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SB Workers United

Vote Begins on Historic Starbucks Union Election

Three stores in Buffalo are voting to join Workers United, SEIU

Brian Young's picture
Nov 10, 2021

For 50 years, baristas at Starbucks have been making lattes. In those 50 years, the company has expanded to be a worldwide staple in the coffee industry. As the company expanded, its workers have felt left out and now some in the Buffalo New York area are looking to change that by forming a union.

Starting this week workers at three Buffalo area Starbucks locations will begin a vote on whether they will join Workers United, an affiliate of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). Ballots are being mailed out on the evening of Wednesday, November 10th and the election will continue for one month until December 8th. The vote was approved by the NLRB’s regional office in Buffalo last month, although the company is continuing to appeal that decision to the full NLRB. However, the vote will proceed while the appeal is heard. In the company’s appeal, Starbucks argues that all 20 Buffalo area locations should be included in the vote instead of just the three that organized and filed for the election. This is a common tactic employers use to increase the size of the bargaining unit to include a lot of workers who have not yet been spoken to about organizing. 

The union effort became public in late August when workers at the three locations filed for a union election with the NLRB. Since then, Starbucks has dispatched managers and out-of-state employees to the stores to try and convince the workers to vote against the union. While the company claims they were sent to fix operational issues, the union says they were sent to intimidate the workers. Workers United has filed unfair labor practice charges against the company for their union-busting actions.

According to workers who sat down with Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, Starbucks has sent in 6-10 executives, some right off the plane from Seattle wearing Armani suits, to sweep the floors and clean toilets to give the impression that they care about the Starbucks workers. They say this behavior began two days after they filed for the union. One employee, William Westlake, said that when you would come in there were three people already there who were watching the workers all throughout the shift and when those three left, they were replaced by three more people. He said this forced the pro-union workers to only have union conversations with their “on the fence” coworkers in the back of the store away from the prying eyes of management. Another employee, Lee Want, said that workers were also forced to attend “listening sessions” but that these meetings quickly turned into captive audience meetings where bosses would attack the union.

Former AFL-CIO Organizing Director Richard Bensinger said that Starbucks has put so much effort into stopping this union drive that there are more executives in Buffalo from Starbucks than there are workers voting to join the union. He described it as the largest, most intense, and most hostile anti-union drive that he has ever seen.

The company even flew in former Chief Executive and their largest shareholder Howard Schultz. The company closed stores in the area on a Saturday so workers could attend a speech by Schultz where he said “We’re not a perfect company. Mistakes are made. We learn from them, and we try and fix them.” He argued that the company’s history of doing right by its employees, including offering them health care benefits and equity, showed that it had their interests in mind. Workers also criticized Schultz after the speech for using a Holocaust analogy during his speech when he said that only a small portion of prisoners in German concentration camps received blankets but often shared them with fellow prisoners. “So much of that story is threaded into what we have tried to do at Starbucks is share our blanket,” Mr. Schultz said, according to the transcript.

“Felt like it wasn’t a very appropriate analogy,” said Colin Cochran, a barista and union supporter in Buffalo whose store is not one of the three scheduled to hold an election, in a text message to a NY Times reporter.

The union also says that Starbucks has begun transferring workers into the three stores to try and dilute the pro-union vote.

So what has finally pushed workers, after 50 years to organize a union at Starbucks? Workers in Buffalo told the New York Times that chronic understaffing, insufficient training, and pay increases that fail to keep up with seniority were all reasons that they decided to organize. They also say that they believe joining the union will give them a voice in resolving problems that arise on the job.

While it appears that in August, the union had near 100% support, recent changes by Starbucks to pack stores with employees from local stores that have been “closed” for remodels may have doubled the number of eligible voters, creating new challenges for the workers organizing. This will surely make it harder to win the election, but could also show workers throughout the Starbucks footprint that workers can stand up and win, even against the giant in the coffee industry.

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