By Jason Sibert
Like all major metropolitan areas in the United States, coffee lovers enjoy their Starbucks brew at outlets in the city and in the surrounding suburbs. And this means baristas in the Gateway City where I live are joining the highly publicized efforts to form unions in their respective stores.
“The union drive in Buffalo (New York) is what inspired me and the rest of the organizing committee to look at what was going on in our store and how things were run,” said Starbucks Shift Supervisor Calvin Scones who works at the Kings Highway and Chippewa Starbucks store in St. Louis. “A lot of us held leftist politics and were pro-union already. It was a very easy decision to make.” Scones describes the local effort as “100 percent organic and in the store.” He also said the baristas were heading in a union direction before reaching out to Starbucks Workers United, an organization leading the nationwide effort to organize baristas. Nationwide, over 50 Starbucks stores have voted to unionize.
Scones said issues involving long-time baristas, promised pay raises, racial discrimination, and the lack of action over faulty equipment make the job of an employee tough. He also said Starbucks’ pay does not provide a comfortable living. “The wage versus work gap, the amount of work they are having us do, especially the shift supervisor staff,” he said on working conditions. “Everyone on our organizing committee is a current shift supervisor or former shift supervisor that turned into a normal barista.” The shift supervisor said that he hopes a union will bring proper staffing and better equipment to his workplace. He said he “loves working,” but that he couldn’t do it “without the proper equipment.”
“Recently we’ve had a flux of over hiring,” said Natural Bridge Road Starbucks Trainer Alexia Smith. “It’s to water down sentiment in the stores. Basically, we’re trying to get people to have enough hours so they can have a living wage and provide for themselves. Right now, we have people that sometimes work four hours a paycheck, and if they’re lucky four hours a week. There’s been severe hour cuts and flooding the stores. The thing that got us talking about it was when Buffalo unionized.”
Stores in Buffalo, New York voted to go union in December and January. The tactic of sending several employees to a Starbucks store to water down the union vote is being employed in the organizing drive, said reports. Smith supports a son on a Starbucks paycheck. “It’s hard, when I started, I was getting full time hours,” Smith said on raising a child. “I was getting overtime, too. We got a new store manager and the stuff in New York (Buffalo) started happening. Lately, it’s been a struggle. I must go to food pantries. I’ve been trying to take care of my son. I want to make sure he’s healthy mentally and physically. I’ve been scraping by to make sure he’s well fed while I’m struggling myself.”
Like Scones, Smith said the effort started with employees concluding that a union was desirable. Then the Buffalo example pushed them over the edge. This led to Bridgeton employees contacting Starbucks Workers United (SBWU). Smith hopes to see a future at Starbucks with an equalized playing field. He sees an unequal distribution of power between workers and high management. “We want to be able to negotiate what we think is a fair, living wage and our benefits,” said Smith. Seniority, things like that, and we want people to have livable hours, instead of only working four hours a paycheck. It started out as something to where we can support ourselves, and it looks like it’s getting really big.” Smith said there are 200 stores that are attempting to organize.
Hampton and Wise Starbucks Shift Supervisor Riley Staack, like Smith, said it’s hard to survive on a Starbucks paycheck. “It’s not a livable wage,” Staack said. “An increased wage would be part of the reason for unionizing in our store. It’s not the sole factor, but it is a part of it.” She feels the company needs a little workplace democracy, feeling it would bring about better working conditions. “Forming a true partnership and a seat at the table in the company we work for,” the shift supervisor said on the power relations at her work. “I don’t think working conditions have to be inherently horrible to seek out unionizing. I grew up in a union household. So, I saw the good it did for my family and so have a lot of the other workers.”
Staack mentioned solid hours and more workplace safety as a goal in the drive. She said that she was not protected against customers who didn’t want to follow masking rules during the Covid-19 pandemic when working at a location other than her home store, but this wasn’t the only concern in terms of safety. “Our store shut down for a day because of a customer interaction when a customer became mad about something and became hostile and threw drinks back through the windows,” Staack said. “They left and came back and made threats against one of the workers and showed back up with ski masks. So, the store went into lockdown.” Staack heard the story from another employee but didn’t work on the shift. She said that management said that employees weren’t allowed to discuss the issue. “I would like to see a workplace that is more directly worker led, where we have more of a say in the day-to-day operations that we carry out.” She added that the employees are the most impacted by the workplace and not shareholders or chief executive officers “who make 9,000 dollars a minute.”
Management has been cold to employees since the organizing drive started. “Management has become more standoffish,” said Staack. “We had a good working relationship with management, but once we felt we needed to unionize they became more standoffish and borderline hostile. They didn’t speak to any of the workers in the store for maybe the first three or four days after we filed.” The shift supervisor said employees are starting to see “listening sessions” with management and district management. “They’re speaking to us two-on-one on why unions are so bad,” Staack said.
SBWU organizer Mariana Orrego has been working on the campaign since the early months of 2022. “The campaign has always been hot,” Orrego said. “We’ve always been busy with the number of stores that have reached out wanting to begin the process of unionization. Starbucks workers have been the ones contacting us! They reach out to email@example.com and the rest is history…” She referred to the Starbucks workers involved in the campaign as “active” and “go getters.” “They’re aware of the predatory practices from their employer and are not easily persuaded,” Orrego said. “Whatever veil was in front of them has been lifted since the campaign and they truly see things for how they are. They’re strong, they’re optimistic, they’re organized. And they have such strong wills.”
The union organizer can speak of the worker-led nature of the movement. “As SBWU has mentioned before, this campaign is truly partner-run,” she said. “Workers call the shots, they decide what actions they want to take, they’re the ones designing their city/regional logos, they’re the ones in the bargaining sessions up in Buffalo. They’re the ones doing the active role of organizing their workplace and having the conversations to do so. At Workers United, we support whatever actions they want to take, with guidance and education, of course.”
The work of SBWU demonstrates a countervailing power at work in our economy. “Well, change has already occurred,” Orrego said. “Thanks to the unionizing efforts of these baristas, CEO Howard Schultz announced a rollout plan of new enhancements and benefits that total $1 billion. Workers know that this is because of their push to organize. They know they won this. And they now know that Starbucks always had money to pay them more, and they certainly can give them more. So, what do we expect? As workers continue to organize, file unfair labor practices, and strike, the hope is that it will inspire the surrounding stores to join the movement as well. Union-busting may occur in these surrounding areas as more stores push to file for an NLRB (National Labor Relations Board) election, but workers aren’t scared nor intimidated. They’re empowered and they’ve been more than ready to take on their schoolyard bully.”
Jason Sibert is the Executive Director of the Peace Economy Project in St. Louis.