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Starbucks Memphis 7

Starbucks Memphis 7. Photo: @SBWorkersUnited / Twitter

John McGrath reports on the rapidly spreading unionisation drive at Starbucks stores across the US despite the company's union-busting tactics

More union organising is brewing at Starbucks. In December 2021, staff at a Starbucks in Buffalo, NY became the first US branch to successfully vote to form a union. Since then, 103 Starbucks branches have decided to join them by filing petitions with the National Labor Relations Board.

There are roughly 9,000 Starbucks locations in the US, and the workers in Buffalo overcame an intimidation campaign by the corporation which spent a lot of resources to squash the union drive. The company was right to worry, however, as the Buffalo example has encouraged other workers of the global coffee chain to form unions in 26 states across the country.

The fast-spreading unionisation drive is being organised by Starbucks Workers United, an affiliation of Services Employees International Union (SEIU). Only 1.3 percent of food and beverage workers in the private sector are unionised in the US, so organising of this kind has been historically difficult. The pandemic and a surge of workers quitting their jobs has boosted the bargaining power of organised labour and has forced some employers to increase pay or become more accommodating in order to retain staff. 

Starbucks continues to fight against unionisation despite being unable to contain the disputes to a handful of stores in Buffalo, NY. Although claiming to participate “in good faith”, a recent Starbucks statement is very clear on not wanting to give in to the unionisation efforts:

“Starbucks’ success- past, present and future- is built on how we partner together, always with our mission and values at our core. From the beginning, we’ve been clear in our belief that we are better together as partners, without a union between us at Starbucks, and that conviction has not changed.”

The company filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board (the NLRB) in an attempt to overturn an acting regional director’s ruling allowing for the Union votes to take place in Buffalo in December. That petition failed. Now that negotiations have started in earnest, there is little incentive for Starbucks to offer the Buffalo workers a good deal, and ideally, they would offer them no contract at all.

Unfortunately, this is going to happen to all the branches which are trying to form a union. Starbucks employs roughly 220,000 workers and will drag the first contract negotiations for as long as legally possible in hopes that turnover will naturally purge union supporters that are trying to organise.

This process of dragging and stalling is highly effective in the United States: research has shown that in a quarter of cases, workers continue to be refused a union contract after three years of bargaining.

The US has such weak enforcement of labour protection laws that sometimes employers simply don’t cooperate with the NLRB when they are mandated to negotiate with workers in establishing collective bargaining.  As Kate Bronfenbrenner, the director of labour education at Cornell University’s Industrial Labor Relations School, describes:

“One of the reasons that employers resist the first contract is there is nothing to force them to bargain. There are no penalties. The worst that’s going to happen is there is going to be a letter from the NRLB telling them to bargain. There’s nothing to lose by just not cooperating.”

But spreading the disputes to 26 states only helps the Starbucks workers’ cause. Moving from a single branch seeking to earn a union contract to over 100 makes the company’s attempt at containment that much more difficult and increases publicity in what is already a highly visible company. Starbucks will not be able to hide in its bad labour practises in what has already been a highly-publicised story.    

“They’re desperate. You know, ever since the first store unionized, they did a lot of very cheap, cruel tactics,” says Starbucks employee Beto Sanchez of Memphis, Mississippi. Sanchez’s Starbucks branch filed to unionise after hearing of the vote to do the same passed in Buffalo in December.

“The real power comes from the dignity of the work, the dignity of the workers, you know, being able to push against something like that. That was the same power that the first store had when they were unionizing- they were starting to realize that, you know, this isn’t just happening here, it’s happening everywhere.”

Shamefully, Starbucks used an obscure rule to fire seven workers involved in unionising the Memphis branch and then Cassie Fleischer, one of the organisers of the successful union drive in Buffalo. The company’s draconian actions have sparked outrage and protests in support of the fired workers, and in Seattle the City Council passed a resolution demanding Starbucks stops it’s union-busting tactics. If Starbucks thought firing employees would stop the fast-spreading unionisation drive, they were mistaken, as more workers have been inspired and angered into action.

The Starbucks organising story continues to be a shot in the arm of a labour movement desperate for a win after years of decline. Unionisation dipped to 6.1 percent of the private sector last year, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

“In 2021, the number of wage and salary workers belonging to unions continues to decline (-241,000) to 14 million, and the percent who were members of unions - the union membership rate-was 10.3 percent,” the BLS published. The unionisation rate of public sector workers in the US - 39 percent – is more than five times that in the private sector.

Meanwhile, Starbucks is paying their legal team huge sums of money. Starbucks Corp. legal chief Rachel Gonzalez received more than $5.3 million in total compensation last year. Gonzalez’s base salary is $753,000 but was rewarded with various incentive plan compensations and stock awards to make up the millions in difference.

But one victory builds on another, and the Starbucks organising success in recent months has been as promising as its been symbolic.

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