Ming De Mers/Sun Staff Photographer

On April 8, Ithaca became the first city in the United States to unionize all Starbucks locations: Meadow Street, the Commons and College Avenue.

May 9, 2022

Starbucks Unionization: Baristas Behind That First Sip Feeling

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On April 8, Ithaca became the first city in the United States to unionize all Starbucks locations. Workers came victorious on their unionizing efforts in all three Ithaca Starbucks: Meadow Street, the Commons and College Avenue.

“Everyone was absolutely elated,” said Evan Sunshine ’24, who has been with the company part-time as a Barista for two years and currently works at the College Avenue location. “Everyone was jumping, cheering and hugging each other. It was absolute joy in that moment.”

Each store location experienced overwhelming support for unionization from its workers. Meadow Street location voted 13-1 in favor of unionization, the Commons 15-1 and Collegetown 19-1.

All three Ithaca Starbucks locations have voted to unionize. (Map Data ©2022 Google and Sun Photography Department)

Partners Becoming Partners

For many customers and employees, Starbucks has been a progressive and forward thinking company. The company publicly showed support for Black Lives Matter movement with a $1 million commitment in grants and the LGBTQ+ community by supporting local LGBTQ+ nonprofits.

Starbucks also refers to their employees as “partners” and metaphorically empties a seat during its board meetings to represent the workers.

“Starbucks always presents itself as being very progressive and caring about the people, especially disadvantaged people,” said Sam Amato, a shift supervisor in Buffalo who has been with the company full-time for more than 12 years. “They made big statements regarding Black Lives Matter and the LGBTQ+ community.”

In fact, when applying for their positions, several workers were initially drawn in by Starbucks’ seemingly progressive stances.

“As a transgender individual, I was drawn to the fact that they had gender affirming healthcare included in their packages for employees,” Sunshine said. “The prestige of them being pro-LGBTQ+, definitely attracted me to the company.”

During the pandemic, however, Starbucks fell short of the expectations and values the company had prided itself on and the conversation for unionization began amongst the workers.

“The national conversation about workers’ rights and pay caught up and left Starbucks behind,” Amato said. “In the 90’s… a lot of the things Starbucks did were ahead of its time at one point. However, the conversation regarding workers’ benefits such as healthcare is so much different today than it was 10 years ago. I do not think Starbucks has been adequately moving forward.”

Starbucks workers held a strike on April 16. (Courtesy of SBWorkersUnited Twitter)

Additionally, workers claim that Starbucks, on several occasions, placed profits over their employees’s safety and improvement of working conditions. 

“During the pandemic, we got to see how the company did not really care about their employees through their constant change in policy with COVID-19,” said Angel Krempa, who had been with the company for two years as shift supervisor in Buffalo. “Those constant changes were mostly made in the aspect of gaining immediate capital rather than protecting its employees.”

Starbucks allegedly fired Krempa in retaliation for joining and engaging in union activities. Krempa’s case has been filed and is now under investigation by the National Labor Relations Board.

The initial rally for unionization began at locations in Buffalo. Several Starbucks employees in Buffalo told The Sun that many aspects of the movement were inspired by a successful union campaign by workers at SPoT Coffee, a local coffee chain headquartered in Buffalo.

“A lot of Starbucks partners here were inspired by public unionization efforts of a local chain,” Amato said.

According to Michael Dolce ’11, an attorney representing Starbucks Workers United, some of the demands being negotiated include better training, an increase in wages, access to better health insurance plans, credit card tips and fixed schedules.

“I really like what the workers came up with on their first proposal,” Dolce said. “Most of their proposals on the table are extremely sensible, [which] makes sense for the long-term viability of the company and would really improve operations in these stores. ”

Starbucks Under Allegations

Starbucks is now facing over 120 unfair labor practice charges, according to Dolce. The company is under several major allegations, including the deployment of union busting tactics. The cases are now being investigated and processed by the NLRB.

According to the charges against the company in the NLRB cases, Starbucks allegedly switched workers’ schedules around to place undue pressure on the employees, denounced unionization efforts through captive audience meetings, hired new managers to increase management presence in unionized stores and wrongfully terminated workers who joined the union. 

“My hours were both cut and switched around. I used to be an opener for a year and a half. It was not until the union drive that I wasn’t –– I was moved to be closer,” Krempa said. “That disrupts your sleep schedule and messes with your mental health — you can’t think straight. It’s a textbook union busting tactic.”

Employees were also required to attend captive audience meetings in which the workers had to listen to an employers’ presentation, often against the union, according to Alexander Colvin, Kenneth F. Kahn ’69 Dean of Cornell’s Industrial Labor Relations School. Although captive audience meetings are legal under current statutes, Starbucks is under controversy for allegedly using them to forcefully dissuade workers from joining the union.

“The argument against captive audience meetings is that it’s coercive against the workers,” Colvin said. “The management has the freedom to say their views on unions, but they shouldn’t have the right to coerce the workers to have to listen to those views – It’s inherently coercive.”

According to workers, Starbucks also hired several new managers to increase managerial presence in the unionized store locations. According to Dolce, once the union campaign went public, each store received one “support manager,” who would monitor worker behavior, usually to prevent talks of unions or unionization. Some locations had six support managers at a time. 

“With that much presence, it makes you think twice about wearing a union pin, talking to a coworker about the union, saying the word ‘union’ or really from doing anything,” Dolce said.

Starbucks recently announced upcoming plans to raise pay and improve training for the corporate-owned U.S. store locations. However, unionized stores and stores in the process of unionization were excluded from these changed benefits.

“We’ve been clear in our belief that we are better together as partners, without a union between us and that conviction has not changed,” wrote a Starbucks spokesperson in a statement to The Sun. “We are listening and learning from the partners in these stores, as we always do across the country.”

This recent change in benefits, and the withholding of these benefits from unionized workers calls into question its legality, according to labor law experts.

“The timing is extremely suspicious,” said Prof. Risa Lieberwitz, labor law. “To say we won’t give those benefits to the employees, who may be scheduled to have a union election, could be used as retaliation against those employees by withholding the benefits. The timing points to this being retaliatory against the employees for their union activities.”

Movements Throughout the Nation

The Starbucks unionization movement sheds a light onto an industry that traditionally is not unionized, according to labor relations experts. 

“Historically, we have not seen a lot of organizing at Starbucks or similar types of retail stores,” Colvin said. “This industry does not have much union representation, so this is a big change for this industry.”

Movements towards unionization are spreading nationwide as a result of changes in working conditions brought on by the pandemic and improved public view on unions.

“Certainly during the worst of the pandemic, employees were called ‘essential,’ but they were not being treated with the respect that all workers deserve,” Lieberwitz said. 

According to Lieberwitz, the recent public opinion polls show that the view on unions is more positive than it has been in many years. 

“The public is seeing that unionization is a very positive alternative for addressing workplace issues,” Lieberwitz said.

Key political figures, including Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-Vt.), U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Gov. Phil Murphy (D-N.J.), have publicly endorsed Starbucks unionization efforts. In addition, President Joe Biden (D) has been very clear about his pro-union stance.

“It’s an exciting time. There is a lot of activity going on, Starbucks and Amazon being among them,” said Mark Gaston Pearce, former chairman of NLRB who was appointed by President Barack Obama and served for approximately eight years. “This [Biden] administration has demonstrated that it is a strong advocate for workers and workers’ rights to join a union and organize.”

Biden has made pro-union appointments to advance his policy agenda of supporting workers’ rights and unions, including appointing Jennifer Abruzzo to general counsel at the NLRB.

“Abruzzo has introduced initiatives that are providing greater opportunities for organizing and she is going to be testing the precedents to achieve that goal,” said Pearce. “Captive audience meetings conducted by Starbucks and other employers in an effort to push an anti-union campaign are being challenged.”     

Nearly 250 stores out of 9,000 Starbucks-owned stores petitioned to unionize, representing more than 30 states across the nation. Starbucks’ New York City flagship store, located in Chelsea, voted to unionize. The result was 46-36 in favor of unionizing. 

“It feels really great to see that there are some politicians who are taking a stand with the working class. A silent voice does nothing for the people. We need our voices to be heard,” said Krempa. “Stand up with the people who make your morning coffee.”