Starbucks Workers Are Facing Down One of the Most Intense Union-Busting Campaigns in Decades
Workers at more than 100 Starbucks stores in 27 states have filed union petitions for elections. In response, the company has launched a relentless anti-union effort.
In interviews, Starbucks workers tell In These Times that starting a union campaign is the first time they’ve felt hopeful in their adult lives. “A lot of us have gotten used to a sense of hopelessness and helplessness when it comes to our jobs,” says Rachel Ybarra, 22, an organizer at a Starbucks in Seattle. “But unionizing can give you a sense of agency,” Ybarra adds.
“If a union is involved, your coworkers have the power to go to bat for you.”
In Memphis, Tenn., Nikki Taylor, at age 32, is one of the oldest Starbucks baristas at the busy corner of Poplar Avenue and S. Highland Street. She says she feels like a mother figure to a “close-knit, regular barbecue-type family.” When she started as a shift supervisor two years ago, working in the café was a dream job — but this soon changed.
During the pandemic her store has faced chronic staffing shortages and baristas have been tasked with the work of three or four people. “You’re getting hundreds of drink orders, making them all yourself, still having to give that ultimate customer service,” Taylor says.
So workers began to talk. “When you’re working alongside people going through the same thing every day, you guys bond so much,” Taylor says.
One concern was pay. The starting wage at the store is about $12, and some workers take multiple jobs to make ends meet, Taylor says. According to MIT’s living wage calculator, the living wage in Memphis is $13.26 for a single adult, $18.02 for a family of four.
Another issue was Covid-19 policy. Vaccinated workers who were exposed to Covid-19 but had no symptoms were expected to work their shifts. During the highly contagious Omicron wave of the virus this winter, workers say they’d see people with known exposures come in for work, only to develop symptoms while on the clock.
Asked for comment, “Anthony D.,” a corporate Starbucks representative, told In These Times in an emailed statement, “Throughout the pandemic, we have met and exceeded the latest direction from the CDC. … Over and above that, all leaders are empowered to make any changes make sense [sic] for their neighborhood, which includes shortening store hours or moving to 100 percent take-out only.”
Taylor says the store’s policies still presented a dilemma: “[Do] I not get paid and be at home and try to be safe — and then not be paying my bills? Or go to work and continue to be exposed?”
In January, Taylor contracted the virus soon after working alongside someone with a known exposure. At home, Taylor exposed her fiancé and 8-year-old daughter, who developed a 102-degree fever days later. The previous month, a location in Buffalo, N.Y., had become the first unionized Starbucks café in the country. (Some smaller Starbucks “kiosks,” such as those inside grocery stores and airports, do run under union contracts with the larger venue.)
When Taylor heard that, she thought her Memphis store might have a real shot at a union, too. She contacted Starbucks Workers United, the Buffalo-based campaign assisted by Workers United, itself an independent affiliate of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU).
When they replied, Taylor says, she jumped and cried with excitement.
The Starbucks union drive went public in Memphis on January 17, Martin Luther King Jr. Day — a deeply personal event for many of the Memphis workers.
“We have [workers] here that were born and raised in Memphis, whose grandparents were in those same rallies and walks that Martin Luther King Jr. did,” says Beto Sanchez, 25, an R&B and jazz musician who began working at the Memphis café after the pandemic decimated the music industry. “We are practically 10 minutes away from Lorraine Motel [where King was assassinated]. Whether it was the Kellogg’s strike, whether it was the sanitation workers, there’s a lot of union history in this city.”
But immediately, workers say, they felt like they were under surveillance, with high-level managers frequenting the store, loitering in the café and watching the counter.
On February 8, Taylor, Sanchez and five other union supporters were fired without warning. The company cited minor policy violations that workers and a former store manager, Amy Holden, say were never enforced nor taught in training.
“One of the employees literally walked in, signed her union card, took a sip of a drink and left — and she was fired,” Taylor says.
Starbucks rep Anthony D. claims the workers “violated several safety and security policies and protocols, including opening the store after hours, allowing unauthorized personnel inside, leaving the doors unlocked and opening the safe without permission.” Workers reply that, on the night being referenced, they did let a local news crew film in their lobby, all within 10 minutes of the store closing, which they say is company policy — but then they talked about the union campaign on camera.
“How we got fired is not why we got fired,” Sanchez tells In These Times. He notes he was the one fired for opening the safe while off-shift, though he generally had that authority as a shift supervisor. He also points out an irony: “Starbucks decided to tweet about Martin Luther King Jr. and then … decided to fire Black workers here in Memphis for unionizing.” Two of the seven fired workers, including Taylor, are Black.
“It’s union-busting, completely,” Taylor says. “We were loud, we were bold and the company tried to use us as examples. … That scare tactic wildly backfired.”
News of the firings spread rapidly, and the workers became known as “the Memphis 7.” Workers and community members gather outside the Poplar and Highland store early each morning to picket in solidarity. Within a week, rallies demanding their reinstatement sprang up in Boston, Chicago and on the doorstep of Starbucks headquarters in Seattle. Starbucks responded to the Memphis pickets by drastically reducing store hours in the name of “worker safety.” Sanchez says this shows they’re hitting the company “where it hurts … in the wallet.”
Since the first Starbucks union campaign succeeded in Buffalo, N.Y., in December 2021, more than 110 Starbucks stores in 27 states have filed union petitions for elections. That effort encompasses more than 2,000 workers, from Miami-Dade to Seattle.
Common goals include a living wage, access to benefits, adequate staffing, consistent scheduling, more hours, improved health and safety conditions, proper training — and for “partners,” the corporate lingo Starbucks uses to refer to employees, to actually be treated like “partners.”
For Ky Fireside, 31, who works at a Starbucks in Eugene, Ore., one driving force is a living wage. After nearly seven years at the store, Fireside makes $14.70 an hour. According to MIT’s living wage calculator, the living wage in Eugene is $15.58 for a single adult, $22.10 for a family of four.
“In my store, we’ve got three partners who have been with the company for over 15 years,” Fireside says. “These aren’t people working temporary jobs, these are people that are trying to support their family on this income. I’m in my 30s, this is my career. And we’re watching the prices of everything go up, including the coffee that we serve.”
Starbucks has touted itself as an industry leader in wages and benefits, pledging to raise wages nationwide to a range of $15 to $23 by this summer. Benefits include paid parental leave, healthcare plans that cover gender-affirming procedures, and tuition for an online degree at Arizona State University.
According to Fireside, however, less than half of the 30 workers at the Eugene location are scheduled enough hours to be eligible for benefits.
“I’m on state healthcare,” Fireside says. “Starbucks doesn’t pay me enough to buy health insurance and does not work me enough hours to qualify for Starbucks insurance.” Starbucks requires its workers to average 24 hours a week to qualify for the health insurance benefit, which, on the recommended plan, still costs workers a minimum of $84 each month.
Brick Zurek, 25, a Starbucks worker in downtown Chicago, says their store organized after management’s dismal response to workers receiving death threats in December 2021. When a customer threatened to shoot up the store one night, Zurek says, management refused to allow the store to close early. “Starbucks really laid the foundations [for organizing] themselves, on accident,” Zurek says. “When we were so understaffed, when we were threatened, and when we were scared — we were taking care of each other. … We were forming those bonds and connections.”
Meanwhile, as these small union campaigns await their election dates from the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), they are facing a multimillion-dollar anti-union effort considered to be one of the most intense in decades.
In These Times spoke with more than a dozen Starbucks workers trying to unionize their shops. They say, within weeks of their filing for an election, corporate broke out the union-busting playbook. Common tactics include disciplining workers for infractions that were never a concern previously (such as wearing buttons on their aprons or even how they tie their aprons), hiring new workers en masse to dilute the union vote at the store, tense meetings with workers, and surveillance on the floor.
During Buffalo’s campaign, organizers from Workers United say corporate flew in more than 100 “support managers’’ from across the country, including such high-ranking corporate officials as former CEO Howard Schultz, to cafés throughout the district. They began hosting mandatory “listening sessions” between managers and workers. The sessions run under a pretext of addressing grievances, but management uses them to disseminate “facts” about unions.
Workers at other stores with unionizing efforts say the listening sessions, once unheard of, are now routine. While it’s illegal for management to threaten to take away benefits in response to a union campaign, In These Times spoke with Starbucks workers who say managers imply their current benefits won’t be guaranteed with a union, claim that union dues are expensive and suggest that a “third party” (i.e., the union) “will get between” workers and management.
Fireside says listening sessions are a daily occurrence in Eugene and workers in a district-wide group chat alert each other when management is en route, so they can prepare. Fireside adds that, in addition to pulling workers off the floor during busy shifts, the sessions cause stress in other ways, like the anxiety that comes with being cornered. “They say things like, ‘You never know what’s going to happen in a contract: You could lose your benefits, and then where would you be? Where would your kids be?’”
After some sessions, Fireside says, workers leave the floor to cry privately.
Starbucks Workers United has filed an NLRB complaint of unfair labor practices, alleging that the company waged a campaign of interference, intimidation and coercion during the Eugene union drive.
As of March 1, all eight Eugene cafés had filed for a union election.
“You wouldn’t expect us to be the first store, after Buffalo, to unionize — but we did,” says Tyler Ralston proudly. Ralston works at a small, “hole-in-the-wall” Starbucks “connected to a Smashburger” in Mesa, Ariz., a conservative community in a state not known for its union support.
Workers felt compelled to unionize, Ralston says, when manager Brittany Harrison was fired after leaking a video she recorded of Starbucks corporate coaches warning Arizona managers against union organizing. Harrison shared the video with Starbucks Workers United and the New York Times, and “[corporate] started calling me, asking if I was the ‘whistleblower,’” Harrison says in an interview with More Perfect Union. Harrison put in her notice to quit, but was fired instead.
In response, workers in Mesa filed for a union election Nov. 18, 2021. As one of the earliest stores to file, they have been subject to corporate’s full arsenal of anti-union tactics. Within weeks, three new managers were hired to oversee the store — who, according to workers, spent most of their days just sitting in the lobby on laptops or watching employees at the counter.
Starbucks began holding “captive audience meetings,” meetings in which management tries to dissuade workers from unionizing. (These types of meetings would be banned under the Protecting the Right to Organize Act, or PRO Act, a pro-labor bill currently stalled in Congress.) Workers who had been outspoken about the union were taken to a meeting at an offsite hotel, while everyone else talked at the store.
Ralston was outraged at what he says were “intimidation tactics,” and printed out a 12-page document detailing workers’ allegations of mistreatment, passing it around at a captive audience meeting in December 2021.
“I thought it was time for [management] to feel intimidated,” Ralston says.
Ralston was then called into a meeting with two managers. “We sat down at a table and they called me a bully to my face,” Ralston says. “They said I needed to apologize [to the store managers] because of the union and everything that [the union] has done to them.”
Ralston, of course, did not.
Then, in advance of the February election, management began mass-hiring new workers, a tactic the union alleges is used to dilute the vote; staffing went from 25 to 40. According to Ralston, the in flux of hires caused chaos, at times doubling the number of workers necessary, reducing hours and diluting tips.
Starbucks has also contracted legal services from Littler Mendelson, one of the largest and most notorious union-busting law firms in the country, with hourly rates reportedly as high as $600 to $700. The firm worked with McDonald’s and Uber during two of the largest labor battles of the last decade: the national fight for a $15 minimum wage, and the corporate campaign to pass California’s Proposition 22, which classified app-based gig workers as contractors rather than employees.
Starbucks is not required to disclose how much they’re paying Littler Mendelson, though in a February review of NLRB filings, HuffPost found at least 30 Littler lawyers attached to Starbucks cases.
Starbucks does seem concerned that the company’s anti-union efforts are hurting its image as a forward-thinking corporate citizen, writing in a February 1 report to the SEC that “our responses to any union organizing efforts could negatively impact how our brand is perceived and have adverse effects on our business.”
Starbucks’ “Anthony D.” tells In These Times, “From the beginning, we have been clear in our belief that we are better together as partners, without a union between us, and that conviction has not changed. Our position since the beginning is all of our partners in a market or district deserve the right to vote.”
But Workers United organizer Richard Bensinger, 71, former national organizing director of the AFL-CIO, sees no sign of Starbucks letting up on its anti-union efforts. “This has to be the most intense [anti-union] campaign in modern U.S. history, and there’s really nothing in second place,” Bensinger says.
On February 16, for example — the day the Mesa store’s votes were scheduled to be counted — corporate Starbucks lawyers appealed to the NLRB to delay the vote count, arguing that stores should vote district-wide rather than one by one. Organizers allege the goal of this tactic is to dilute the vote. Starbucks lost the appeal.
“They’ve lost this case [for district-wide votes] [four] times now, and they’re going to lose it 100 times,” says Bensinger, who works with the Buffalo union campaigns. “This is 50 years of legal precedent.”
Starbucks also lost the union vote — with a landslide 25-3 win for the workers of the Mesa café, which became the third unionized Starbucks in the United States.
But for every successful union drive, Bensinger notes, countless stores silently buckle under immense corporate pressure before filing. Bensinger describes one failed effort at a store in Buffalo where 80 percent of workers signed union cards; Starbucks simply closed the store and converted it into a training center, relocating the workers to stores that were miles away. Most of them quit.
This store reopened after publishing and won their union election — by one vote — on March 9.
“We’ve passed 100 [organized] stores,” Bensinger says. “That’s great. But that’s in spite of what [corporate] is doing.”
Previously, the only union to try to organize Starbucks nationwide was the Industrial Workers of the World, with a campaign that started in 2004. They never won a union election, and the campaign was hindered by relentless corporate anti-union efforts and high worker turnover (often due to firings the union said were retaliatory); the effort died out by 2017. But by garnering free media attention, organizers did pressure image-conscious Starbucks into regional wage increases, fairer scheduling and one additional paid holiday — Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
When Workers United began organizing cafés in Buffalo in 2019, Starbucks was not a consideration.
While on the picket with striking Rainforest Cafe workers in Niagara Falls, Canada, Bensinger was approached by workers from SPoT Coffee, a Buffalo-based chain. Those initial organizers were fired in short order, but SPoT workers won a union that year.
Bensinger says that union election was a rallying cry for Buffalo’s labor and progressive community. After SPoT workers secured a strong contract (the median hourly pay rose $4), workers at the Starbucks across the street took notice. They soon reached out to Workers United.
“The partners really get the campaigns going,” Bensinger says. By 2021, Starbucks Workers United had formed an organizing committee with more than 100 workers from Starbucks across Buffalo, training them in union organizing.
“It’s all organic,” Bensinger says. “Any good organizing campaign is either run by the workers, or you lose.”
Workers United formed in 2009 (by splitting off from Unite Here) and operates as an “independent affiliate” of the SEIU. The Starbucks unionizing effort, however, bears little resemblance to the SEIU’s Fight for $15 campaign, which attempted to organize fast-food workers nationwide for “$15 and a union,” and for which the union hired dozens of organizers in 2011 and 2012, investing millions.
For starters, Fight for $15 was not focused on store-by-store organizing. Its primary strategies were to build momentum for a $15 minimum wage while pushing the NLRB to allow franchises (such as McDonald’s) to be unionized at the national level, rather than shop by shop. The SEIU lost its case under the Trump-era NLRB, then lost a final appeal in 2021.
Starbucks Workers United, however, is a worker-led campaign with support from Workers United. The union is primarily made up of volunteer organizers from around the country who continue to work at Starbucks and serve on their cafés’ organizing committees. Fewer than 20 paid organizers with Workers United nationwide help by facilitating communication between stores and filling support roles like printing and delivering union cards. The union is not planning new hires. Instead, at national trainings, workers at active campaigns learn to move other stores in their region through the process.
Casey Moore, 25, a Starbucks worker in Buffalo, runs communications for Starbucks Workers United as a volunteer. Moore had never been involved in a union campaign before joining her store’s organizing committee. Now, she helps new stores start organizing every day.
“I joke now that I don’t have a life; this is my life,” says Moore. “But I think it’s the coolest thing ever to be a part of.”
Workers interested in learning more about unionizing often email Starbucks Workers United or reach out via Twitter and Instagram, accounts run entirely by Starbucks workers. Since the Memphis 7 firings, Moore says, there’s been a surge in organizing.
“I’ve heard from a lot of partners that this just angered them and was the driving force telling them to message us,” Moore says.
“I’m on Zoom call after Zoom call, just listening,” Bensinger says. “On many of the calls, I never say a word — just marvel at it. It’s an honor just to listen to them. And everybody knows exactly what to do. The partners all are wired in through social media and they share everything. The second something new happened in a store, it’s all over social media. They’re wickedly, devastatingly funny and positive.”
Starbucks Workers United is also building a virtual network of organizers to share resources, answers to common questions, organizing strategies and updates on corporate tactics. If a new anti-union leaflet pops up in Seattle, for example, Moore says a worker in Knoxville or Cleveland can confirm they’ve seen identical material and share how they responded.
“A lot of the things that people are asking for,” Moore says, “are, ‘What can I share with my coworkers to dispel these lies that Starbucks is telling to scare people?’ And answering questions like, ‘What is a union? What do we fight for with the union? Why organize? What’s collective bargaining?’”
Labor historians are connecting the Starbucks Workers United momentum with the wave of labor militancy that began in 2018 when West Virginia public school teachers went on strike.
Importantly, “[the teachers] framed the strike as being about community, rather than about just being themselves,” says Erik Loomis, associate professor of history at the University of Rhode Island. “It’s about dignity. It’s about fairness.”
Christian Sweeney, deputy organizing director of the AFL-CIO, confirms the AFL-CIO has seen a significant increase in organizing interest since 2018. He notes, however, that larger labor unions have limited appetite for organizing a few dozen workers at a time, store by store, as the Starbucks campaign is doing. Though the campaign is growing rapidly, the number of stores that have organized for an election are a fraction of the 9,000 company-operated Starbucks in the United States. And across all sectors, U.S. union density has been on the decline for decades, bottoming out at about 10 percent within the past few years.
Instead, Sweeney says, unions have been looking for ways to work around a “terribly broken” NLRB process by putting resources into getting reform legislation, such as the PRO Act, passed.
The PRO Act, however, is likely stalled in the current Congress without filibuster reform. Sweeney sees in the Starbucks campaign one alternate way forward.
“Waves of labor movement growth [in the 1880s, 1910s, 1930s and 1950s] have been associated with different ways that workers figured out how to organize, reflective of both changes in the economy, but also changes in the ways that work is organized,” Sweeney says. “I think we’re on the verge of bigger things to come, and these Starbucks workers might just be the caffeine that we all need to figure out the next thing.”
“Maybe there are lessons to learn from this for established labor unions, that if you can get in the door, you can create this wave you’re seeing in Starbucks,” Loomis agrees. “There’s lots of other kinds of companies, both in fast food and other forms of service industries, that can easily build on this.” Loomis cautions that rebuilding a powerful labor movement will take decades, just as building one did.
“It does give me hope every day knowing that people are starting to recognize the power that they have, as a collective force, as a workforce,” says Sanchez from the Memphis store. He adds that “there are always going to be more of us” and hopes the rest of the coffee industry will follow suit, “whether it’s the coffee farmers, whether it’s the suppliers, whether it’s the manufacturing area.” As of press time, two of the nation’s three flagship Starbucks roasteries have filed to hold union elections.
In the midst of a fierce corporate intimidation campaign, organizers say that public attention and community support are crucial. “Everybody’s rallied around the Starbucks workers, and that’s what it’s going to take to win, because you have to get [Starbucks] to stop their anti-unionism,” Bensinger says.
When captive audience meetings began at one of the first Starbucks to file for an election in Portland, Ore., members of the Democratic Socialists of America, the Teamsters and other union members occupied the café with a “solidarity sip-in” at a table adjacent to management. Management was eventually forced to conduct meetings outside.
When the first captive audience meeting hit the downtown Chicago store, a crowd of 50 from Workers United and the other two Chicago stores with unionizing efforts picketed directly outside.
Members of the Memphis 7 say workers there have since formed a new organizing committee and are going harder than ever. On lunch breaks and after clocking out for the night, workers brush past management and head straight for the picket.
“Like I said, we’re a family,” Taylor says. “You hurt one family member, you hurt them all.”
Hannah Faris is associate editor at The Wisconsin Idea, an independent reporting project of People’s Action Institute, Citizen Action of Wisconsin Education Fund and In These Times.