days between a union being certified and winning that first contract.

“One of the reasons that employers resist the first contract is there is nothing to force them to bargain.”

- Kate Bronfenbrenner, Cornell

Starbucks may choose to fight the election results before sitting down to negotiate with the union. The company argued before the National Labor Relations Board that the bargaining unit was not appropriate and should have included all locations in the Buffalo region, rather than just individual stores. That effort, which did not succeed, would have diluted the union’s support and forced it to do far more organizing. But Starbucks can continue to make that case post-election if it chooses, potentially even bringing it to federal court to argue the results should be nullified.

A Starbucks spokesperson declined to say whether the company would fight the election results and how it would approach bargaining. Rossann Williams, president of Starbucks North America, who was a steady presence in Buffalo throughout the campaign, said in a letter to employees Wednesday that “these are preliminary results with no immediate changes to our partner relationship as the NLRB process continues.”

Longtime labor organizer Gene Bruskin said he expects Starbucks to challenge the election, if only to buy more time.

“After that, I think they really have no choice except to bargain in bad faith, and stretch out the meetings. There are many ways to be unreasonable,” Bruskin said.

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

Some companies manage to drag out bargaining long enough to start a viable decertification campaign ― that’s when workers petition for an election to remove the union as their bargaining representative. In fact, in Howard Schultz’s book “Pour Your Heart Into It: How Starbucks Built a Company One Cup at a Time,” the longtime Starbucks CEO wrote approvingly of how workers in the company’s early days decertified the union at their roastery and a handful of cafes.

Dave Schmitz, who was head of organizing at the United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 1001 at the time, told HuffPost in 2019 that the company was fierce at the bargaining table, trying to reduce workers’ health benefits and strip out their right to “just cause,” a standard provision in union contracts that protects workers from arbitrary firings.

A Contract As A ‘Blueprint’

All of these possibilities, Bruskin said, make it essential that workers approach the contract fight as an escalation of the battle that has already begun.

Plenty of baristas come and go, but the union will want its shop-floor leaders to stick around for the long haul. Michelle Eisen, one of the most public faces of the campaign, has worked for Starbucks for 11 years.

And the union would need to keep organizing more stores, build public and political support and expand its campaign, as it has indicated it intends to. If it ends up with just one or two stores duking it out with the company for a contract, it’s far less likely that the workers would be able to secure meaningful gains.

“I think they really have no choice except to bargain in bad faith.”

- Labor organizer Gene Bruskin on Starbucks

The union has filed for three more elections in the Buffalo area and one more in Mesa, Arizona, though the NLRB has not scheduled any votes yet. Adding more unionized stores would enable the workers to aid one another in a contract fight, carrying out job actions and potentially even strikes. They could try to turn western New York into a regional Starbucks union stronghold where the local activists build a network.

Eisen said Thursday that her aspiration was not to unionize every Starbucks under the sun, or a majority of those in the U.S. “The success of this campaign, for me, will be getting a fair contract that any store that chooses to unionize can then utilize and use as a blueprint,” she said.

The Starbucks union is part of Workers United, an affiliate of the 2 million-member Service Employees International Union. Workers United has a complicated lineage but traces its roots to hard organizing campaigns in the textile industry; it recently unionized a large Canada Goose clothing facility in Canada.

Richard Bensinger, a former organizing director for the AFL-CIO labor federation, has advised the Starbucks workers on their campaign. In a chat a few days before the vote count, Bensinger did not try to predict how Starbucks would approach negotiations if the union won. He held out hope ― or at least pretended to ― that Starbucks would willingly bargain a solid contract.

“I’m optimistic that at the end of this Starbucks will listen to its partners if they vote for it, but who knows,” Bensinger said. “I really wouldn’t guess either way. But the partners will have huge, huge, huge public support ― in Buffalo and all around the country.”

Bronfenbrenner said she would not expect Workers United to shrink from the coming contract battle.

“The people working on this have had really tough fights,” she said. “They know what they’re doing and they’re not going to back away. They’re taking on the corporation nationally.”

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