By MALLORY GRUBEN and DON McINTOSH
Nearly two years after the first Starbucks store unionized, not one Starbucks location has a first union contract.
In late July, Starbucks Workers United, the SEIU affiliate that now represents more than 8,500 baristas, launched a nationwide bus tour to put pressure on coffee company executives. “The Union Is Calling” bus tour stopped in the Portland metro area Aug. 4-5 for one strike and two pickets.
“They want to outlast us in a stalemate,” said Aspen Maxwell, a barista who works at the Starbucks at the corner of Cornell and Stucki in Beaverton. “But the union is not running away.”
Since Starbucks workers in Buffalo, New York, won the first union election Aug. 30, 2021, workers at 349 Starbucks stores in 39 states and Washington, D.C. have voted to unionize. Oregon has the second-highest number of unionized locations, with 29. Washington has 22.
Starbucks has demanded that each store bargain its own contract, instead of negotiating one master agreement. Each side has filed charges with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) accusing the other of refusing to bargain.
“Our demands have been public for eight months. They haven’t sent back any counter proposals,” said Maxwell, the Beaverton barista.
Ahead of the arrival of the union bus in Portland, a Chicago communications consultant emailed the Labor Press on behalf of Starbucks to provide on the record comment.
“Starbucks is committed to progress negotiations towards a first contract where union representatives have approached contract bargaining with professionalism and have allowed both parties to discuss proposals,” wrote Kristin Lapsley, a senior account executive at the Ketchum firm. On its web site, Ketchum describes itself as a global communications consultancy that embraces empathy; Lapsley, on her LinkedIn page, says she specializes in crisis management and corporate reputation. She did not respond to requests to answer follow up questions.
In her email to the Labor Press, Lapsley said Starbucks representatives appeared in Oregon in December and January to begin negotiations at three stores — in Portland at the Garden Home Marketplace store and in Eugene at Seventh and Washington and Erb Memorial Stadium (there’s no such place, but presumably she meant Erb Memorial Union). But Lapsley said Workers United representatives refused to discuss proposals or bargain without “unilateral preconditions.”
What Starbucks calls “preconditions” is the union’s attempt at hybrid bargaining. With Starbucks insisting that negotiations be store by store instead of nationwide, Workers United wants to make local bargaining sessions open to national union representatives who would participate remotely by Zoom. But Starbucks has said its negotiators will refuse to meet if the sessions are “broadcast” in that fashion. Workers United says it’s not broadcasting the sessions, just using Zoom to connect bargaining team participants who are outside the area.
So around the country, when the two sides meet in person to bargain, Workers United starts a Zoom session, and Starbucks negotiators walk out. That’s happened again and again, and it’s one basis for each side’s unfair labor practice charges that the other is unwilling to bargain.
But the NLRB — the federal agency mandated to protect workers’ union rights — has largely agreed with the union that Starbucks is the one refusing to bargain. As reported by the legal news site Law360, an NLRB regional director dismissed Starbucks charges in March, saying “the union’s insistence on hybrid bargaining was not unreasonable, burdensome, or in bad faith.” Of 118 charges Starbucks has filed, mostly alleging that the union refused to bargain, the NLRB has dismissed 109.
Then in April, the agency issued a formal legal complaint that combines over 100 cases. The complaint says Starbucks has refused to bargain at 163 locations, including three stores in Eugene. At 85 of the stores, the complaint says, Starbucks “refused to provide and/or delayed in providing the Union with dates for an initial first contract bargaining session or sessions, despite the Union’s multiple offers of bargaining dates and requests for dates from Respondent.”
That’s what is happening at the Starbucks store at Pioneer Courthouse Square in downtown Portland, says barista Taryn Dusky. Dusky said workers there have asked several times to start bargaining since they won their union election March 3. They also try to bring proposals to managers but are pushed off, Dusky said. At one staff meeting, managers promised workers they would respond to a list of written questions. The baristas prepared a list, but not one of the questions was answered, Dusky said.
A federal administrative law judge is scheduled to hear the consolidated complaint in Seattle on Sept. 19.
It’s not just a refusal to bargain. Starbucks has committed an extraordinary number of other labor violations, the NLRB says, including firing pro-union workers and closing stores that voted to unionize. As of Aug. 9, 2023, 633 unfair labor practice charges have been filed with the NLRB against the company. Of those, 36 were from Oregon and 85 from Washington. NLRB investigators have found merit to 357 of those charges and issued 100 formal complaints.
On Aug. 5, Maxwell, the Beaverton barista, joined others picketing outside Nike headquarters, calling on Nike Chief Operating Officer Andrew Campion to come to the bargaining table. Campion sits on the Starbucks board of directors. Then Maxwell and 20 other Oregon baristas caught a ride on the “Starbus” to other Portland stops, and to Seattle for a protest outside Starbucks’ corporate headquarters.
In a downtown Portland Starbucks, the top union demand is safety
At the Starbucks at Portland’s Pioneer Courthouse Square, workers’ biggest concern is safety. It’s is considered a “high incident” store, in which workers or customers report frequent drug use, mental health crises, and other safety issues. Barista Taryn Dusky said a Starbucks store is considered high incident if it reports two incidents per week. Dusky says Pioneer Courthouse reports up to four incidents per day.
“We’ve been forced to stay open with firearms outside the store,” Dusky said. “People have pressed guns up to the window. Workers will start crying because they feel unsafe and want to go home, but we aren’t allowed to close.”
On Aug. 4, Dusky and about a dozen coworkers walked out on strike to draw attention to the safety issues — which they say managers have refused to bargain over. They were joined on the picket line by nearly three dozen baristas who unloaded from the bus tour.