Union label rare at Starbucks
By DON McINTOSH Associate Editor
At the 5,647 coffee shops owned by Starbucks Corporation in the United States, not a single employee is represented by a union.
Yet at 15 sites in Oregon and Southwest Washington, Starbucks coffee is brewed and served by union workers — members of United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 555.
That’s because Starbucks, which has endeavored to keep out unions at its own stores all over the world, now has franchise arrangements with employers such as Fred Meyer and Safeway. There, union-represented workers operate in-store Starbucks coffee kiosks. Though they wear Starbucks trademark green aprons and go through a similar training program, in fact, they’re employees of the grocery chains.
Under the union agreements that apply in Local 555’s jurisdiction, management is supposed to remain neutral when union organizers campaign for new members. Local 555 has been recruiting deli, bakery and coffee shop workers to unionize, with some success.
Coffee shop workers who join the union work under Schedule B of the contract, covering non-grocery workers, in which wages start at $7.10 an hour and rise to $11.75 after three years.
Union coffee shop workers aren’t allowed to accept tips.
“But they do accept full retirement and work with dignity,” said Local 555 Director of Organizing Jeff Anderson.
Also fully-paid full-family health care, six paid holidays, and one week’s paid vacation after a year, which grows to four weeks a year over time. And a grievance procedure, and the right to take breaks and lunches on time.
So far, 67 workers at area Starbucks kiosks belong to the union, with Lake Oswego Safeway the latest to join in March.
“We’re in a real crusade, ” Anderson said. “Starbucks employees have good grounds for union organizing.” But of the 80,000 workers employed directly by Starbucks worldwide, fewer than 130 have joined a union.
Starbucks chief spokesperson Audrey Lincoff told the NW Labor Press that’s because Starbucks employees, which the company calls partners, feel like valued members of a team. Lincoff said that in an annual survey of the “partners,” nearly 90 percent report satisfaction with the company. Unlike most other coffee shop employers, Starbucks offers health benefits to part-timers and full-timers, distributes an annual bonus in company stock, and pays one pound of coffee a week and wages above the legal minimum, she said. [Workers at five Portland-area Starbucks contacted by the Labor Press reported starting wages of $7.05 to $7.25. Oregon’s minimum wage is currently $7.05 an hour.]
Two-thirds of Starbucks workforce is part time; Lincoff said they appreciate the flexible hours.
Starbucks is proud of its roughly 100 percent annual turnover, she added, given the 300 percent annual turnover elsewhere in the industry.
With its high-turnover, low-wage part-time workforce, Starbucks doesn't make an attractive organizing target for unions.
But there may be another reason Starbucks workers haven’t unionized: sophisticated management efforts to keep unions out.
In 1987, Starbucks was a small Seattle-area gourmet coffee chain — with unionized workers in its company’s roasting plant, represented by UFCW Local 1001. The union was one of the first things to go when Howard Schultz bought the company that year and began the company’s storied expansion.
A Bitter Cup for Roasting Plant Workers
Twelve years later, a group of two dozen maintenance workers at Starbucks’ new Kent, Washington, roasting plant launched a union campaign, this time with Operating Engineers Local 286.
In reaction, the company brought in the standard legal team: Stonewall, Stall & Delay.
“I would call them the evil empire,” says Jan Delroy, who was the Local 286 business manager at the time of the campaign. “In 30 years of working for the union, the worst employer I ever dealt with in their attitude toward the union was Starbucks.”
Local 286 had hoped later to organize the roasting plant’s 200-plus production workers, Delroy said, after showing them what a union could win for them. The company, accordingly, wanted to show the other workers that the union couldn’t win anything.
It took a-year-and-a-half to bargain the three-year contract. The campaign had support from other unions, and at one point union picketers held a vigil outside Schultz’s Seattle home accompanied by a 12-foot rat balloon.
“That we ended up finally getting an agreement was amazing,” Delroy said.
But the contract was no prize; it had no significant wage gains, and the weakest benefits of any contract the local had ever negotiated, Delroy said. Having faced the company across the bargaining table, Delroy said he never bought another cup of Starbucks coffee.
Soon after the contract was signed, anti-union workers in the unit petitioned for and won a vote to make the unit an open shop, meaning union membership and dues would be voluntary.
“After that, anybody in their right mind wouldn’t join up,” Delroy said, “because management would know who the union supporters were.”
With months to go before the contract expires, less than half a dozen workers still belong to the union.
All that remains of the union campaign is an unfair labor practice charge currently being investigated by the National Labor Relations Board. In it, Local 286 alleges that Starbucks systematically discriminated against applicants that had worked in a union environment.
Canadian Baristas Hold Onto Union Label
Other Starbucks workers have managed to unionize, but not in the United States.
In 1996 and 1997, workers at 12 stores and one distribution center in British Columbia, Canada, signed up to join the Canadian Auto Workers (CAW), to fight for sick leave, seniority rights in scheduling, better wages, and an array of other improvements. [Under Canadian labor law, unions are recognized after half of the workers sign authorization cards.]
In contract negotiations, Starbucks rejected all the union’s proposals, so workers began an “unstrike” in May 1997: Employees went to work in street clothes, wore union buttons, and passed out leaflets to customers, while still doing their jobs.
Starbucks made some concessions, and signed a two-year contract that contained raises and a modest array of workplace rights. But then, to take away the incentive for other stores to unionize, Starbucks gave the same economic improvements to all non-union stores in British Columbia. It worked, and no new store has unionized since then.
“What possible benefit could we claim you’d get by joining the union?” said Jef Keighley, CAW national representative.
When the multi-store contract came up for renewal in 1999, again Starbucks stonewalled; it took another unstrike, this time three-and-a-half-months, before a second contract — for three years — was signed.
When the two sides returned to the bargaining table in 2002, not only would Starbucks not agree to further improvements, but it wanted to take back some of its earlier concessions. The unstrike began again, but this time failed to persuade Starbucks to sign. Two years later, CAW still has not been able to get a new contract.
Under Canadian labor law, the old contract remains in force until a new agreement replaces it, or the workers go on strike or are locked out. Thus, if the Starbucks workers strike, they could lose the benefits of their existing contract. But by not striking, they condemn themselves to a pay freeze. And there’s nothing to prevent Starbucks from giving raises to the non-union stores.
“Understandably, our members are incredibly frustrated,” Keighley said.
At two or three stores, workers have been persuaded to withdraw from the union; nine stores remain with the CAW, in Vancouver and its metropolitan area. The fate of the union stores is in limbo as the two sides pursue a legal fight, with the union charging Starbucks with breaking labor law by refusing to negotiate in good faith.
“They have this veil of social consciousness,” Keighley says of Starbucks. “But they’re rabidly anti-union.”
Where can you drink Starbucks coffee union brewed?
Stadium Fred Meyer