Starbucks employees at first unionized store say it’s gone from ‘just a local issue to national’

Dec 10, 2021, 2:13 PM
Starbucks employees and supporters react as votes are read during a viewing of their union election on Dec. 9, 2021, in Buffalo, N.Y. Starbucks workers have voted to unionize over the company’s objections, pointing the way to a new labor model for the 50-year old coffee giant. (AP Photo/Joshua Bessex)
(AP Photo/Joshua Bessex)

A Starbucks in Buffalo, New York, has become the first Starbucks to unionize. The vote was 19 to 8.

Three organizers of the union campaign — Cassie Fleischer, Natalie Wittmeyer, and Jaz Brisack — joined Seattle’s Morning News to talk about the history made and what’s next.

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KIRO Radio’s Dave Ross said he heard that Starbucks recently raised wages to $23 an hour. The Buffalo employees said that was in response to their union campaign.

“Any wage increases were announced in response to our union campaign,” one of the three employees said. “There’s regularly scheduled cost of living increases that may or may not keep up with the cost of inflation. But the recent seniority pay increases announced were in direct response to our union campaign, and $23 an hour is definitely not anywhere close to the starting wage for baristas.”

“But I think what we’re really looking for is, Starbucks announced those because they’re scared of truly giving us a voice and letting us vote our union in. What we want is to be able to negotiate what will make our lives work and truly have a voice and a partnership with this company,” they added.

There are union votes at two other Starbucks in the area, the outcome of which is still undecided. What if the Buffalo location ends up being the only unionized Starbucks?

“All we had to do was win one. There’s over 8,000 corporate Starbucks in the United States, and none of them have a union. So today, we’re the first union Starbucks. And once we get our contract, we’ll prove that we can truly win the right to organize at this company,” another one of the employees said.

The three say that, in some ways, their vote has already opened the floodgates.

“We, in Buffalo, we have three other stores voting to unionize. We also have two stores in Arizona that are voting to unionize,” an employee said. “We don’t have dates yet on when the votes are going to happen, but already it’s gone from literally just a local issue to national in the U.S.”

As far as the company and their manager’s attitude to the union vote, they said their manager is “wonderful.” Corporate was another story.

“Corporate has brought in four managers just into our store from out of state,” one employee explained.

“I am actually a new hire,” another picked up. “I have worked at the Elmwood location for about a month now. My entire time at Starbucks has been categorized by visits from the president of North American Starbucks, visits from higher ups that, quite frankly, I shouldn’t be seeing at my store all the time.”

“Actually, on the third day that I was there, I got done with my shift and a whole bunch of Starbucks personnel from all around the country came in to visit us and remind us of all the awesome benefits that Starbucks has for employees,” they continued. “And from the start of my short time here at Starbucks, it’s definitely been a campaign to remind how benevolent Starbucks is and, you know, you might lose this if the union comes in-between us. So corporate has definitely — they put their foot on the gas and really ramped up an anti-union campaign.”

The employees all agree that they like their jobs, and say they wouldn’t do this if they didn’t.

“I think there’s sort of a, ‘if you don’t like it, why don’t you go work somewhere else?’ But we care about our jobs and our co-workers and we’re trying to make them better so that we can make a more enjoyable workplace and a more sustainable job for those who want to make a career out of it,” one of the three explained. “It should be able to be a career.”

In Buffalo, the employees say they were told by corporate executives that they must vote no to the union or “everything would change.”

“They have made it ultimately very clear to us, even as new people who have barely had a foot in the door at the company, that there could be repercussions for actions like this,” an employee said. “They’ve said we won’t be able to pick up shifts, we won’t be able to transfer stores, our managers won’t be able to help us on the floor. They’ve told partners it could affect their development or promotions. We were never given equal time, although we asked for it, to have meetings to explain our side of the story. So all people were hearing was all of this anti-union propaganda from Starbucks, and it was incredibly anxiety inducing and scary.”

So what was the deciding factor that got the Starbucks in Buffalo on Elmwood Avenue to be the first one in the history of the company to successfully unionize?

“I think part of it has to do with how much of a family we all are,” one of the employees said. “I’ve worked at five different stores and I’ve never worked at a store where I felt like I belong more. So I just think that, as a whole, we all have each other’s backs. Something that really changed my mind was when I talked to Michelle, my coworker, and she said that she would never stand in the way of something that we wanted. And that really spoke to me because I realized that I felt the same way. If there was something that my partners wanted that was going to make their lives better, I would never stand in the way of that.”

KIRO Radio has reached out to Starbucks corporate for comment.

Listen to Seattle’s Morning News weekday mornings from 5 – 9 a.m. on KIRO Radio, 97.3 FM. Subscribe to the podcast here.

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Starbucks employees at first unionized store say it’s gone from ‘just a local issue to national’