By COLIN STAUB
Workers and store managers alike have been raising safety concerns at Portland’s Southwest Fourth and Morrison Starbucks for multiple years, but the company only took action five days before ballots were counted for a union election.
Starbucks in July announced 16 stores would close by the month’s end, including two in Portland, because of safety concerns. One of those, at 401 SW Morrison St., has a union campaign with ballots to be counted on Aug. 5. The vote count is still scheduled to take place, but its impact is certainly dampened. If the workers unionize, their store has already shut down. (Update: Workers voted 6-1 to unionize in ballots counted Aug. 5.)
Federal labor officials have accused Starbucks of hundreds of unlawful anti-union actions during the wave of Starbucks Workers United campaigns. But the company maintains the wave of closures has nothing to do with the union effort, and it’s only about safety.
To be sure, workers staffing downtown Portland businesses have their share of safety concerns. A former store manager at the Fourth and Morrison Starbucks told the Labor Press the store logged over 200 incident reports in a six-month period between 2019 and 2020. The manager previously worked at multiple other locations in the greater Portland area, all of which saw only a handful of incident reports over a multi-year period.
The manager, who asked not to be named, requested multiple times that Starbucks provide a security guard for the Morrison location, but those requests were denied.
Current workers say those conditions continued – until the union campaign started.
Kaya Sommer, a shift supervisor and lead volunteer union organizer at the Fourth and Morrison store until it closed, said most of the safety problems involve people demanding free products, refusing to leave and/or getting agitated. In the months leading up to announcing the union campaign, workers were asking for outside security to help maintain safety at the store, without a response, Sommer said. Then, just after the union campaign launched, changes to improve safety began: Management closed the cafe’s lobby, closed the restrooms and started staffing the store to full capacity.
“The store is a safer place now, we handle way less incidents and we have the tools to stay open,” Sommer said in July.
So when Starbucks district and regional managers showed up on July 11 and told workers the store would close by the end of the month, it struck union supporters as questionable timing. Workers asked for specific safety concerns directly leading to the closure. The managers said it was because the store didn’t have an exit door in the back-of-house area, so workers wouldn’t have anywhere to shelter in place in an emergency. (That’s nothing new for the building – also, Sommer says while there isn’t a back exit, there are steel-doored bathrooms that workers could barricade themselves in.)
In the end, Sommer shared one worker’s simple response to whether the closure was union-busting: “If it looks like a fish and it smells like a fish, it’s a fish.”
Workers United filed an unfair labor practice charge just two days after the closure announcement, saying Starbucks “closed and/or threatened to close at least 16 stores in order to discourage union activity, retaliate against workers engaged in union activity and/or escape its obligation to bargain with the union.”
Marina Multhaup, Seattle-based legal counsel for Workers United, noted workers at seven Pacific Northwest stores recently went on strike, in part to protest safety conditions. Then, Starbucks announced it would close eight stores in the region.
“If Starbucks truly cared about its partners’ safety it would bargain about ways to ensure their protection, not displace workers by closing stores,” Multhaup told the Labor Press.
Meanwhile, in audio leaked from an internal Starbucks meeting, CEO Howard Schultz warned the closures were “just the beginning” and that there would be many more to come.
Workers displaced from the Fourth and Morrison store have been transferred to four other stores in Downtown and Northwest Portland.