Starbucks Workers in Buffalo Just Won Themselves a Union

Starbucks was designed from its inception to be union-proof. But yesterday workers in Buffalo, New York, managed to win the first union at the company in the US. It’s a landmark victory, and it can be replicated elsewhere.

Starbucks employees celebrate after votes were counted on December 9, 2021 in Buffalo, New York. (Eleonore Sens / AFP via Getty Images)

With a vote of nineteen to eight, the Elmwood Avenue location in Buffalo, New York, became the first unionized Starbucks in the United States.

It may just be one Starbucks store, but the successful union drive is a win for employees at all fifteen thousand Starbucks locations in the United States. The victory also leaves the door open for further organizing in both fast food and craft cafés.

Elmwood was one of three Starbucks locations that held unionization votes on Thursday. The final ballot count at the Camp Road location in Hamburg, just south of Buffalo, resulted in eight votes for the union and twelve votes against. The Camp Road location was flooded with new staff over the last several months, which may have contributed to the opposition. The union also expressed a concern that all of the ballots may not have been counted at the Camp Road location, and it’s considering filing an objection.

At the Genesee Street location in Cheektowaga, another suburb of Buffalo, the count was fifteen votes for the union and eight votes against. A total of seven ballots were challenged at Genesee Street — six by the union, one by the company — rendering the results inconclusive. However, the union, Starbucks Workers United, is optimistic that Genesee will soon join Elmwood in legal recognition.

Despite only one out of three Buffalo Starbucks locations that held union votes walking away with official union recognition so far, Thursday’s elections signify an important moment in US labor history. Starbucks is designed to be union-resistant, and workers overrode the design. If they can do it, so can other Starbucks workers, as can café and food service workers nationwide.

Since announcing their intent to form a union in August, Starbucks Workers United have faced a brutal anti-union campaign from the corporation. The campaign has involved both common tactics like insistence on simultaneous votes, flyering, and captive audience meetings as well as more aggressive measures like crowding stores with managers and executives from across the country.

Through their anti-union efforts, the corporation sent the message that the health and safety of their employees — whom it calls partners — was not a priority.

Brittany Harrison, a store manager from Mesa, Arizona, blew the whistle on Starbucks’s tactic of importing managers from around the country to Buffalo locations as a way of suppressing the union. As a result of speaking up, Harrison, who is currently undergoing chemotherapy to treat leukemia, faced termination by the company.

The tactic of flooding stores with additional personnel also resulted in health and safety risks for Buffalo workers, who noted during a livestream with Senator Bernie Sanders that during the corporation’s anti-union campaign as many as sixteen employees would be crowded behind a small bar area. During the time of this crowding, multiple Buffalo workers caught COVID, which some attribute to breaches in COVID safety protocols that occurred as a direct result of the company’s union-busting effort.

Despite the fact that Starbucks employees at other locations are now well aware of the lengths that the company is willing to go to prevent them from joining a union, workers in Arizona have already publicly launched their own union efforts, and workers from several other stores throughout the United States have expressed interest in unionizing.

Joined in a recent Twitch stream by Buffalo baristas, Bernie Sanders remarked that the energy around unionizing Starbucks stores appeared to be “contagious.” Baristas Michelle Eisen, Maya Panos, Gianna Reeve, and Lexi Rizzo verified that Starbucks workers across the country have reached out to them. They encouraged others to make contact but also counseled that interested Starbucks baristas should keep their efforts quiet, in light of the company’s aggression.

Workers in the broader coffee and café industry have also been making moves, mostly under the auspices of the union Workers United and SEIU. On December 6, three cafés in Somerville, Massachusetts — Diesel Cafe, Bloc Cafe, and Forge Baking Company — went public with their union and asked ownership for voluntary recognition. Diesel, Bloc, and Forge organized together as DBF United because the three businesses near Tufts University share the same ownership and management. DBF United received voluntary recognition on Thursday.

In their letter, DBF United referenced successful recent campaigns by Pavement Coffeehouse and Darwin’s Ltd., which, like DBF United, organized with the union SEIU. Likewise, when Buffalo workers announced the campaign for Starbucks Workers United, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers had just organized Colectivo Coffee, which then became the largest café union in the United States.

Starbucks Workers United knew they faced a difficult battle when they announced their union in August. This week, they achieved a major milestone — the first unionized Starbucks in the United States — but there are many more battles to come, including settling the results of Thursday’s election and the long road to contract negotiations.

That road will be arduous, as the company has demonstrated how hard it’s willing to fight to prevent unionization. But although the fight for unionized Starbucks cafés in the United States is just getting started, the election results on Thursday are a landmark achievement worthy of celebration.