By Isabelle B, Red Phoenix correspondent, Oregon.
Starbucks Workers United has been organizing for over a year for the purpose of unionizing Starbucks stores around the country. Since their launch, over 300 stores have successfully unionized in the United States. Meanwhile, Starbucks has racked up hundreds of labor violations documented by the NLRB. Amidst the surge of unionization efforts in 2022, Howard Schultz returned to his position as interim CEO of Starbucks, after stepping down in 2017. Upon his return, Schultz claimed Starbucks was “under assault from unionization forces.” He has since led an extensive union-busting campaign, including wrongful firings of union organizers, withholding benefits from union stores, and redistricting stores to prevent unions from forming.
None of these efforts have stopped more stores from unionizing each week, or workers from speaking out about their experiences of working at Starbucks.
Within city limits of Portland, OR, 12 Starbucks stores have unionized as of March 25, 2023. One of these locations is the Pioneer Square store, a busy cafe in the heart of Portland, which unionized on March 3, 2023.
Just days after the success, two of the organizers of the union campaign were fired from the Pioneer Square store. However, workers at Pioneer Square still hosted a Starbucks Workers United rally that weekend (March 19), in celebration of their union surviving Howard Schultz’s union-busting. At this event, I spoke with Wren (she/her), one of the wrongfully fired organizers.
“I was fired four days ago for being a union organizer at Pioneer Square’s Starbucks,” Wren said.
Like many other Starbucks workers, Wren reported that unionizing the Pioneer Square store was inspired by a lack of support from management. “When you have a problem, when you need something, it just feels like screaming into the air. No one is there to listen to you, or they tell you to put it in a survey. But something that has shown to actually get their attention is collective action.”
As I spoke with Wren outside the Pioneer Square Starbucks, cars slowed to read signs held by the workers and community supporters. Slogans such as “No contract, no coffee” and “Starbucks: STOP Union Busting” were common. The sound of cars honking in support was frequent.
“Before I got fired, I was working there for about ten months,” Wren continued. “And in that time, I was written up once for being one to three minutes late when clocking in. And once they can get you on anything at all, they use it to create a picture like you’re continuing to do it. And after that, they would write me up on every single human error imaginable, which was how they fired me so quickly [after unionizing] … And what they have been doing with write-ups is not even discussing it with us or telling us like they are supposed to be doing. Giving a verbal warning — they haven’t been doing that either.”
Wren is not alone in her experiences, as evident by the hundreds of labor violations the Starbucks corporation is accused of by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). Allegation 8(a)(3) concerns “Discharge (Including Layoff and Refusal to Hire (not salting)); Changes in Terms and Conditions of Employment; Shutdown or Relocate/Subcontract Unit Work.” The firing of Wren and her coworker, as well as other union organizers nationwide by Starbucks, is illegal, and shows the confidence the corporation has that the capitalist state’s legal system will protect them. At the same time, it also shows the power of labor organizing and the agitation of Starbucks workers, as they persist in their struggle for better rights and working conditions.
Just three days after the rally at Pioneer Square and my conversation with Wren, over 100 Starbucks stores across the US went on strike. The strike on March 22 greeted Laxman Narasimhan for his first day sitting as the new CEO of Starbucks. Several stores in Portland and the surrounding area participated in the strike. I attended the picket line of a store in Hillsboro, OR, where I spoke to Aspen (they/them), a union organizer and shift supervisor.
“I have been a partner for three and a half years, at this store for one year, and I’ve been helping with some of the other folks in our store to lead our unionization. We just won our union election on Friday the 17th,” Aspen said.
Like Wren, Aspen said the unionization effort came after lack of support from management, especially since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I really started to see the change in Starbucks in their values, their beliefs, and the way they treated partners right when the pandemic started. The store that I was at really didn’t have a lot of support in that area [unionizing], in terms of other people supporting it. Eventually, I transferred to this store and everyone seemed on board for the most part, or at least had some questions that could be answered. So me and one of the other shift leads decided to just start going with it and create some change.”
On the topic of Starbucks’ union busting, Aspen said, “A lot of [worker organizing] initially was really quiet. Our managers didn’t know until the day we actually filed. We noticed a couple things, subtle changes, like a lot more management in the store, district managers, store managers, that aren’t always around, spending more time talking with us. ‘What can we do to support you? What can we do to help you?’ But it’s very ingenuine, more of information gathering than anything… Definitely as a scare tactic, saying, ‘You can’t get any new benefits coming out now that you unionized.’ So anything else that gets introduced in the rest of the company is excluded from unionized stores, as an incentive to keep other stores from unionizing. Now we have to bargain to get those benefits that stores are just getting that aren’t unionized.”
Instead of trying to gain concessions from management alone, the store voted 15-0 to unionize. As for what the Hillsboro store hopes to win with the union in coming months, Aspen said, “Better pay, definitely, a living wage. Where I can put in a full time of work and be able to support myself, not have to worry about needing to pick up extra hours on days off to make ends meet. Same with everybody here. Predictability in schedule, in terms of weekly what our schedules will look like and what times of day we’re getting scheduled consistently. Better bargaining in terms of how many sick hours we get, and how much we have to work in order to get our sick hours and vacation hours. Labor on the floor is a huge thing; how many people we have working based on customer sales, because that’s our biggest impact at this point. There’s not enough people working to support the demands of this business. So things start slipping through the cracks really quickly.”
As we spent more time on the picket line, customers continually arrived to find the store closed. Most customers were very supportive of the workers, and left to buy coffee elsewhere. I asked Aspen about what led to the Hillsboro store joining the strike.
“A lot of it was really well timed with our election, our election being the 17th and today being the 22nd. Being able to ride this wave of momentum of our store’s frustrations and the company’s workers’ frustrations in general. Being here, the biggest thing about today’s strike is the change in shift compliment: where they’re changing how ‘one shift supervisor equals x amount of baristas,’ and by changing that factor, they are changing how many people we can have working on the floor at a time, or how much overlap there is between shift supervisors.”
Short staffing in the service industry is a widespread issue, and is often caused by companies purposefully understaffing stores to decrease labor costs and increase profits. The result of this is workers taking on more responsibilities than they are being paid for, and drastically increasing the stress of the work they are doing. In the case of the food industry, it also means safety measures can begin decreasing to continue meeting the rate of customer demand.
When asked about any potential changes to Starbucks’ attitude towards the union with the change in CEO, Aspen said, “I want to see change, but I’m not hopeful at this point. I really think Starbucks is probably just going to buckle down a little bit harder in their union busting. But, that’s fine. I can buckle down too.”
Despite wrongful firings, hours being cut, and Starbucks delaying coming to the bargaining table, the workers who make the company possible are continuing to organize and bring inspiration for workers in other companies to do the same.
“It’s not as hard as it looks,” Wren from Pioneer Square said. “Unionizing immediately brings you more rights, more protections, you have the potential for so much more. It’s definitely worth pushing for. You’re not alone. Don’t feel isolated. There’s people out there who want to support you in this and want things to change.”
From Hillsboro, Aspen said, “Strength in numbers, it’s really solidarity. Our power is in our labor, and our right to work or not work. Taking that away is the biggest impact we can have as workers, and reminding the rest of your partners of that power is some of the biggest things that can win.”
The American Party of Labor has supported Starbucks Workers United in their fight to unionize and have their demands met in a contract since it began, and we will continue our support for as long as Starbucks is operating. Until the capitalist mode of production no longer persists, we will keep pushing for all power to be in the hands of the working class.
Categories: Labor, U.S. News, Workers Struggle