It’s a truism in labor circles that winning a first contract can be even more difficult than winning a union election. The ongoing year-plus battle between Starbucks and its unionizing baristas is proving that adage correct.
According to data from the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), as of May 10, workers had won union elections at 308 Starbucks stores since December 2021 — yet not a single shop has come close to reaching a first contract. (Each Starbucks that has unionized is legally a separate bargaining unit organized into Workers United, an SEIU affiliate.)
The barista network Starbucks Workers United (SBWU) has made over a dozen proposals to date that serve as a basis for each store’s bargaining. These range from higher base wages to the right to wear union paraphernalia to stronger anti-discrimination language. But workers are not even receiving counter proposals from the company, says Brooklyn-based barista CJ Toothman.
The baristas and Workers United were previously determined to hold hybrid sessions with some workers attending by Zoom in order to expose baristas from across the country to a joint process of collective negotiations against their common employer. Hybrid sessions also served to accommodate such concerns as pandemic conditions, transportation difficulties, and long distances. Starbucks, meanwhile, has largely refused to take part in such sessions, arguing that they are not safe or secure and that face-to-face meetings are more productive.
Now, SBWU has decided to call Starbucks’s bluff on the company’s main objection against bargaining with baristas. Since late March, SBWU and its union have tactically conceded on the issue of Zoom during bargaining sessions, even as they fight through the NLRB to retain the right to hybrid bargaining sessions.
They have also come up with an inventive way to fulfill the same organizing purpose as the previously attempted hybrid sessions. SBWU is holding regional in-person bargaining meetings where members from across a section of the country all attend sessions in person. The first was held in Seattle on March 22 when baristas from across the Pacific Northwest attended a bargaining session.
So far, the change in strategy has yielded some results, with Starbucks representatives now sitting through meetings like the one in Seattle and hearing proposals rather than leaving the sessions almost immediately. But Starbucks’s intransigence remains an enormous obstacle. According to Toothman, “They have started listening to our proposals without walking out the door, but as of yet we have not received any counter proposals. They have not asked questions about our proposals.”
“In general, a lot of workers have found the attitude of these bargaining sessions to be pretty dismissive on the side of the company,” they said.
The impulse to change strategies came from the grassroots, according to New Jersey SBWU member Sara Mughal. But the National Bargaining Committee, the movement’s leadership structure for bargaining, still had to approve it, which it ultimately did after internal debate.
“[It] was really done with the intent of showing… ‘Hey, even if we concede about this issue, the company still is not serious about bargaining with us, we have been at countless tables, and they have either left or they have listened to proposals and provided no counter proposal [of] their own,” says Toothman, one of four facilitators on the National Bargaining Committee in the midst of a six-month term.
Both the company and the union are legally required to bargain in good faith after successful unionization. In this instance, each has accused the other of not doing so, but the NLRB has largely found the workers’ claims to have merit — and Starbucks’s not to meet that bar. For example, the NLRB ruled against Starbucks in November for refusing to bargain with workers at its Reserve Roastery in Seattle and is now seeking federal enforcement of the judgment. But Starbucks seems undeterred and continues to rack up violations from the NLRB as it drags out bargaining.
Previously, the $120-billion company had been stonewalling SBWU members at meetings around the country, a practice that continued for months. The sessions were nominally intended to hash out the details of a union contract, but in practice were more likely pro forma sessions designed to avoid accusations of bad faith negotiating.
For instance, Mughal and her fellow baristas from New Jersey felt it was clear they weren’t going to get anywhere in negotiations last fall for a union contract at her store in Hopewell.
“As soon as they would see that Zoom element, they would act really shocked as if this was not something they expected and would act really indignant,” says Mughal of the four bargaining sessions she attended across the state. The company’s representatives or its lawyers would then end the session until the workers’ “[shaped] up and got rid of the Zoom element,” says Mughal.
The New Jersey baristas fought back though, to “make sure that they knew we weren’t going to be discouraged,” says Mughal. “We added our own flair to it, because, obviously, we’re Starbucks workers — we’re going to do that,” she adds.
For example, when Starbucks’s lawyers momentarily left the room, the baristas quickly looked them up individually on the website of Littler Mendelson P.C., the legal firm employed by Starbucks, and left the screens with lawyers’ profiles in view for them to see when they walked in.
At another bargaining session, for a store in Montclair, the New Jersey baristas unsuccessfully tried to give a card and flowers to the Starbucks’s negotiating team because the meeting fell on Valentine’s Day.
“We just kind of, you know, [tried] to have fun with it,” says Mughal.
For its part, Starbucks has claimed that the use of Zoom in bargaining sessions threatens the safety of management employees. “Union organizers have been at [Starbucks’s managers and district managers homes] and [the latter] have been outed on social media,” said former CEO and current board member Howard Schultz in testimony before the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee (HELP) in March.
This allegation comes despite the fact that the company has engaged successfully in Zoom bargaining with the union over other issues besides first contracts like the closures of current stores, says Toothman.
Toothman joined the National Bargaining Committee in July 2022 when a call went out to baristas to get involved in framing nationally cohesive bargaining demands. “There’s these shared problems that exist for every Starbucks store, and…we’re stronger when we work together as a collective union than each individual store trying to negotiate individually their own contract,” says Toothman.
The group, working through subcommittees, first came up with non-economic proposals last year and then with economic proposals in April. Both sets of ideas were run by rank-and-file members of SBWU through a surveying process according to Lydia Fernandez, a Philadelphia-based member who joined the National Bargaining Committee in January and who is also a member of a baristas of color group.
“The reason the contract and bargaining is so important is…it’s kind of…the whole crux of our work,” says Fernandez. Moreover, says Fernandez, she fears that after one year, workers at some stores may begin to try to decertify Workers United as their representative, a process that is generally on hold at stores until the company bargains in good faith or stops committing relevant Unfair Labor Practices. However, workers at three Starbucks stores around the country have started the process already.
Despite the level of resistance the company has shown — some baristas have even had to go on strike in order to attend bargaining sessions — SBWU members maintain that it’s vital for their network to devote large amounts of energy to bargaining.
And it’s not just because of the legal requirement for its union to do so in good faith, but also to exert pressure on the company. “Even if they’re not going to bargain with us, [it’s]…to make noise and to be seen,” says Long Island-based barista Liv Ryan.
“The bigger the better,” Ryan said.
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