High school students investigate union busting at Starbucks

High school seniors Julia Kiaer, Max Zeidman and Natalie Potter interviewed Starbucks workers at a public panel they convened at the Belmont Branch of Multnomah County Library. | PHOTO BY COLIN STAUB


For a class assignment, three Portland high school students formed a “workers’ rights board” and evaluated claims of anti-union activity at Starbucks. Julia Kiaer, Max Zeidman and Natalie Potter, all seniors at Catlin Gabel School in southwest Portland, put on a public hearing April 27 featuring Starbucks workers who shared their experiences.

At the end of the 90-minute forum, the students determined that the company’s actions constitute union busting, either because they violate the National Labor Relations Act, or because they go against the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights, which says “everyone has the right to form and join trade unions.” 

The project is an assignment for a class in which the students are studying current and historic revolutions around the world. For their final project they chose to study labor organizing.

“We believe a resurgence of union representation in Oregon will not only benefit workers, but also promote general economic prosperity and combat the ever growing issue of economic inequality,” Zeidman said.

Kiaer told the Labor Press she and the other students talked with folks at IBEW and SEIU, and chose the Starbucks campaign as a timely example of employer anti-union tactics.

Elsewhere in the country, Starbucks has fired workers who were active in union organizing, leading the National Labor Relations Board to bring charges against the company. In Oregon, union busting hasn’t been as clearcut, baristas and shift supervisors said during the hearing.

Isabelle Loverich, a shift supervisor and organizing committee member at a Jantzen Beach Starbucks that’s unionizing, posted a letter on her store’s back-of-house fridge announcing the union campaign. The letter was taken down an hour later and removed seven more times after that. Management told Loverich she was divisive in the workplace. Loverich noticed the store manager choosing “favorites” among employees, and those workers happened to be against the union effort.

“There are a lot of negative conversations going on about us organizers and what we’re trying to do, and it’s turned into one team versus the other,” Loverich said. The union election at Loverich’s store is under way, and ballots will be counted June 7.

Barista Jaiden Brougham described similar reactions to union-related materials being posted at his Southwest Portland Starbucks. A drawing that said “union strong” was repeatedly removed from a community bulletin board at the store. The store manager and a higher-up district manager also told each worker how great employees’ current benefits are.

“They were trying to just tell us not to unionize, basically,” Brougham said. His store’s ballots will be counted June 2.

Quentin Kanta’s Starbucks on Southwest Walker Road announced its union campaign at 9 a.m. on January 31. By 10 a.m., Kanta’s manager had taken him aside and accused him of “creating tension and divisiveness in the store,” Kanta recalled. This happened again the next day. Within a couple weeks an anti-union shift supervisor at the store accused Kanta of being divisive to the point of harassment and threatened to report him to Starbucks human resources. Kanta didn’t feel comfortable returning to work and left the job.

“They were successful in pushing me out of the store. However, they were unsuccessful in the regard that I’m still doing organizing,” Kanta said. Kanta acts as an organizing lead when workers at local Starbucks stores reach out to Workers United about unionizing. Meanwhile, his former store will count ballots on June 2.

The students compiled a report on the hearing, which they plan to share with labor law experts and academics to shine a light on forms of union busting that are not necessarily illegal. “We already know that Starbucks’ response will simply be to push back, arguing that they are working within the confines of U.S. labor law,” Zeidman said.

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