The Starbucks Unionization Drive Sweeping the US Has Arrived in Canada

A Starbucks location in Calgary awaiting its ballot results may prove to be the spear tip of a Canadian answer to the labor surge of its US counterparts. The longtime union-busting company may find itself on the receiving end of an emboldened workforce.

The Starbucks union drive has jumped the border to Canada. (Photo by Artur Widak/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Starbucks workers across the United States are organizing. Workers at locations in multiple cities are engaged in an inspiring unionization push that is gaining in momentum. The energy has jumped the border and has now landed in Canada. Workers at the Starbucks in the food court of the Chinook Centre mall in Calgary, Alberta, are organizing with the United Steelworkers (USW).

In January, the USW filed an application with the Alberta Labour Relations Board on behalf of the Chinook Centre Starbucks location. On February 16, mail-in ballots were sent out to the location’s seventeen employees. These ballots are due back by March 9. “The workers are just tired of being treated poorly and like second-class citizens in their workplace,” United Steelworkers spokesperson Brett Barden told CTV News in January. Barden made it clear that health and safety concerns are a priority for workers who have had to endure the pandemic.

Historically, Starbucks has fought tooth and nail against unionization. Last year, Starbucks’ revenues were as high as $29 billion, and its CEO, Kevin Johnson, earned $20.4 million. The company will not easily accede to any downward transfer of wealth.

Union Success in Buffalo

If the union vote is successful, the Chinook Starbucks will be the second Canadian Starbucks location to unionize. A location in Victoria, British Columbia, voted to unionize in the summer of 2020. This time, however, because the Calgary union bid is coincident with the efforts to unionize roughly 100 Starbucks locations in the United States, it may well mark the beginning of further organizing in Canada.

The organizing drive in the United States began in late 2021, when a successful union bid at a Starbucks location in Buffalo set the stage for a domino effect in other cities. This energy has since spread like wildfire, with other union drives happening in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Mesa, Arizona; and Starbucks’ home base in Seattle, Washington.

An in-depth article from the Washington Post on the Buffalo organizing drive illustrates how a small workforce can take on a massive corporation and win. In January of last year, as the Omicron variant was spreading throughout the United States and Canada, ten out of the thirty workers at the Elmwood Avenue Starbucks location in Buffalo fell ill. Fed up with the health risks they were forced to endure, workers walked off the job.

Prior to the walkout, employees expressed concerns about working conditions. The Elmwood workers requested that the company supply them with KN-95 masks, enhanced protocols for positive COVID tests among staff, and the ability to deny service to those who refused to abide by the county’s mask mandate. In turn, Starbucks claimed that their workplace health protocols were more than sufficient. Citing the fact that their policies exceeded the standards of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the company implied that the workers at Elmwood were demanding special treatment.

In the summer of 2021, Jaz Brisack — a Rhodes scholar from the University of Mississippi who began work at the Elmwood Avenue location in 2020 — began laying the groundwork for organizing the workplace. Brisack approached her colleague Cassie Fleischer, who had posted on social media about the impossibility of living off minimum wage, and asked if she wanted to unionize. “Is that even possible?” Fleischer replied. “Starbucks is so huge.”

Brisack made a point of contacting colleagues whose social media profiles indicated an interest in improving workplace conditions. She also reached out to longtime organizer and former AFL-CIO organizing director Richard Bensinger for help. Soon thereafter, forty-nine Buffalo Starbucks employees sent a letter to company brass informing them of their intention to unionize. The company responded by sending employees to mandatory meetings that were designed to dissuade staff from organizing.

In November, the company brought Starbucks founder Howard Schultz himself to Buffalo to give employees a talk mere days before the ballots were sent out. In a speech to his workers, Schultz boasted of how “expensive” the provision of employee benefits is to the company. Needless to say, the optics of a billionaire lecturing working-class people about how good they had it did not go over as planned. Two of the three Buffalo stores that voted on unionization were certified.

A History of Union-Busting

Starbucks has been fighting unionization since Schultz took over the company, converting the coffee-bean seller into the coffeeshop chain we know today. In the 1980s, the Seattle-based company’s roastery and six of its first stores unionized with the United Food and Commercial Workers. In his 1999 memoir, Schultz described the workers’ unionization as an affront to his authority. “If they had faith in me and my motives, they wouldn’t need a union,” he wrote.

While the union was negotiating its second contract, Starbucks’ lawyers attempted to cut health benefits and eliminate their standard “just cause” provision for dismissal. In addition, the company assumed the authority to make changes to working conditions without consulting the union.

In 1987, Schultz supported a decertification drive that was able to successfully get a majority of the company’s stores’ membership on board. By 1992, the roastery was also decertified. Dave Schmitz, who was head of organizing at UFCW Local 1001 at the time, told the Huffington Post that Schultz’s role was much more hands-on than he admits in his memoir.

Another organizing effort occurred in 2004, just as the company was approaching ten thousand stores internationally. To organize demonstrations, the Industrial Workers of the World established a Starbucks Workers Union, targeting stores in major centers such as New York City. Wobbly member Daniel Gross, who filed a petition to unionize the location he worked at in New York, witnessed the company’s swift reaction. As soon as the company was notified about the petition, management at multiple stores posted a transcribed voicemail from Schultz in which the founder expressed his disapproval of the effort, which was ultimately kiboshed.

Testimony at a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) hearing revealed a coordinated response to unionization efforts from management. A HuffPo report noted that interviews were conducted with employees to determine if they were union supporters. Employees indifferent or opposed to unionization were sent to work at stores attempting to unionize.

A 2008 NLRB ruling determined that the company has discriminated against pro-union employees by forbidding workers from discussing the union inside the store. As recently as last year, the NLRB ruled that two workers who had been fired from a Philadelphia Starbucks in 2019 for a union drive must be reinstated with back pay. Starbucks is in the process of appealing.

A Cautionary Tale in Memphis

With the success of the drive in Buffalo, the company’s union-busting tactics have only gotten more brazen. In January of this year, seven employees were fired for their role in organizing a union drive in Memphis. Starbucks claims the workers were fired for “several safety and security violations,” but employees at the location told USA Today they weren’t informed of these violations until the drive got underway.

“I was fired by Starbucks today for ‘policies’ that I’ve never heard of before and that I’ve never been written up about before,” Nikki Taylor, a shift supervisor at the store, said in a news release. “This is a clear attempt by Starbucks to retaliate against those of us who are leading the union effort at our store and scare other partners”

The New York Times reported that the firings stem, at least in part, from the workers allowing a journalist into the store after hours to speak with them for a story about the unionization effort. Another fired worker, Beto Sanchez, told the Times he was fired for opening the store safe — something he is normally authorized to do as a shift supervisor — when he was off the clock. Sanchez explained that he opened the safe to assist an on-duty supervisor. Starbucks Workers United, which is leading the union drive across the US, has filed an unfair labor practice complaint with the NLRB on the Memphis workers’ behalf.

A company as massive as Starbucks makes the task of organizing individual stores an uphill battle. With all the resources at the corporation’s disposal, unionization is a daunting task. But as more stores organize, the drive will attain more and more momentum and the company will be increasingly hard-pressed to bring organizing to a halt. Just as these drives cannot be confined to a single store, the Calgary union efforts show they cannot be confined by national boundaries — the labor movement is international. The company’s increasingly harsh retaliatory measures are beginning to look like acts of desperation to halt the inevitable.