On December 9, 2021, workers at a Starbucks in Buffalo, New York, voted to unionize in an NLRB election. In doing so, they became the first of the company’s nearly nine thousand corporate-owned stores across the United States to go union (one additional Buffalo Starbucks union has since been certified; a third Buffalo store narrowly voted against unionization). In a development out of former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz’s nightmares, their decision inspired thousands of their colleagues, with the movement spreading like wildfire.
Fifty-four stores in nineteen states have now filed for NLRB elections. One location in Mesa, Arizona, just finished voting, with ballots set to be counted on February 16, despite Starbucks’ appeal to block the vote, with the company arguing, as it unsuccessfully did in New York, that a single store is not an appropriate bargaining unit.
The number of unionizing Starbucks locations is ticking up so quickly that it may well have changed by the time you’re reading this article. On the final day of January alone, Workers United, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) affiliate that is organizing the Starbucks campaign, announced fifteen new NLRB filings. On that same date, contract negotiations began at the first unionized Buffalo location.
It’s hard to overstate the importance of the campaign’s speed thus far. Each Starbucks location employs a small number of workers (around thirty) and, had the victory remained isolated to one or two stores, the company could have closed those stores or otherwise stalled and derailed the bargaining process until the union deteriorated. Many unions in the United States never win a first contract, and plenty of restaurant and café owners prefer to shutter their locations entirely rather than cede the slightest ground to workers. Instead, Starbucks workers spread the organizing drive so quickly that it has become impossible for the company to send high-level managers to every location to dissuade workers. That means the company must rely on lower-level managers to be its shock troops, a role that some of them have objected to so strenuously that they have chosen to quit rather than wage a war they do not believe in.
The fanfare attending the campaign’s momentum also means Starbucks can’t dig in its heels without risking a major reputational hit. Starbucks markets itself as a liberal company — no matter that this has little relation to its actual practices along the supply chain, from slave labor on coffee plantations linked to the company to its low pay and stringent control over baristas’ duties. And it has drawn on downwardly mobile and highly educated millennials to staff its stores — the very class fraction moving to the left in recent years, as Bernie Sanders supporters and Democratic Socialist of America members, and now as organizers of the union drive. Live by the progressive image, and die by it.
Rather than negotiate a top-down brokered agreement, the sectoral bargaining that has been a goal of other low-wage service sector organizing campaigns such as the Fight for $15, the Starbucks union drive is going through the constricting NLRB election process: store by store, one at a time, but with a momentum that could ultimately set a national pattern.
The union drive sweeping Starbucks goes much of the way to explain why corporations fight the earliest hints of organizing with what can seem like an inordinate amount of firepower. This is what employers fear: workers coming up with an idea of their own and running with it, uncowed by long odds or management’s threats.
At Starbucks, this meant an aggressive anti-union campaign, with frequent captive-audience meetings, high-level executives rerouted to Buffalo to generally menace workers, and, eventually, Schultz himself coming to town to give one of history’s weirdest anti-union speeches. But in this heavy-handed response, Starbucks is not alone. When workers at a single Dollar General store voted four to two to unionize in 2017, the company shut down the location. The story of Amazon’s anti-union campaign in Bessemer, Alabama, is by now well known.
There are many more stores to go, and the battle for a contract has only just begun. To win the fight will take the collective resources of the labor movement, a recognition that it is in the interest of not only every union but every worker that the campaign succeeds. The food service sector in the United States is particularly resistant to unionization, with exceedingly high turnover making it hard to build momentum. But so long as these jobs are nonunion, the wages and working conditions will never be livable: the model is predicated on an endlessly renewable supply of labor from which employers can draw as locations churn through workers.
Despite those obstacles, Starbucks workers have gotten their feet under them. Whether they can keep it up is a question for all of us. So far, support has been significant: labor leaders are publicly cheering the campaign, and workers say the communities in which the stores are located have their back, too. Indeed, just this week a friend sent me a photo taken outside one of the unionizing Starbucks in Chicago: management was subjecting workers to a captive-audience meeting, so supporters picketed the location, holding pro-union signs visible to baristas through the store’s windows, a reminder that while workers may be compelled to hear managers’ fearmongering, they need not be cowed by it.