The organizational campaign at Starbucks has so far succeeded in bringing together almost 20 of the coffee chain’s American stores, which is a historic breakthrough for the labor movement. But the union effort is now in the early stages of an even heavier lift: negotiation of a first contract.
Starbucks has every incentive not to offer workers a satisfactory deal, as it would only encourage more workers to organize. From the union’s perspective, Workers United can secure solid gains in a collective bargaining agreement set in motion an already warm organizational effort and bring many more of Starbucks’ 9,000 company-owned US stores into the fold.
Both sides are now buzzing about what is likely to be an oppressive battle at the negotiating table, a battle that could ultimately determine the future of unions at Starbucks.
“Developing a contract that meets or exceeds what we already offer our partners will be difficult for them to do,” predicted Reggie Borges, a Starbucks spokesman. “These contracts do not start at the starting point for the benefits that our partners receive. That’s the punctuation rule. The contract negotiations start at zero. “
(After this story ran, Borges said he was talking wrong about contract negotiations’ start[ing] at zero. “He said he meant to convey that” collective bargaining involves many variables and no one can predict the outcome. “)
Starbucks has already hinted at some of the hardball tactics that may lie ahead. CEO Howard Schultz suggested in a recent corporate forum that Starbucks could roll out new benefits that would apply everywhere except the trade unionized places, as these stores now negotiate their own working conditions. “People who might vote for a union do not really understand that,” Schultz was quoted as saying by The Wall Street Journal.
“Starbucks has every incentive not to offer workers a satisfactory deal, as it would only encourage more workers to organize.”
One of the challenges for the union is to consolidate its leverage vis-à-vis the company. The campaign, known as Starbucks Workers United, has organized the store chain for store, and filed for election in places where union support is high. The company has pressed for greater choice it would cover an entire market – like Buffalo, New York, which is home to the first store to be organized – but the National Labor Relations Board has rejected that argument and joined the union.
The union’s store-by-store strategy is far more manageable than trying to organize Starbucks nationally or market by market. But it technically leaves the union negotiating a contract for each store that joins.
Michelle Eisen, a union leader and barista in the first store that joined forces, said the campaign considers each Starbucks separate and that applying the same exact contract to each outpost “would go against what we said we have wanted from the beginning. ” Eisen said the union hopes to achieve what can be called a national framework for a union contract – one that includes basic warranties across union Starbucks stores, but which allows individual stores to address their own concerns.
“There are aspects of the business that are consistent in these stores, but there are many aspects that are not,” she said.
Eisen said she works at a small walk-in place, known as a company-language café, and that her store operates differently from a drive-thru store like the one in Mesa, Arizona, which was recently organized. Some contract language for one may not make sense for the other.
“We need to find the elements of stores that are consistent and that become a national framework – but that allow for fluid contracts that can also be addressed to each store,” Eisen said.
Starbucks’ Borges said the company has no interest in eroding national standards of any kind, no matter how many stores decide to organize.
“From our perspective, the law and the NLRB union gave their argument that each store is its own entity,” Borges said. “So now we’re moving on with individual contracts for each of these stores.”
Securing a first contract can be notoriously difficult in the United States, in part because employers do not face any meaningful sanctions for pulling the process out. It is a common strategy for companies to negotiate “in bad faith” and not make any real progress at the table, hoping that union support will diminish over time, and perhaps the union will even become decertifiedor removed from the workplace.
If only a handful of stores end up merging, it would be easier for Starbucks to stifle the campaign. But the union has run for election in more than 200 stores, and so far they have lost only two of the more than 20 vote counts already found (the results have not been certified for some of them). At this rate, the union is likely to gain more influence at the negotiating table and more public support.
“Clearly, this is a very worker-driven organizational drive, and the workers are in extremely good communication with each other,” said Rebecca Givan, associate professor of work studies at Rutgers University. “So we know that the workers who are already sitting at the bargaining table in a store will try to get a broad understanding of what the workers everywhere want when determining their demands.”
Borges assured that the company would negotiate in good faith: “We want to be respectful, we want to honor the process.” But realistically, it can take years to obtain a contract and will ultimately depend on the company’s willingness to reach one.
“It is clear that this is a very worker-driven organizational drive and the workers are in extremely good communication with each other.”
– Rebecca Givan, Rutgers University
Starbucks has deployed dozens of lawyers from the law firm Littler Mendelson to prevent unions from slow down the pace of union elections, and has sent Starbucks executives to persuade workers to vote against the union. But Givan said the fight against a union effort in every store becomes less lasting as the campaign grows.
“It will be difficult to maintain that strategy at potentially dozens of negotiating tables, especially when workers are fully in line and in coordination with each other,” she said.
Starbucks has also fired a number of well-known union supporters. The company maintains that these dismissals were all for legitimate reasons, but it has already been determined by the officials of the labor board. seven layoffs in Memphis was in response to trade union activism and therefore illegal. Bloomberg recently reported that the works council will file a lawsuit against Starbucks if it does not agree to a settlement.
While workers comment on the company’s handling of the union campaign, Starbucks may face a backlash from consumers affecting its bottom line. The stakes can be even higher in an ugly contract battle if the union gets work-friendly politicians and other high-profile supporters who are willing to criticize the company.
Sharon Block, a professor of labor law at Harvard University and former Biden White House official, said the fire dynamics are “difficult to quantify”, but reputable considerations should be included in Starbucks’ calculation.
“I imagine it weighs on their decision making,” she said. “It’s not just about doing it [financial] mathematics.”
If workers can successfully organize hundreds of stores, there may be a point where Starbucks finds it in the company’s interest to recognize itself as a union employer and negotiate accordingly, instead of continuing to wage a fight in every single one. shop where a union shows up. .
Eisen said she often thinks about that prospect and wonders how much organization it would take to get there. She said it takes much longer to organize a single store than one might expect. She believes public support for the campaign may mean more in the end than how many stores end up in the union column.
“We’re getting stronger, of course, with every petition filed and every store that wins,” she said. “The hope is that if the company really is who they have pretended to be in the last 50 years, that there is still room for them to make changes and get on board and become the company that is really progressive and going up front with a good example. “