Howard Schultz Can’t Stop Starbucks Workers’ Momentum

Billionaire Howard Schultz returned as CEO of Starbucks to stop worker organizing in his company. But baristas at the New York City Reserve Roastery aren’t budging.

The Starbucks Reserve Roastery in Manhattan’s Meatpacking District is the latest of the chain’s stores to unionize. (Starbucks Reserve)

The labor movement is experiencing a mini-revival, with a fresh round of teacher strikes and the first-ever unionization of a US Amazon fulfillment center. And Starbucks workers, who are organizing union drives with the Starbucks Workers United campaign, are the crest of this new wave. Since the first unionization of a US Starbucks shop in Buffalo at the end of last year, nine additional stores have won elections, with almost two hundred more stores filing union petitions across the country.

The Starbucks Reserve Roastery, an elevated concept store located in Manhattan’s Meatpacking District, is the latest of the chain’s stores to unionize. (The original Reserve Roastery in Seattle has an election on April 21.) The roastery is also the first Starbucks in New York City to win a union. Mail-ballot elections are upcoming at stores at Astor Place, Manhattan; in Astoria, Queens; and in Caesar’s Bay, Brooklyn, as well as at locations in Great Neck and Massapequa on Long Island.

Founded in 2018, the New York chapter of the Starbucks Reserve Roasteries sits on the first floor of an all-glass exterior, nine-story building designed by Rafael Viñoly. The dazzling flagship store itself was designed in-house. The expansive space is lit with bold geometric square fixtures, while copper “symphony pipes” overhead fly coffee beans from a three-story-tall copper cask to large silos above the main coffee bar. It all happens under the careful eye of the ten-foot, two-thousand-pound copper “siren muse” sculpture. One worker at the roastery called it “the Disneyland of coffee.”

But the store’s impressive design isn’t practical for the partners who actually work there. Aimes Shunk, who has worked as a barista at the roastery for five months, told Jacobin:

It’s designed as if they have never asked a worker for their input. The back of house where cups are washed, prep is done, milk is refrigerated — it’s all in the basement. In order to get any of that stuff you have to load it on a cart, take it down a ramp, up a ramp, past the bathroom, wait for the slowest elevator in the world (if it’s working at all), go up one or two floors, and maneuver it through the floor filled with customers.

Starbucks says that its roastery partners are paid a premium, but Shunk doesn’t believe the extra $2 per hour is enough considering what’s required of them.

After witnessing the historic win in Buffalo, Shunk and a few coworkers started to toy with the question: Why not our store? A week later, without any further discussion of organizing in the roastery, a coworker approached Shunk on a busy Saturday shift and asked, “What’s stopping us from unionizing this place right now?”

The answer was nothing. That night they met with Workers United (WU), an affiliate of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) separated into regional joint boards. Two weeks later they had another meeting with WU. They filed for their election in February and won on April 1.

But the union was not won without a fight. Starbucks managers initially feigned concern over how a union might hurt their employees. During captive audience meetings, which were referred to as “family meetings,” they spoke about the risk of partners losing their current benefits. They followed up by pulling workers aside for one-on-one meetings where they could “hear all the facts” and by personally asking people to come in on election day to vote no.

In these meetings the company framed the union drive and its organizers as “ungrateful,” according to workers who were present. But Samy Dominguez, who has worked at Starbucks for seven years, told Jacobin, “It’s not about that. It’s about knowing how much more a multibillion-dollar company can provide for us.”

Dominguez started working for the multinational coffee chain part-time for its flexible hours as she attended college. But she immediately felt the impacts of understaffing, being overworked, and poor scheduling — all of which are problems at the roastery. “It starts to affect you as a person,” she says.

Dominguez was originally more than delighted to work at the roastery:

From the outside, a lot of partners see the Reserve as the cream of the crop — that’s where you want to end up when you work at Starbucks. It’s painted as Howard Schultz’s golden project of providing a more meaningful coffee experience. So I expected it to be different for partners, but it was like any other Starbucks with shinier colors.

Schultz returned to his role as CEO of the $52-billion-dollar company amid the onslaught of worker organizing, offering promises of better benefits and wage increases. But Starbucks baristas remain unconvinced that the company will follow through without pressure from an organized workforce. “His offer of better conditions is meant to slow down the movement, but it’s only evidence that what we’re doing is working,” Dominguez told Jacobin. “It pulled a billionaire out of retirement.”

Schultz, to his credit, has not hidden the cause of his return. In a town hall recently, he claimed that “companies throughout the country [are] being assaulted in many ways by the threat of unionization.” An hour after these remarks, Starbucks fired Laila Dalton, a barista and union activist at a Phoenix Starbucks location, in what many consider an act of retaliation for her organizing.

Schultz’s remarks and Dalton’s subsequent termination seem to have backfired, spawning an outpour of solidarity on social media and an unfair labor practice charge filed against the company.

Starbucks workers say that distractions like the company getting into the NFT business will not deter them in their fight for better pay and working conditions and union representation. In fact, Shunk says,

This feels like the reawakening of the labor movement. The past decade or so, much of the working class has been squeezed into the service industry, an industry that has been notoriously hard to organize up until now. This is a turning point. Starbucks is unionizing. Who’s next?