By COLIN STAUB
Union campaigns at Starbucks have been exploding across the United States in recent weeks. Workers at more than 130 Starbucks locations in 29 states have so far asked the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to hold union elections. And of the seven locations where election results have been certified, the union won at six of them (five in New York, one in Arizona).
To slow the surge, a union-busting law firm hired by Starbucks has filed dozens of near-identical legal objections that result in election delays, but the NLRB is starting to reject those maneuvers at an accelerating pace.
Why is the union going viral at Starbucks? “Victory begets victory,” says Alex Riccio, a staff organizer with Workers United—the union Starbucks workers are affiliating with.
The spark that lit the union blaze was a Dec. 9, 2021 ballot count in Buffalo, New York, that became the first ever union win at a Starbucks.
“When they saw that they could win in Buffalo, even despite the aggressive and nasty union-busting the company was doing, that emboldened and inspired a lot of workers and gave them confidence that this must be possible,” Riccio told the Labor Press.
In Portland, Catania Piumarta—a shift supervisor and volunteer union organizer at the 2880 SE Powell Blvd. Starbucks—first heard about the Buffalo campaign through a friend last year. It was exciting, Piumarta said, but didn’t seem like something that could happen locally.
“The majority were down for it,” Piumarta said. “We were just really scared of retaliation, and anxious that we would do it and it won’t work out.”
Then Piumarta got wind of a wave of union election petitions being filed at other Oregon locations. Piumarta contacted a friend who works at one of the unionizing stores, and was put in touch with Workers United.
Workers United traces its descent to the textile union UNITE. UNITE merged in 2004 with the hotel and restaurant union HERE to form UNITE HERE, but in 2009, most UNITE locals seceded and re-formed as Workers United, an affiliate of the much-larger Service Employees International Union (SEIU). Today Workers United has 66,000 members in textile, apparel, laundry, hotels, and food service.
Workers United has unionized coffee shops in the past, including Spot Coffee, based in Buffalo, New York. That’s what drove initial interest by Buffalo Starbucks workers in joining Workers United, Riccio said.
Workers United doesn’t have a large staff. Riccio is based in Philadelphia and is the only union staffperson for the Starbucks campaign in the Pacific Northwest. There are no Workers United staff organizers on the ground in Oregon and Washington.
That means the effort is driven almost entirely by Starbucks workers becoming their own organizers. Worker organizers at the Portland, Beaverton and Eugene stores are turning to their fellow baristas at other unionizing locations for advice on what to expect.
“I think that’s the key ingredient for why this campaign has been so explosive and effective and successful,” Riccio said. “Our job is to just kind of stand aside and give advice when asked, but they do everything.”
Oregon now has 15 filings so far, second only to New York in the number of Starbucks union campaigns underway.
Starbucks delay tactics
But there’s one part of the campaign in which union staff and experience are indispensable: Knowing how to navigate labor law and explaining to workers what to expect as they begin the legal process of unionizing. Starbucks workers are getting a solid education in the weakness of U.S. labor law, because the world’s largest coffee chain is trying every legal means at its disposal to prevent or delay union elections. Starbucks is represented by Littler Mendelson, one of the biggest management-side labor law firms in the United States. According to its website, Littler’s services include helping companies “lawfully avoid unions.”
At one of the first Starbucks stores to get a union vote, 133 days passed from the time workers filed their petition to the time the results were certified. To understand why, take a look at the docket of legal activity for the first three stores:
Workers United filed petitions Aug. 30, 2021 requesting union elections at three Starbucks stores in or near Buffalo, New York.
Starbucks attorneys filed legal objections to the elections being held as the union had proposed.
At a six-day hearing in September, Littler attorneys argued that the NLRB shouldn’t hold elections in just the three stores where workers said they wanted a union. Instead, they argued, a single election should be held for all 20 stores in the Buffalo area, involving 530 workers. Union attorneys countered that each location should be its own unit, and pointed out NLRB precedent assumes individual store units by default. The union also requested a mail ballot election. Starbucks wanted the vote held in-person.
On Oct. 28, two months after the union requested the elections, the regional NLRB director ruled in the union’s favor, ordering three separate mail-in elections.
Not so fast, said Starbucks’ lawyers. Two days before ballots were to be mailed, Starbucks appealed and requested a halt to the elections. (Among other points, Starbucks said its operations are so technologically advanced that existing case law should not apply to them.) Starbucks lawyers said if the NLRB refused to halt the elections, the returned ballots should be impounded and remain unopened until their appeal was decided.
The board denied the appeal. The ballots were mailed.
Votes were finally tallied for that first Buffalo-area store on Dec. 9, more than three months after the union petition was filed. Workers voted 19-8 to unionize, out of 36 eligible employees, making it the first unionized Starbucks in the country. A separate tally the same day for a nearby Starbucks was tied up in legal challenges by both sides for weeks; when results were certified Jan. 10, workers had voted 15-9 for the union, out of 46 eligible. In the third of the first three New York Starbucks elections, workers voted against the union by 12-8.
Tactics on autopilot
And Starbucks has used the exact same legal strategy in response to union drives all over the country.
When Workers United asked Jan. 7 for an election for 27 workers at the 29th and Willamette store in Eugene, Starbucks attorneys countered that the election should be for 223 employees at all stores in the Eugene area. NLRB filings show Oregon Starbucks stores are working through a lengthy legal back-and-forth, but the first Eugene store to file will have ballots mailed March 22 and counted April 13, the NLRB announced this week.
Another election is underway at a store in Starbucks’ home city, Seattle. Workers there filed in December, argued their case in January (Starbucks wanted to add nine nearby stores), won an NLRB decision in February, and will have their mail ballots counted March 22.
Does it seem absurd for NLRB agents to hear the same arguments and come to the same ruling over and over and over? The NLRB seems to be coming to that conclusion.
In Arizona, after Starbucks once again appealed an NLRB decision as ballots were being mailed, the NLRB issued a formal decision, “Starbucks Corporation and Workers United,” that is now being cited by NLRB agents to deny appeals in other cases.
In late February, for what appears to be the first time, Starbucks attorneys dropped the failed playbook and agreed to an election at a store in Overland Park, Kansas. Since then, Starbucks did the same in at least 16 other union drives.
Union drive moves forward anyway
Back in Southeast Portland, Piumarta researched how to unionize and what union-busting tactics would look like, with help from Riccio and workers at other Pacific Northwest stores. Piumarta talked with coworkers at the Powell Boulevard store, many of whom were already supportive. On March 4 they announced publicly that they want a union.
Piumarta hopes unionizing will give workers a voice in decision-making. One area of concern is scheduling. Oregon workers are entitled to a 30-minute lunch break during a six-hour shift, but Piumarta says Starbucks employees are often scheduled for 5-hour-and-45-minute shifts, which means they get just one 10-minute break.
In Eugene, Aiden Cramer, an 18-year-old barista at the Valley River Starbucks, wanted to join other Eugene locations that had filed early this year. Cramer and several trusted coworkers formed an organizing committee and began talking with the rest of the staff.
“We wanted to be in touch with a lot of those partners before corporate came in and gave their pitch,” Cramer said [Starbucks calls its employees “partners.”] If the coworkers heard first about the union from the company, they might be less likely to want to join, the committee figured.
Management began holding anti-union meetings at the store in mid-February, but Cramer thinks the meetings were less intense than those elsewhere.
“From what I heard from the other stores, it seemed like the conversation was a lot about cracking down, trying to prevent you from going public or filing at all,” Cramer said. At Cramer’s store, the focus was on the vote itself, a seeming acknowledgement that a union campaign was inevitable. Six of the eight standalone Starbucks stores in Eugene had already filed. Now, they all have, including Cramer’s store on March 1.
Both Cramer and Piumarta said they and their coworkers have a good relationship with their store managers. The management issues are higher up.
Cramer says union representation could help workers win better health coverage and higher wages. Baristas at his location make $14 per hour now, with small annual raises, but he feels the company can do better. Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson saw his compensation increase from $14.67 million in 2020 to $20.43 million in 2021, while workers got an increase of roughly 25 cents an hour.
Which Starbucks locally have union campaigns so far?
As of March 15, workers have requested union elections at 15 stores in Oregon:
- 2830 Willamette St.
- 495 W 7th Ave.
- 65 Oakway Center
- 1895 Franklin Blvd.
- 1395 University St.
- 3003 N Delta Hwy.
- 3110 W 11th Ave.
- 1115 Valley River Dr.
- 16175 SW Walker Rd.
- 2933 SW Cedar Hills Blvd.
- 7315 SW Garden Home Rd.
- 2328 W Burnside St.
- 525 NE Grand Ave.
- 555 SW Oak St.
- 2880 SE Powell Blvd.