Why the Starbucks Union Drive Matters for All Workers

Starbucks workers are channeling the frustration shared by millions of food service workers into a unionization drive. It’s the most exciting new organizing campaign in the United States.

More than ninety Starbucks stores in twenty-six states have now filed for National Labor Relations Board union elections. (Cristian Ungureanu / Flickr)

The Starbucks union drive is the most exciting new organizing campaign in the United States.

A mere two months after two Starbucks locations in Buffalo, New York, voted to become the first unionized corporate-operated Starbucks in the country, the unionization push shows no signs of slowing down: more than ninety stores in twenty-six states have now filed for National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) union elections. That’s good, since it has a long way to go at a coffee giant that in the United States alone operates nearly nine thousand stores employing some 230,000 people.

The hope, for both Starbucks workers and the broader labor movement, is that enough stores will organize that the union can win new standards for the company’s sprawling workforce. Given Starbucks’s role in the coffee industry, this would have knock-on effects for other workplaces, with the potential to raise standards across the sector. Serious sectoral bargaining, in which higher standards are set and enforced for an entire sector of the economy (say, all fast-food workers), is predicated on such organization.

To achieve such organization is no easy task. The Buffalo stores are only just starting contract negotiations, and their employer — like all bosses in America — has myriad ways to drag out bargaining, stalling until workers lose steam and settle for a mediocre contract (or no contract at all). Starbucks workers will need to sustain the pressure they’ve generated: national news headlines as well as local ones each time a new shop organizes, strong community backing. They will need solidarity from the rest of organized labor, both material support and a physical presence at stores, rallies, and picket lines.

All of which makes it worth spelling out that unionizing Starbucks is in the interest of the broader working class, of whom low-wage service workers are one significant fragment.

Despite frequent caricatures to the contrary by opponents of class politics, the working class is a diverse bunch, and its demographic composition differs depending on the sector. Hospitality workers skew Latina; construction workers skew white and male. The majority of food service workers are women, usually on the workforce’s younger end. Given that Starbucks locations cluster in metro areas, its employees are primarily city dwellers. As disarticulated as some segments of the working class may be — a product of union decline, as well as the absence of strong civic ties and mass working-class parties, which in other countries can bring disparate workers together in a common political project — those different segments relate to one another, with activity in one affecting that in another.

The New York Times reports that some of the effort’s early leaders are die-hard Bernie Sanders supporters. As Maggie Carter, a Starbucks barista in Knoxville, Tennessee, who began organizing her store soon after the Buffalo union drive, told the paper, “Bernie Sanders is my everything.” Jaz Brisack, who works at one of the unionized Buffalo stores, is a longtime admirer of Eugene Debs. Prior to her barista job, the twenty-four-year-old Brisack was a Rhodes Scholar — the first woman in University of Mississippi history to win that prize — and worked part-time on the (ultimately unsuccessful) campaign to unionize a Nissan plant in Canton, Mississippi.

That such individuals are part of the campaign’s origins is no surprise. Well-educated, student debt–saddled young people comprise a noticeable proportion of Democratic Socialists of America’s (DSA) membership, too, and part of the Sanders presidential campaign’s gambit was that those energized by his message would go forth into other projects to build working-class power, labor organizing foremost among them.

Some might wonder about the relevance of this class fraction: the highly educated, downwardly mobile millennials. After all, aren’t there other workers with more economic leverage, like logistics workers? Or those with more strategic importance — say, nurses and teachers — who perform critical social functions and are well-positioned to translate workplace struggles into broader political fights?

The answer is: yes, but the labor movement is not a zero-sum game. Workers organize where they are, be they longshore workers, port truckers, nurses, teachers, ironworkers, coal miners, oil refinery workers, or Starbucks baristas. A strong union contract at Starbucks in particular strengthens, rather than weakens, the working class in general and has the potential to help spark new organizing throughout the rest of the class.

The food service industry employs millions in the United States, and its meager wages set a too-low floor for every worker, both in the industry and elsewhere. The industry’s model is predicated on an effectively infinitely renewable labor pool that makes it particularly resistant to unionization: employers churn through workers before organization can be built. Should Starbucks workers gain a foothold, they will not only have a structure from which to make these jobs better paying and more sustainable but inspire others in the industry to do likewise. (Indeed, others are already following in their footsteps.) Plus, organization at such a high-profile company will only fuel public support for unions and further plant the idea in workers’ heads that perhaps the solution to the problems at their jobs is also to unionize.

It’s no coincidence that the food service industry in which Starbucks workers operate has been the epicenter of worker frustration and revolt during the pandemic. In October 2020, I spoke to Saru Jayaraman, president of One Fair Wage, a nonprofit that advocates for an end to the subminimum wage for tipped workers. She told me she’d never seen anything like the frustration expressed by restaurant workers:

I have never, in my twenty years of organizing service workers, experienced a moment like this. Thousands of workers across the country are saying, “We’re not going to do it, we’re not going to go back and risk our lives without one fair wage.”

She wasn’t lying. In a period when the number of people in the United States who are quitting their jobs to find better-paying work elsewhere is higher than ever, bar and restaurant workers are among those most prone to quitting. But baristas at Starbucks have chosen to stay and fight to lock in changes for the foreseeable future; they’ve chosen to take action in response to these intolerable conditions rather than simply move on to another terrible job.

A union at Starbucks can’t substitute for stronger contracts and new or revitalized unions elsewhere. But it puts unionization on the mental map for more workers. A growing number of the people Starbucks draws upon to operate its stores are eager to unionize, and that’s a good thing. Their success builds strength for other fragments of the working class, not just by adding to SEIU’s coffers to then organize other kinds of workers, but because it forces existing unions to think big, coordinate, and consider committing to new organizing in a way they have often been reluctant to do.

And who knows? If Starbucks workers can unionize, maybe the many other low-wage food-service workers can, too. Such a high-profile campaign can have an outsize impact in inspiring new organizing and reenergizing existing unions, capturing our imagination, and aiding in building the commitment required to change workers’ fortunes. No one has a perfect roadmap from union defeat to union revitalization; we should be open to the possibility that the path may just begin in the most unlikely of places.