Michael A. McCoy for NPR
Workers’ organization at Starbucks Burner. What started with a store in Buffalo has quickly spread to other locations across the country.
Twenty stores have now been organized, including four so far this week with unanimous votes. The union has only lost once when one of the first three stores in Buffalo that organized voted down the union back in December. More than 200 Starbucks stores have searched for choices, with more added every day.
Howard Schultz’s return to Starbucks as interim CEO on April 4 has not slowed the movement, despite his appeal to employees, known as partners at Starbucks, to trust him – not a union – to do things right for them .
“My job with returning to Starbucks is to make sure we … re-imagine a new Starbucks with our partners at the center of it all, as a pro-partner company, as a company that does not need anyone between us and our people, “Schultz told staff at a town hall-style meeting on his first day back.
But more and more workers at Starbucks think otherwise. They say a worker-led union is exactly what they need to have a seat at the table.
Starbucks workers were initially attracted to the company because of its culture
Starbucks has long been proud to be an excellent employer. In fact, the generous benefits and socially progressive culture are a big part of what made Tim Swicord, Gailyn Berg, Megan Gaydos, and Claire Picciano find jobs at the company in Springfield, Virginia. Their Starbucks store is voting this week on whether to get organized.
“The way they treated their employees, and also the work environment that I witnessed – it seemed very engaging and fun,” says Swicord, a high school senior who applied to Starbucks for a part-time job last year.
“I would like to go to college for free,” says Picciano, a barista trainer who has worked at Starbucks part-time for three and a half years, while also working toward a bachelor’s degree in health sciences, thanks to Starbucks. The company offers free college tuition through an online program at Arizona State University, a perk that Berg and Gaydos have also enjoyed.
Berg, who took office four years ago and is now the watchman, says they love Starbucks, or at least loved it before.
“I certainly felt like they had lived up to the culture, they promise the culture they had given,” they say.
But in the pandemic, the goodwill quickly disappeared. And all four Springfield workers were eventually convinced that they would be better off with a union. It started in January, a month after a Starbucks store in Buffalo won a successful union. What started as a casual, almost jokey conversation quickly became serious, Swicord says. “We’re just starting to think, ‘Hey, this is something we really should do as a store.'”
Andrea Hsu / NPR
Starbucks’ anti-union campaign has annoyed workers
Swicord became one of the organizers. He also became a target of Starbucks’ anti-union campaign. In a closed meeting with his store manager and the district manager, he says that he was warned that union was a game of chance, that employees risked losing their services, and that he in particular risked losing on a promotion.
“To me, it didn’t feel like a conversation,” he says.
Swicord says Starbucks has also carried out other union-breaking activities. After their store cast a vote in the union, their schedule was taken down from the wall in the back room, and when it was remodeled, their hours had been cut down. Five new employees were suddenly hired, but Picciano, the store’s barista coach, says she was not allowed to train the new employees.
“These partners were sent to other stores to be trained,” she says.
Starbucks denies having participated in illegal anti-union activities, including in other stores where labor organizers have been fired. Starbucks says the workers in question were fired for violating company policies.
The tensions in the Springfield store date to early in the pandemic
The mistrust the four Springfield workers feel towards Starbucks dates back to the beginning of the pandemic. In the scary first days, Berg felt that Starbucks was slow to respond, but soon after, their store was among those that Starbucks closed for six weeks with pay. During that time, the staff gathered at Zoom to brainstorm ideas on how to stay safe. Together with their store manager, they decided to set up a table and a tent by the door. Customers could place orders on the Starbucks app and pick up their drinks outside.
They were quickly overruled.
Referring to food safety issues, their district manager told them that their plan was inappropriate and that customers should be able to enter the store.
“It was definitely a tough first few weeks when we first got used to how the Starbucks company wanted us to look and decide if it was actually safe enough,” Berg says.
In fact, Starbucks took a number of steps to help employees through that time. For 30 days, they paid workers, whether they went to work or not, for whatever reason. They gave 14 days paid leave to workers who were exposed to or diagnosed with COVID. They extended childcare benefits and for a few months paid the workers $ 3 more per hour in severance pay.
But increasingly, employees felt voiceless about the challenges they faced at work. Confrontations with customers over masks. Colleagues call sick, with no one to replace them.
“‘I’m just so stressed. We need more help,’ ‘Picciano recalls, telling his manager at the time.
Pandemic benefits were cut down as the company reported record sales
For Gaydos, a barista, a low point came last fall when Starbucks phased out one of its pandemic benefits. Employees had received a free food and a beverage every day, from any store, even though they were not working that day. Gaydos says they were told the company could not afford the benefit anymore.
“And then it came out that we had a record sales and that the then CEO, Kevin Johnson, would receive a 40% increase,” Gaydos says.
Starbucks notes that it has replaced some pandemic benefits with others as the pandemic has evolved. For example, twice a quarter, workers can now take five days’ paid leave if they have to be isolated due to COVID.
The company also points to increases it has announced for store employees. By the summer of 2022, Starbucks says all workers will earn at least $ 15 an hour.
The Springfield workers are not impressed.
“Starbucks boasts of raising everyone to $ 15 an hour, but that was ten years ago when we needed it,” said duty officer Berg.
What the workers want: more money and more influence
If their store votes to organize this week, Springfield workers have a wide range of demands they will bring to the negotiating table.
“Of course an increase – this is our very first,” says Berg.
They also want consistency in their schedules and in how many hours they are allocated each week.
The baristas want customers to be able to tip the credit card readers in the shops and more easily tip the mobile app. They also want Starbucks to supplement the gratuity as many people do not give gratuity because the prices are so high.
“It’s not our fault that Starbucks keeps raising the price of everything to the point where it’s the most expensive cup of coffee you’ve ever had,” Picciano says.
Berg has a bigger issue in mind: a larger store. The store is now too small in relation to the amount of traffic they get, says Berg, and workers have been injured while rebuilding the warehouse because many items are high on the shelves.
Above all, the workers will have an impact on how things are done in their store. They want their voices heard.
“We would all be happy to give this company everything we had if we were also treated the same way back,” Picciano says.
On Thursday, workers hope to become the 21st Starbucks store to join the national union Workers United.