The Starbucks Union Drive in Calgary May Have Failed, but the Larger Battle Is Just Starting

The union drive at a Starbucks in Calgary, Alberta, was defeated by both the anti-union tactics of the company and the province’s ruling party. Successful votes elsewhere, however, indicate the Starbucks unionization wave is only just beginning in Canada.

The union drive failure in Calgary is yet another demonstration of the $24 billion company’s hostility toward unionization. (kevser/Unsplash)

A union drive by Starbucks workers at the Chinook Centre food court in Calgary, Alberta, has fallen short of the votes needed to certify a bargaining unit. The failure of the drive is yet another demonstration of the $24 billion company’s hostility to the labor movement.

Starbucks Canada was quick to file an appeal when it caught wind of the union bid. Because Starbucks employees can be loaned out by one location to another, the company argued that only “home” employees of the Chinook Centre location should be able to vote. On March 16, after a week of ballots sitting unopened due to the company’s delay tactics, the Chinook Centre workers learned that their attempt to unionize with United Steelworkers (USW) was unsuccessful.

Reached for comment, USW organizer for western Canada and the northern territories Pablo Guerra said:

This was quite a lengthy process for these workers as they faced multiple delays with the Alberta Labour Relations Board and union-busting tactics from their employer. The actions from Starbucks shows why these workers need a union now more than ever. We will continue fighting for Starbucks workers across Canada as every worker deserves better.

Guerra laid blame at the door of Alberta’s governing United Conservative Party (UCP), which, since forming out of the ashes of the populist right Wildrose and Progressive Conservative parties, has made no secret of its anti-labor animus.

Guerra is calling on the government to bring back card check, which doesn’t require a vote if more than 65 percent of employees sign union cards. Restoring the card check system would allow workers to organize without fear of intimidation from the employer.

In 2017, the left-leaning New Democratic Party (NDP) was in power and reintroduced card check union certification to the province. The return of the practice brought about a substantial increase in unionization in Alberta. Card check was eliminated by the UCP — in its second piece of legislation once in power — thereby keeping a campaign trail promise made by Premier Jason Kenney.

Bob Barnetson, an Edmonton-based labor studies professor at Athabasca University, writing for the Parkland Institute, notes that “card-check certification eliminates the opportunity for employers to interfere in what should be a free choice by employees.” Starbucks workers in Alberta are thus caught in the pincers of, on the one hand, the company’s union-busting techniques and, on the other, an aggressively anti-union provincial government.

From One Union-Busting CEO to Another

In the midst of a pandemic-fueled wave of Starbucks union drives across the United States, the company has bid farewell to its CEO Kevin Johnson. As the New York Times reports, the abrupt departure of Johnson was explicitly tied to the company’s declining image as a result of efforts to halt unionization.

The reason for the changing of the guard was spelled out in a letter sent to Johnson before his resignation by a group of Starbucks investors representing more than $1 billion in company stock. “We believe that Starbucks’ reputation may be jeopardized due to reporting of aggressive union-busting tactics,” the investors wrote.

But Johnson’s replacement is not a young Turk from whom we can expect significant changes in company policy. Starbucks has elected to choose Howard Shultz as interim CEO — a man who’s own deep-seated hostility toward organized labor is well documented. Starbucks stores and the Seattle roastery were union shops when Schultz purchased the company in 1987. Schultz made it clear that union organizers weren’t welcome at his Starbucks.

“He went ballistic screaming at me, telling me to get out of the plant,” Pam Blauman-Schmitz, the local union rep for the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), told the Times of her first roastery visit under Schultz’s ownership. “He followed me all the way out.”

Over the next few years, workers would vote to decertify — first at the stores and then the roastery — a move Schultz claimed in his autobiography was the initiative of one lone worker who “did some research on his own.” Schultz has summarized his philosophy regarding unionization by complaining that “if [workers] had faith in me and my motives, they wouldn’t need a union.”

Blauman-Schmitz said she believes that the lone anti-union worker instrumental to Starbucks’ decertification campaign was “handpicked” by Schultz. Dave Schmitz, who was a UFCW organizer at the time, told the Huffington Post that the company used strong-arm tactics during negotiations over a second contract. Schmitz recalls efforts to reduce health benefits, remove protections against arbitrary firing, and give the company the ability to change working conditions without consulting the union. Schultz, for his part, recalls surmising that the need to crush the union was a necessary precursor for Starbucks’ readiness to grow into the international brand we know today.

Workers Fight Back at the NLRB

A 2004 effort from the Wobblies (Industrial Workers of the World) to organize Starbucks locations was unsuccessful, but it did result in several National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) hearings. Evidence presented at the hearings revealed the company’s anti-union tactics and confirmed that executives worked in a coordinated fashion to stymie organizing efforts. These coordinated efforts included interviewing workers to determine whether they were anti-union — or, in the company’s terminology, “pro-Starbucks” — so as to stack the decks against organizing efforts by assigning them to stores undergoing unionization.

As recently as March 15, 2022, an NLRB prosecutor determined that Starbucks’ firing of two workers at a unionizing Phoenix store was retaliatory in nature. The board issued a formal complaint against the company — the first since the unionization wave began in December 2021.

According to the complaint, one employee, Laila Dalton, who raised concerns to management about wages, hours, and short staffing, was written up and then suspended. Another employee, Alyssa Sanchez, was denied scheduling preferences and then fired, solely because of her support for unionization. If the complaint is successfully prosecuted through an administrative judge, Starbucks will have to advise their workers that complaining about work conditions is a protected activity.

The NLRB is also slated to hear charges related to the rights violations of Starbucks workers at a Memphis store that fired seven employees in February. The dismissals occurred after the workers allowed a journalist into the store after-hours to document their union drive.

The Case of Victoria

If the Chinook Centre Starbucks had been successful in its union bid, it would not have been the first Canadian location. That distinction belongs to the Douglas Street drive-through in Victoria, British Columbia, which inked its first union contract in June 2021 after voting to unionize in August 2020.

Although BC is run by a New Democratic Party government that successfully ran on a pledge to introduce card check, it abandoned that promise in 2017, when it came to power in a coalition with the neoliberal BC Green Party. This meant that the Starbucks workers had to hold a vote, running the same risk of losing as the workers in Calgary.

According to USW, the three-year contract includes provisions guarding against workplace violence and aggression, permits up to ten days paid leave for workers facing domestic violence, and offers up to $2.47 an hour in pay increase based on seniority. The Globe and Mail, Canada’s national newspaper of record, called the agreement “a rarity in a sector that traditionally has minimal union representation.”

Izzy Adachi, a barista who was involved in the union drive, told the Globe that workers would face abuse from certain customers “for weeks and weeks and weeks” without receiving any meaningful support from management. Adachi called a provision that allows workers to file grievances against management the “biggest win” of the contract.

Stephen Hunt, director of USW Canada, told the Globe that coffee shops are generally tough to unionize because of their small staff size and frequent turnover. This fact seems borne out by the events of the Calgary location election, where there were only seventeen members, one of whom didn’t even vote.

High turnover, however, also means that one failed union vote isn’t the end of organizing efforts. For workers at the Chinook Centre Starbucks, it is the beginning of a long process of challenging a massive corporation that is willing to put its full weight on the scale against unionization.

Although card check is a valuable tool for unionizing, the successful votes in Victoria and elsewhere show that employer intimidation can be overcome. With increasing numbers of Starbucks workers joining unions in the United States, the Canadian Starbucks unionization wave is only just beginning.