ContractsProf Blog

Editor: Jeremy Telman
Oklahoma City University
School of Law

Tuesday, August 16, 2022

Unique Unionization Efforts at Starbucks

SBUXWe have posted before about the changing fortunes of labor unions in this country, focusing on successful organizing campaigns at Starbucks. As reported in The New Yorker by E. Tammy Kim here, Starbucks' workers have come up with something even bolder than charging $3 for a cup of coffee!  

Rather than outsourcing recruiting to union professionals, the baristas are recruiting their own to join Starbucks Workers United, and their efforts have been quite successful, according to Ms. Kim's reporting.  Even at the 15,000 square-foot Reserve Roastery in Seattle, some baristas have joined the union, citing "concerns over chronic understaffing, race discrimination in promotions, mistreatment by managers, and low pay."  Fifteen dollars an hour doesn't go very far towards rent in an urban setting.  

It can be a tough sell.  Management discourages employees from unionizing, and there are instances of claimed retaliation against workers for union activities.  Fortunately, the union baristas know how to work under cover.  They pretend to be ordinary Starbucks customers, even going so far as to order "iced brown-sugar-oat-milk espressos."  Then they give the frazzled barista a flyer as he toggles between the walk-up window and the drive-through window.  The organizers sometimes come up against management in stores, but they give their pitch to managers as well, who say that they are not interested.  Reifications of false consciousness all.  Then employees suddenly realize that it is time to take out the trash, and they sneak out to grab a flyer from the organizers.

Another interesting theme in Ms. Kim's article is the role of LGBTQ+ employees in union organizing.  I don't usually get my coffee from Starbucks, but when I travel, I am grateful for the company's market saturation.  I know that I can get drinkable caffeinated beverages on the road, pretty much no matter where I travel.  I noticed last year on a trip to the Ozarks that I was seeing a much higher percentage of out LGBTQ+ people serving me beverages than I saw in other venues in Arkansas.  Back in the day, the rainbow masks were a definite tell.  It turns out, once you have the activism bug, it translates across subject matters.  One Seattle protest adopted the the slogan "Be Gay! Do Strikes!"  

[Sidebar: I expect better slogans from LGBTQ+ folks.  A friend from grad school was an early participant in ACTUP!  When police came to clear them out of a building, the police wore gloves so that they wouldn't catch anything from these terrifying gay men.   The media showed up, and the ACTUP men started chanting "Your gloves don't match your shoes!  You'll see it on the news!"  Zing.]

SchultzThe workers and Starbucks are now locked in a war of attrition.  Howard Schultz (right, at a 2014 book signing), Starbucks' CEO (for the third time) is adamantly anti-union, as Ms. Kim describes, but the company has a reputation as a progressive force and so it will only issue mealy-mouthed statements about its willingness to negotiate.  Negotiations have yet to begin, notwithstanding a request from 32 unionized locations.  The company is actively seeking to shut down unionized locations.  It has been especially aggressive in Seattle, the company's corporate home.   By the way, if you are in my home city of Oklahoma City and are looking for a cold brew or an iced chai latte, the unionized locations are at 36th & May and 23rd & Robinson.  It sounds like they could use the support.

Meanwhile, Starbucks workers and Amazon workers are changing the make-up of the union movement, as young people join in numbers the union movement has not seen in decades.  Starbucks and Amazon are among the country's top ten employers.  Union movements at those two companies can have a huge impact.  The National Labor Relations Board can only do so much to help.  Starbucks' anti-union strategy has precedents in the conduct of companies like Walmart, Boeing, and Chipotle, all of which shut down venues or departments or moved production to escape unionization.  The NLRB has its own problems: having been gutted during the Trump administration, its workload has now doubled.  The ability of a federal agency to stand up for American workers is yet another matter that will turn on the 2024 elections.  

In the meantime, unionization efforts are giving participants much more than work experience.  They are gaining self-confidence, empowerment, and a sense of community, belonging, and purpose.  Expect great things from these young people, who will contribute to our economy and to our political life much more than they would have done if their Starbucks experience were just about earning $15/hour.  That is, so long as their efforts are not crushed.

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