Fifty Starbucks workers in New York are trying to form a union, which would be the first in the US for the coffee chain if successful.
Last week, the group of workers in the Buffalo area publicly announced their union organizing drive and the formation of their organizing committee, Starbucks Workers United, in a letter to the Starbucks CEO, Kevin Johnson.
None of the more than 8,000 Starbucks locations in the US are unionized.
Alexis Rizzo, one of the founding members of the organizing committee, has worked at Starbucks for six years, since she was 17 years old. She emphasized the union drive was an effort to improve a workplace she enjoys working in.
“We’ve been called Starbucks partners and we want to become real partners, to be able to have a voice to make our job better and to make our customers’ experience better,” Rizzo told the Guardian.
Rizzo and several other workers emphasized chronic understaffing, lack of seniority pay and communication problems between workers and corporate as some of the issues workers seek to resolve through organizing a union.
“We’re the ones who are the face of the company doing this job every single day. We know better than anyone what we could do to make it better, not just for ourselves, but for our customers as well because their experiences are suffering,” she added.
“We really do love and care for our stores deeply, and we just want to make them a better place to work and a better place to go to.”
Brian Murray, a Starbucks barista for four months who signed onto the union organizing letter, explained how workers and customers are affected by understaffing problems. On the day the workers publicly announced the union drive, management came into his store to speak with workers about what could be done to improve the workplace, which left him alone to manage the drive-thru for several hours, a job that requires two workers.
“I had to both take people’s orders, keep track of that, but also try to have positive customer interactions with customers who were coming up, bringing them back their food, which is extremely stressful and taxing because it’s so hard to juggle that many tasks for that length of time,” said Murray.
He noted understaffing is a common challenge, as shifts are decided by projected weekly sales rather than ensuring consistent staffing throughout the week or properly managing call-outs or absent workers.
Roisin Doherty has been working at Starbucks for just one month, but said understaffing at her store had been a prevailing problem.
“We end up with customers waiting in line for half an hour to an hour for their drinks,” said Doherty.
Through the pandemic, workers at Starbucks around the US have described understaffing worsened by Covid-19 and grueling working conditions, from dealing with aggressive customers to trying to manage long, complicated drink orders that have been popularized by TikTok videos.
“They don’t have a company without baristas making the coffee,” said Kayla Sterner, a Starbucks barista who signed onto the union organizing letter. “We have been so understaffed and had to pick up all that slack by ourselves.”
The company has a record of opposing union organizing efforts. Earlier this month, an administrative law judge ruled Starbucks illegally fired two workers in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in retaliation for union organizing.
Former CEO Howard Schultz lobbied Congress against labor law reforms while at the helm of the corporation and aggressively fended off unionization campaigns at stores in previous years.
Due to this record, the workers who announced the latest union organizing drive called on Starbucks to agree to fair election principles, including agreeing to non-interference during the union organizing drive and election and refraining from any threats, intimidation or retaliation against workers involved.
“Starbucks messaging implies they want a true partnership or explicitly says they want a partnership with workers. Their hiring and recruitment materials say they offer ‘the opportunity to be more than an employee, but to be a partner’,” said Jaz Brizack, another Starbucks employee who signed onto the union organizing letter.
“I think that if they really want to be our partners, then we should have a true partnership, which is the union.”
A spokesperson for Starbucks said in an email in response to the union organizing drive: “While Starbucks respects the free choice of our partners, we firmly believe that our work environment, coupled with our outstanding compensation and benefits, makes unions unnecessary at Starbucks. We respect our partners’ right to organize but believe that they would not find it necessary given our pro-partner environment.”
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