The fast food industry, one of the most ubiquitous low-wage employers in America, has been notoriously immune to unions. For nearly a decade, the Fight For $15 campaign has been successfully working to raise the industry’s wages — but despite its slogan of “$15 and a union,” has not produced any actual unions. Now, an unrelated group of Starbucks employees in Buffalo, New York, are poised to move forward with something that has rarely been seen before: Union elections at individual fast food stores.
Starbucks is America’s second largest fast food chain, with more than 15,000 stores nationwide. Their only unionized stores are a small number run by subcontractors in places such as airports. Last week, an organizing committee of nearly 50 Buffalo-area Starbucks workers, under the banner of “Starbucks Workers United” (who are organizing with the union Workers United), released a letter announcing their intention to unionize, and calling on the company to embrace “Fair Election Principles” that forswear common union-busting techniques.
In 2016, workers at the Burgerville chain of restaurants successfully began unionizing what would eventually become several stores. That has been the most significant fast food union campaign, until now. The paltry number of fast food unions reflects a common belief within the labor movement that the high turnover and instability of the industry makes store-by-store organizing too difficult, which is why the Fight For $15 has been more of a political campaign than a union drive. But the Starbucks workers in Buffalo say that they intend to move ahead with union elections on a store-by-store basis, eventually aiming to cover all 20 stores in the region.
The group’s organizing committee already consists of representatives from at least 18 of the region’s 20 Starbucks stores, workers say. The stores range in size from around a dozen employees to several dozen. Brian Murray, a Starbucks employee who is on the organizing committee, says that they believe they are at or near majority support for the union at four or five stores — and at those stores, they expect to be filing for union elections soon.
“Most of the workers I talk to are almost immediately on board,” Murray says. He joined the organizing effort two months ago, and has been talking to his coworkers ever since. He says that not only do organizers have to educate everyone on what a union is all about, they also face a latent level of fear among employees that they could be targeted for retaliation, particularly now that the union drive has gone public.
“[Coworkers] were saying, ‘I’m scared, can Starbucks do something to us?’ That broke my heart, because that fear culture has already been cultivated,” says Gianna Reeve, a shift supervisor who has been helping with the organizing effort. “It really hurts. This is an opportunity that we can be stronger.”
Employees say they believe that Starbucks has already retained an anti-union law firm to work on the Buffalo campaign. The company would not comment on that directly. Jory Mendes, a Starbucks spokesman, said: “While Starbucks respects the free choice of our partners, we firmly believe that our work environment, coupled with our outstanding compensation and benefits, makes unions unnecessary at Starbucks. We respect our partners’ right to organize but believe that they would not find it necessary given our pro-partner environment.”
Already, workers say, Starbucks has begun holding “listening sessions” with high-level managers, aiming to hear what issues employees have. This common technique to sap support for union drives is one reason why the workers in Buffalo are focusing their pitch not on specific workplace issues, but on the broader need to simply have a voice on the job. “Starbucks calls us partners, but we’re not actually in a partnership with the company. We don’t really have a voice in what they say or do,” says Reeve. After talking to organizers at Workers United, “it seemed like a perfect fit — having an organization to display our voice.”
Which is not to say that the Starbucks workers do not have workplace issues. They cited last year’s successful union drive by Buffalo-based SPoT Coffee as an inspiration, and proof that a union could not only work, but improve conditions as well. The coffee shop industry across America is itself experiencing a mini union wave. Workers United also organized workers at Gimme! Coffee in 2018, and, most recently, Collectivo Coffee became the largest unionized coffee chain in America when its workers voted to join the IBEW earlier this year.
Starbucks is a sort of hybrid case, sitting at the confluence of coffee shops and fast food chains. Brian Murray, who has been at Starbucks for four months, makes $15.50 an hour. “It was great a couple years ago, before $15 was the minimum wage,” he says wryly. “I think this is the logical conclusion of the Fight for $15 — forming a union.”
Gianna Reeve, who has worked at Starbucks for nearly a year, makes $19-an-hour plus tips as a supervisor. But she notes that a coworker who has been with the company for 17 years makes less than a dollar-per-hour more than her. Workers emphasized that, in contrast to the trope that coffee shops and fast food stores are staffed mostly by students or part-timers, a large portion of employees at Starbucks are working to support themselves, and would like to make it more of a stable career. “They want that progression, they want that [career] development, but it’s become difficult,” Reeve said. Though she acknowledges that Starbucks offers benefits that are good in the context of coffee shops and fast food, “other businesses are catching up.”
With the recent victory of democratic socialist India Walton in the Democratic mayoral primary, Buffalo now finds itself in the national spotlight as a progressive hotbed. (In fact, Brian Murray first found out about the Starbucks organizing campaign during a conversation he had at an India Walton campaign event.) Now, the probable mayor-to-be is publicly supporting the union effort. “We vigorously support the rights of all workers to organize for good pay, good work conditions, and respect on the job. Two years ago, the baristas at Buffalo’s own SPoT Coffee organized for union protections, and we hope the Starbucks baristas will enjoy those same protections soon,” Walton said in a statement to In These Times. “Buffalo has a strong history of union organizing, and growing unions will be a vital component of building the safe, healthy city our communities deserve.”
So far, Starbucks has not signed the “Fair Election” pledge as the workers have requested. Nor is it likely to. Far more likely is a well-financed anti-union campaign that will grow in intensity as Workers United begins to file for NLRB union elections at stores in the area. This group of Starbucks workers is determined to make history — but history shows that organizing Starbucks is not an easy task.
In the early 2000s, the Industrial Workers of the World spent years trying to organize Starbucks workers. No certified unions resulted from the effort, but it did earn a good deal of bad publicity for the company — particularly when they fired a vocal pro-union employee named Erik Forman, and were then forced to rehire him. Forman, a lifelong labor activist, is now one of the cofounders of the Drivers Coop in New York City, a ridesharing cooperative that aims to take on Uber and Lyft. Reached this weekend, Forman reflected on the long struggle at the world’s biggest coffee chain.
“For over 15 years, workers at Starbucks have been organizing and fighting for more control over the place that most of us spend most of our waking hours — the workplace. Starbucks styles itself as a liberal employer, but scratch the surface and what you find is illegal union-busting going back to the origins of the company,” Forman said. “But you can’t hold back the tide of human freedom — workers will continue to fight for the lives they deserve. These brave baristas in Buffalo are leading the way for millions of workers in the low-wage service industry.”
Hamilton Nolan is a labor reporter for In These Times. He has spent the past decade writing about labor and politics for Gawker, Splinter, The Guardian, and elsewhere. You can reach him at Hamilton@InTheseTimes.com.