A Union Is Brewing at Starbucks

Photo: Waldo Swiegers/Bloomberg via Getty Images

When Gianna Reeve first began working for Starbucks in Buffalo, New York, she came in “wearing rose-colored glasses.” The chain made big promises, after all. “At first I wanted to buy what they’re selling because they have such a great message of having racial justice, climate justice, having a very-pro LGBT space,” she explained. Soon though, she said the façade melted away, recalling a time she says a transgender employee told her how excited they were to have health-care benefits to fund hormone-replacement therapy. Later she said they were fired “for being two minutes late a couple times.” To Reeve, the company had failed to live up to its progressive brand image, her co-worker’s experience a disillusioning moment.

Reeve is one of the leaders of Starbucks Workers United, an effort to unionize workers at Starbucks locations in Buffalo with Workers United, an affiliate of the SEIU. Six stores have filed for an election so far, with more likely to come. On Wednesday, the National Labor Relations Board mailed ballots to the first three locations to file for an election. Votes will be counted on December 9, the Associated Press reported.

Starbucks has fought back in an effort they say is trying to quash the union drive that could set off a wave of organizing across its 8,000 U.S. locations and the larger fast-food industry. Though Starbucks touts its pay and benefits, which include parental leave and a 401(k) program, workers have complained of chronic understaffing and equipment that regularly breaks down. There are other, deeper principles at work too, said Reeve and Murray. “We believe ultimately the most essential issue is having a voice in the workplace, having a democratic workplace where we are able to represent ourselves together collectively,” Murray said.

In a typical bit of union-busting rhetoric, the company has told workers that they don’t need a union because it would supposedly interfere with their affairs. “Every success we have ever achieved has been in direct partnership with one another — without an outside party between us,” Rossann Williams, the president of Starbucks U.S. retail, told workers in a letter. Behind the scenes though, Murray and Fox say the company has resorted to heavier-handed tactics.

“They flooded Buffalo with managers from around the country,” said barista Brian Murray, who is involved with the union drive. Where there used to be one manager in a store, or maybe two, he said there are now three or four watching workers who might try to organize. “Now we can’t, even on our breaks, talk to co-workers because we’re being watched by managers constantly, who are coming into the store and in and out of the back,” he said. That has a chilling effect on organizing, he added. The corporate onslaught has been so aggressive that workers filed an unfair labor practice charge against the company last week.

Reeve, who joined Murray for a phone call with Intelligencer, expressed extreme frustration with Starbucks. “It cannot be understated just how unethical the onslaught of managers and corporate presence has been in Buffalo during this union campaign,” she said, adding there should be a “freeze” on working conditions inside the stores during the union drive. “No insane changes should be happening on the floor at whatever Starbucks has filed for an election. Instead, we have seen essentially a corporate siege on Buffalo.”

Richard Bensinger, left, who is advising unionization efforts, along with baristas Casey Moore, right, Brian Murray, second from left, and Jaz Brisack, second from right. Photo: Carolyn Thompson/AP/Shutterstock

That siege might have unintended consequences for Starbucks management. At a voluntary event for Buffalo-area partners (the company’s term for workers), CEO Howard Schultz controversially used a Holocaust analogy to discourage votes for a union. As CNN reported, Schultz, “who is Jewish, said a rabbi in Israel told him about the experiences of prisoners at concentration camps in Poland: They were only given a few blankets and had to share.” That story, he added, “is threaded into what we’ve tried to do at Starbucks — is share our blanket.”

Reeve said the comments left her “in complete and utter shock.” Murray recounted similar misgivings. Schultz, he said, had used “the Holocaust as like a political football.” Lynne Fox, the international president of Workers United and the daughter of a Holocaust survivor, said she was “particularly offended” by Schultz’s recent speech.

“That Howard Schultz would reference the Holocaust during a speech intended to crush the union, at best it was inappropriate and at worst it was insulting and trivializing,” she said. “And that’s not the takeaway meaning of the Holocaust, so I’m not sure I quite got his point. But if what if it was about sharing resources, then maybe they should consider not spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on consultants and law firms to run a virulent anti-union campaign, and then they could address the subject of allegedly scarce resources.”

A Starbucks spokesperson said it was not the first time Schultz has shared this particular story, and provided more of Schultz’s remarks in an email to Intelligencer. “I don’t expect you in one hour, if you have come in here with a degree of cynicism or lack of trust to walk out of here in saying everything you told me I now believe. But I will ask you to think about what I said, to process it and understand that these words I’m sharing with you are deeply personal,” Schultz said.

Nevertheless, Murray said he believes management’s conduct has already backfired. At his store, workers “feel like the whole process that Starbucks has engaged in is extremely unfair.” The drive began with three stores in the Buffalo area; since then, three more have filed for an election and more may follow. Murray’s store has not yet filed for an election, but he’s optimistic that will happen soon.

“I think we’re at an inflection point in this country,” said Fox. “Workers are rising up all over the country. There’s a national reckoning taking place with regard to union-busting by corporations over the past four decades, and whether we as a nation are going to allow corporations and billionaires to have all the power and all the wealth, or are we going to let workers have unions as a countervailing force.”

Schultz “has even shown pride in the fact that at corporate meetings in Seattle that there is an empty seat that represents partners rather than a filled one,” Reeve added. That troubles her, she said. “You can’t just assume what partners want based on whatever experience you may have, because they’re not on the floor. They’re not the ones interacting with customers and experiencing problems. They can only assume what our problems are.”

A Union Is Brewing at Starbucks