Starbucks Employees Begin Unionization Efforts

Starbucks Employees Begin Unionization Efforts

Starbucks employees at three Buffalo stores filed petitions Monday with the National Labor Relations Board to hold official union elections.

If the move is successful, the three stores would become the first unionized Starbucks retail locations out of more than 8,000 company-owned units in the U.S. The employees are supported by Workers United Upstate, an affiliate of Service Employees International Union.

The filing comes about a week after employees under the name Starbucks Workers United Organizing Committee launched a campaign to unionize. A group of 50 employees from 14 stores in Buffalo sent an open letter to CEO Kevin Johnson, stating unions are the best way to make Starbucks a sustainable career and true partnership. The group added that unionization isn’t in response to specific policies, but simply to make “Starbucks, Buffalo, and the world a better place.”

The committee called on Johnson to sign the Fair Election Principles, which would allow Starbucks employees to choose whether to unionize without fear of consequences.

“We believe that there can be no true partnership without power-sharing and accountability. We are organizing a union because we believe that this is the best way to contribute meaningfully to our partnership with the company and ensure both that our voices are heard and that, when we are heard, we have equal power to affect change and get things done,” the committee said in the letter.

The organizing committee now comprises representatives from 18 of Buffalo’s 20 Starbucks locations, and has support from nearly 80 employees. Under NLRB rules, if at least 30 percent of employees at a workplace sign cards or a petition saying they want a union, there will be an election. Brian Murray, a member of the organizing committee, told In the Times that he thinks they’ve reached majority support at four or five stores. 

Starbucks barista Katie Cook said unionization shows that employees want to “bring our own chairs to the table that was built upon our backs.” Cook also noted that she has been promoted during her 11 months with the company, but that she’s also seen 30 workers leave and working conditions fall to the wayside.

Additionally, workers in the area are unhappy with Starbucks referring to them as “partners” instead of “employees.” Echoing Starbucks’ mission statement, employee Loretta Scherrer said, “To be a partner is ‘to inspire and nurture the human spirit—one person, one cup, one neighborhood at a time.’ From the start of my coffee journey to now, I feel that this mission has been forgotten. Instead of nurturing the human spirit, we are nurturing our machines for profit.”

Jory Mendes, Starbucks corporate communications senior manager, told local TV station WKBW in Buffalo that the company’s work environment and competitive compensation and benefits makes unionization unnecessary.

“We proudly create the space and open forums for open and honest conversation as it relates to establishing and maintaining a great work environment,” Mendes told the TV station. “We will continue to empower our partners to constructively use their voice, and our local leaders to listen to and address directly the concerns of our partners.”

Historically, restaurant and café workers have not been successful with unionization efforts. That has changed recently as employees from Colectivo Coffee voted to unionize, making them the largest unionized coffee brand in the U.S. The chain’s union will comprise around 440 employees. International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) will be the group’s bargaining representative. Previously, Buffalo-based Spot Coffee was the largest unionized cafe with around 130 members.


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