Starbucks Union Workers Have a Holiday Wish: Don’t Buy Starbucks Gift Cards

To mark the anniversary of the Starbucks union movement, workers are holding rallies in 10 cities—and asking customers to publicly show their support.

Saurav Sarkar

Starbucks workers strike outside a Starbucks coffee shop on November 17, 2022 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. (Photo by ANGELA WEISS / AFP) (Photo by ANGELA WEISS/AFP via Getty Images)

Starbucks Workers United (SBWU) has a birthday on Friday, and is holding ten rallies across the country to celebrate with the help of its parent union, Workers United.

Friday marks the one-year anniversary of the winning election at the Elmwood Starbucks store in Buffalo, N.Y. on December 9, 2021, the first of the chain’s company-run locations to unionize in the country since the 1980s. The election win at Elmwood triggered a nationwide union upsurge at Starbucks. 

As part of the day of action, SBWU baristas are asking supporters to refrain from buying Starbucks gift cards this holiday season and show up to work stoppages and demonstrations instead. Like many gift recipients, they’ll accept cash too.

It’s a celebration of the fact that it’s been a year, and we’ve managed to unionize more than 260 stores,” barista and barista trainer CJ Toothman says of the December 9 anniversary events. 

According to SBWU, there are now 270 unionized company-run stores counting almost 7,000 union members, though the pace of new stores filing for unions has significantly slowed since the spring. 

SBWU sees the slower pace as a result of Starbucks’ bullying” against baristas. Union members say the company has engaged in a months-long union-busting campaign with tactics ranging from differential benefits provided to nonunion stores to firing about 150 workers allegedly as retaliation for union activity, according to SBWU. Other complaints include short-staffing, health and safety concerns, poor management, discrimination against LGBTQ workers, unilateral changes to work hour requirements, selectively closing unionized stores and racism.

Perhaps most notably, baristas with the campaign say that Starbucks has not negotiated in good faith with the unionized stores as it is legally required to do. After first refusing to sit down at the table for months with more than a handful of stores, Starbucks then set up bargaining sessions with most locations, only to walk out in virtually every case, leaving after a few minutes. 

Starbucks complained that the union was bringing in workers outside the store’s bargaining team. It also said workers violated NLRB rules by taking videos of bargaining and circulating them in some instances.

Starbucks denies the allegations of union-busting and claims that it is treating its workers fairly and is interested in good-faith negotiations. The company argues that it wants to work with baristas rather than be in confrontation with them.

But the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has cited the company for over 900 violations of federal labor law.

As a result, not a single store has reached a contract with the $119 billion company that made almost $900 million in profits over the quarter ending in October.

While the barista network, with the support of Workers United’s legal staff, initially responded with filings at the NLRB and a wave of one-off strikes, over the last few months SBWU and Workers United increasingly put together a more coordinated campaign.

The key event so far has been a national strike in November, called the Red Cup Rebellion” as it fell on the company’s popular Red Cup Day, which was the high point after weeks of planning. It’s unlikely to be the last.

The November strike on one of Starbucks’ busiest days took place at more than 110 stores and allowed union baristas to directly engage with the company’s consumer base. That link has been a missing piece in the SBWU campaign, some workers and union staff say.

Starbucks corporate [is] not going to do anything until the customers start making their voices heard about this, because I’ve for years seen people in the stores complaining about all the things that we are asking for, but the only time anything ever changes is when customers start demanding it,” says Arlington, Va. shift supervisor Samuel Dukore.

Because that’s where the money comes from,” he says.

This is one reason SBWU is engaging in more public actions like the Red Cup Day strikes where baristas were able to use their strike muscle while speaking directly to customers on the picket lines.

The rallies on Friday will have a particular focus on teachers, both because that community is very familiar with bullying and because they often receive gift cards this time of year.

We’re really [asking] parents not to purchase Starbucks gift cards for teachers for the holidays,” says Toothman.

Teachers or their union representatives will be on the mic at many of the events. In Texas, for example, San Antonio Alliance President Alejandra Lopez will be speaking at a rally.

We want to show that the teachers are on our side, and they’re not going to stand for bullying from corporate just like they wouldn’t stand for bullying as a teacher in their classrooms,” says Sarah Wayment, a San Antonio-based shift supervisor at Starbucks.

Another target audience for SBWU and Workers United is the LGBTQ community, whose members face discrimination both in public and in workplaces.

LGTBQ people make up a significant chunk of the Starbucks’ workforce. For example, an Anderson, S.C. store at one point had 15 LGBTQ workers out of a total of 19. At another store in North Carolina, the workforce was characterized by a shift supervisor as queer as hell.”

The rallies Friday will take place in Arlington, Va., Atlanta, Boston, Buffalo, N.Y., Chicago, Los Angeles, New York City, Pittsburgh, San Antonio and Seattle.

[Starbucks is] trying to intimidate and bully us [and] it’s not gonna work,” says Wayment. The community has our backs.” 

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