When Starbucks was founded in Seattle, Washington, half a century ago, its business model was supposedly union-proof. And for about fifty years, it basically was. With the certification of a union in Buffalo, New York, and new union election filings across the country, that’s changing.
After three Buffalo-area Starbucks locations filed for union elections with Workers United in August 2021, several other stores across the country followed their lead, including three additional stores in the Buffalo area and one in Mesa, Arizona. In December 2021, baristas at the Elmwood location in Buffalo won union recognition, making them the first certified Starbucks union in the United States since a Howard Schultz–approved decertification campaign ended America’s lone Starbucks union in 1987. Following the historic win, Starbucks locations in Boston, Massachusetts; Broomfield, Colorado; Knoxville, Tennessee; Chicago, Illinois; Eugene, Oregon; Hopewell, New Jersey; and Cleveland, Ohio, have filed for union elections.
Now, Starbucks workers in Seattle, where the company started fifty-one years ago, have filed for a union election with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). Two members of the Seattle bargaining unit, Sydney Durkin and Rachel Ybarra, spoke to Jacobin about the significance of the union for both their store and food service workers in general.
Discussion about a union in Seattle began shortly after the news from Buffalo broke in August. Early conversations among baristas at the store, located at the intersection of Broadway and Denny, were focused on whether most employees wanted a union, which Durkin and Ybarra say they did. Durkin says the effort to unionize the store sped up considerably after “a thinly veiled union-busting meeting with our district manager” that prompted three employees to get in contact with Workers United.
Within two weeks, the organizing committee made contact with the union, printed union cards, and filed for an election on December 20 — an efficiency made possible by the overwhelming consensus among the store’s staff and their discretion in filing.
“We didn’t think too much about it,” says Durkin,
just that we knew we wanted it done and we were going to see it through. Our conversations mostly centered around how to prepare the rest of our partners for what might happen as a result, and how best to support them through the company’s response.
The bargaining unit at Broadway and Denny is of the smallest currently affiliated with the union’s organizing project, Starbucks Workers United. But the store, located at the birthplace of Starbucks and “second-wave coffee,” the transformation in consumer taste that began in the 1970s and launched a newly wide range of drinks and products for consumers, also represents a sea change within the company and the industry. Durkin anticipates that corporate will be paying extra attention to Broadway and Denny because a union win in Seattle would be of great symbolic significance for the company.
In Starbucks union campaigns across the county, employees have embraced and subverted corporate language around “partnership” and community. Durkin wrote the letter addressed to Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson announcing the union at Broadway and Denny and urging him to sign an agreement that the company would not interfere with the union election. The letter quoted the company’s mission statement and invoked the language of partnership several times intentionally, because that language “applies to what we’re asking for, which is a respectful seat at the table,” says Durkin.
The letter to Johnson also included mention of employee tenure. Baristas at Broadway and Denny have worked at Starbucks for anywhere from a few months to twenty years. Ybarra, who has been with the company for two years, says that securing tenure with the company was a motivation for unionizing.
“As much as food service jobs are considered transitory to getting a ‘real job,’ this is just not the case,” says Ybarra. “Many of us genuinely love working in food service and want to change the industry into one that makes it possible to work in for a long time.”
Durkin, who has about eight years of experience working in food service, six of which have been at Starbucks, remarked that when first starting the job, “I was aware of Starbucks’ reputation for treating its employees better than other employees in the sector, especially in regards to benefits.” However, Durkin and Ybarra’s experience exercising these benefits has been complicated. Both Durkin and Ybarra now receive health insurance through the corporation, but maintain that the plan Starbucks offers through Premera is not accessible or worth it for all workers.
Durkin says they are only able to afford high health care costs for their medical conditions with additional support from family. “Health insurance with Starbucks is so expensive,” says Ybarra, “that when I don’t get the hours I need (close to forty as opposed to the thirty-two-ish I often end up with), it’s pretty much the same as not having it at all.” They said they often can’t afford co-pays for care needed to “reverse the damage that has been done to my body in the course of working in the food service industry.”
Durkin says that other partners “constantly” elect not to enroll in the plan, which Ybarra calls “too expensive to bother with.” Ybarra adds, “As is the case with many people in the service industry (and frankly all of us living in poverty), they just have to hope they don’t get seriously sick or injured.”
Avoiding illness and injury at work has become more difficult as of late for Starbucks employees. The company launched initiatives to protect workers from COVID-19 at earlier stages of the pandemic, such as markers demonstrating where customers should stand and plexiglass barriers. But “now that cases are again surging,” Ybarra says, “corporate has not only neglected to replace any of these safety nets, but they have decreased the isolation period for someone who catches COVID.” Similar concerns over a lack of COVID precautions have led baristas in Buffalo to strike, an action they are able to take more confidently with protection from their newly certified union.
Despite their geographic separation from other stores that have filed with Starbucks Workers United, the Seattle bargaining unit is in close contact with their union siblings. In addition to contact with organizing committee members in Buffalo, the partners at Broadway and Denny say they have been talking to all other unionizing stores. In the last several months, Starbucks workers across the United States have supported each other materially and emotionally through illness and natural disasters.
The baristas at Broadway and Denny have also been encouraged by the support stemming from their long-standing relationship to the surrounding Capitol Hill district community. “Our customers have been amazingly supportive,” says Denny. “We’ve had countless well-wishes and notes offering us solidarity, tips, and kindness since our launch.”
Seattle workers can probably expect the company to fight their effort aggressively, as it did in Buffalo. But workers at Buffalo’s Elmwood location were able to prevent their union from being busted, suggesting that a union campaign stands a chance in the corporation’s backyard too.