How Starbucks is turning a new generation on to unionism

Starbucks worker Tyler Molina, front in green apron, was joined May 24 by union supporters to witness the union vote count at her Southeast Milwaukie and Bybee store in Portland. | PHOTO BY DON McINTOSH

By LINDA BAKER

Tyler Molina went to work as a Starbucks barista in February 2020, attracted by the company’s program of free tuition for an online degree through Arizona State University. Molina, 22, says she was grateful for the free college. But she was soon frustrated with the low pay and lack of transparency from management. So when Gracie Weidemaier— her coworker at the Southeast Milwaukie and Bybee Starbucks in Portland—approached her about unionizing the store, Molina agreed it was the right step to take.

“As nice as it is that Starbucks pays for ASU, that doesn’t pay for wifi or electricity bills,” said Molina, who earns $19.37 as a shift supervisor. “At the end of day, there is no place that is affordable to live working minimum wage, or even a few dollars above that. People still live paycheck to paycheck. None of us have a way to save money.”

Molina and her coworkers signed cards saying they want to join Starbucks Workers United, which is part of Workers United—an SEIU affiliate that represents about 85,000 workers. The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) mailed out ballots—and set May 24 as the date to count them.  

The Milwaukie and Bybee cafe would be the fifth Portland-area Starbucks to vote on a union, and elections are on the way at eight more. They’re part of a burgeoning nationwide movement. Since December, in a store-by-store campaign led by young frontline workers, 102 Starbucks stores have voted to unionize, and elections are pending at 163 more. With crucial mentorship from Workers United, Starbucks workers are becoming a new generation of grassroots labor organizers.

“If you had asked me six months ago if I had wanted to work in the labor movement, I would have said ‘no,’ not knowing what that meant,” said Isabelle Loverich, a 21-year-old shift supervisor at the Jantzen Beach Starbucks. “Whereas now it’s something I’m so passionate about,” Loverich said. 

Loverich ended up leading a union organizing campaign at the Jantzen Beach cafe. Now she’ll spend this summer as a paid intern with Starbucks Workers United. 

“It’s shaped where I want to go,” Loverich said.

At Molina’s Milwaukie and Bybee Starbucks cafe, the day they asked the NLRB to hold a union election, a group of Teamsters showed up in a show of solidarity. One by one, union members ordered drinks, giving their names as “union strong” or “union yes,” says Quentin Kanta, the Starbucks Workers United liaison for the Portland chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). Kanta said it’s become standard for Portland DSA to encourage union supporters to come to a store as soon as workers announce a union campaign. 

“The workers are leading this,” Kanta explains, “but the workers are not alone.”

Kanta, 22, worked at the Walker Road Starbucks in Beaverton for a couple years, but quit in March after feeling like the manager and a shift supervisor had turned coworkers against him on account of his organizing efforts. Leaving Starbucks for him meant withdrawing from Arizona State—derailing his plans to become a high school history teacher. But Kanta said it also made him more passionate about unionizing retail and food service businesses, which have long considered the most difficult sector to unionize.

“Whether it’s at Amazon, Apple … I want to be a full time labor organizer. That is now my goal,” Kanta said.

When she’s not making lattes at the Milwaukie and Bybee, Weidemaier, 25, is a graduate student in mental health counseling at Lewis & Clark College. She says she’s “privileged—and not privileged—to have student loans.” But she loves research, and in February, when workers at her Milwaukie and Bybee Starbucks expressed interest in forming a union but weren’t sure how to proceed, she spent hours researching the NLRB and the process of forming a union. She commends Workers United for its ‘How to unionize a store for dummies” playbook— trainings and PowerPoint presentations that outline the steps to unionize. Connecting with Workers United also meant access to group chats, and instant feedback from Workers United regional organizer Alex Riccio. 

“He must have had his phone glued to his hand,” Weidemaier says.

The more Weidemaier learned, the more motivated she became.

“We have this opportunity to have a seat at the table and demand what we need to survive. Our store is just one entity in a huge huge company. So us taking a stand will hopefully empower and enable others to do the same.”

That’s exactly what big chains like Starbucks are afraid of, said Gordon Lafer, co-director of the Labor Education & Research Center at the University of Oregon, in an email.

“They’re scared that if people anywhere succeed in organizing and winning a fair contract that people in lots of other locations will demand the same thing,” Lafer wrote, “which is obviously true in this case.” 

Lafer says today’s economy is shaping tactics in the Starbucks union fight. On the one hand, the tight labor market means people can easily find other jobs that pay as much as Starbucks pays. Lafer thinks Starbucks may be more reluctant to fire large numbers of people as a result. Instead, its strategy appears to be cutting hours across the board without hiring more staff. That makes work more stressful, cuts workers’ take-home pay, and may motivate people to leave, weakening the union campaign.

On the other hand, from workers’ perspective, even though jobs may be easier to come by, good-paying jobs remain scarce. Today’s baristas are often in their mid-20s or older, support themselves full-time with the job, and stay for longer periods of time.

“Working as a Starbucks barista is no longer something you might do just for the summer, or to make money on the side for a few months,” Lafer said. “That means that the jobs have become more important than they used to be to people—and that is one of the things that makes people organize, because the job matters to them more.”

Loverich, who led the Jantzen Beach Starbucks campaign, started there in June 2021. 

“I was really happy with this job for a while,” she said. 

But worsening work conditions changed her mind—inadequate staffing, low wages and unresponsive management. Workers at the Jantzen Beach store filed the petition in early April asking the NLRB to hold a union election. Since then, they have witnessed many of the chain’s more aggressive union busting tactics. Managers fired one union supporter at the store. They told employees that new Starbucks benefits—including credit card tipping, expanded sick leave and job training programs—would not be available to stores that are unionizing. They slashed Loverich’s weekly hours in half. 

“It definitely makes work less of a safe space,” Loverich said.

She and her Jantzen Beach coworkers held a one-day strike May 18 after Starbucks fired a union supporter there. 

They’ll see the results of their union election on June 7.

At the Milwaukie and Bybee store, the journey was less rocky. Still, management cut Molina’s hours from 35 hours a week to 27 to 30, she said. Other employees’ hours dropped below 20.

Molina was working in the Milwaukie and Bybee cafe May 24 when the NLRB counted ballots during a Zoom call. DSA members who belong to several local unions packed the cafe and streamed the count on a laptop so workers could witness it. The final tally: nine in favor, one opposed. 

“My immediate reaction was a wave of relief and joy,” Molina said. “To know that we’ve officially unionized means the beginning of not only a new era not only at Starbucks but for the labor movement across the country.”

The next step will be for the newly minted Workers United members to reach out to the regional bargaining committee, send Starbucks a demand to bargain, and continue to help other stores unionize. 

The stakes are high. Will Starbucks negotiate in good faith?  Or will the company try to get rid of the union by refusing to come to a fair agreement?

Weidemaier, who finishes her graduate program in September, said she is thinking seriously about staying with Starbucks until some of those questions are answered. 

“I’ve met so many amazing people, and I don’t want to leave my store hanging. I have a lot of strong feelings [about the union], which I was not expecting, going into this.”


Oregon’s unionized Starbucks (12 so far)

  • 2830 Willamette St., Eugene
  • 495 West 7th Ave., Eugene
  • 1895 Franklin Blvd, Eugene
  • 1395 University St., Eugene
  • 3003 N Delta Hwy, Eugene
  • 3110 W. 11th Ave., Eugene
  • 1115 Valley River Dr., Eugene
  • 2328 W Burnside St., Portland
  • 525 NE Grand Ave., Portland
  • 555 SW Oak St., Portland
  • 2880 SE Powell Blvd., Portland
  • 7001 SE Milwaukie Ave, Portland

MORE: The non-profit labor media organization More Perfect Union is tracking every Starbucks store where workers are forming unions. Check out their regularly updated list, and map, here.

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