Starbucks Workers Have Won 100 Union Elections. Here Are the Lessons From 5 of Them.
No one would have guessed that Starbucks Workers United would rack up a hundred union victories in less than a year, but it has. Lessons from five early victories show how workers organizing at Starbucks — and everywhere else — can keep that momentum going.
On May 27, Starbucks Workers United won its one hundredth National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) union election, at the Eastlake store in the company’s hometown of Seattle. Since the first elections in Buffalo last December, the campaign has spread quicker than anyone expected. Over recent weeks, the union has won almost daily victories across the country, including in states where union victories are rare.
One hundred wins is an arbitrary milestone, but it makes the union campaign one of the most successful ever at a “superstar” corporation. In a system that exacts an incredibly high price on workers seeking union representation, every victory at a company as wealthy and as anti-union as Starbucks is a minor miracle.
But the initial victories at the company were critical to developing the momentum that has allowed the campaign to spread. These victories highlighted many of the characteristics that have contributed to the campaign’s stunning success: the worker-to-worker organizing within and across stores; the contributions of intrepid young lead organizers, many of whom have had no previous experience with unions; the training of new lead organizers and organizing committees by Zoom; the training of lead organizers to be “partners on point,” responsible for new stores organizing in their region; the often-key role of influential shift supervisors, many of whom have served as lead organizers; the coordinating of responses across stores to anti-union talking points in group and individual captive meetings; the remarkable traditional and social media coverage of the first set of victories, which was crucial to how workers across the country learned about the campaign and then reached out to it; and workers, who enjoyed a strong sense of camaraderie prior to the union campaign, often supporting unionization as a bloc, resulting in many overwhelming victories.
Here are the five locations that set the campaign on track to win its first hundred stores.
1.Buffalo (Elmwood Village Store and Genesee Street), December 9, 2021. Vote counts: nineteen to eight and nineteen to nine.
The campaign started in Buffalo — and could have easily ended in Buffalo. After the union went public in August 2021, Starbucks HQ ran a blistering anti-union campaign in the months leading up to the initial three elections. According to the NLRB complaint issued in early May, Starbucks committed over two hundred separate violations of federal labor law at several Buffalo stores, including firing workers, spying on workers, offering promotions and other bribes to workers to oppose the union, closing stores that had pro-union majorities, and forcing workers to listen to hours of mandatory anti-union speeches, including a speech by then former (now current) CEO Howard Schultz.
Despite Starbucks’s litany of unlawful practices, Buffalo workers, inspired by young activists such as Jaz Brisack and Michelle Eisen from the Elmwood store, voted for the union in two of the three stores. (The Genesee Street result was delayed for several days until contested ballots were resolved.) In May, the NLRB issued a rare bargaining order at the third store, Camp Road — requiring Starbucks to bargain with the union even though the union had lost the election — because the company’s unlawful practices were so egregious that a fair rerun election was deemed impossible for the foreseeable future.
Of course, the Starbucks organizing landscape has radically changed since the original Buffalo victory. But since that win and the union’s subsequent three victories in the city, the campaign has successfully built a replicable model, based on the rank-and-file dynamism of its intrepid worker-activists, that has enabled it to spread nationwide.
2. Mesa, Arizona, February 25, 2022. Vote count: twenty-five to three.
At most stores, Starbucks’s lawyers — dozens of attorneys from union-avoidance behemoth Littler Mendelson — have tried to delay elections for as long as possible, a tactic that benefits anti-union employers. But at a few stores, Starbucks has facilitated faster elections in the belief that management could win the election, mostly because of its assessment that the stores had smaller bargaining committee (and thus fewer active union supporters), as indicated by the number of signatures on the letters requesting recognition.
Mesa was one such store. The Mesa campaign was led by two shift supervisors, Michelle Hejduk and Liz Alanna. Shift supervisors, who have no managerial authority and are thus allowed to vote, have often played a leading role in organizing victories. They are typically longer-term employees with whom baristas identify, more than they do with store managers or district managers.
Mesa employees were bombarded with anti-union texts and subjected to group and individual anti-union meetings. But despite its attempts to intimidate workers, Starbucks netted only three votes against the union in a store in the “most conservative large city” in the United States, and a second Mesa store also voted to unionize a few weeks later, showing that the campaign was capable of spreading even to the most “anti-union” regions of the country.
3. Seattle, March 22. Vote count: nine to zero.
The first election victory in Starbucks’s hometown, with which the company is closely identified, was always going to have huge symbolic importance, and the fact that it was unanimous in the store closest to the Starbucks corporate HQ made it even sweeter for workers. Starbucks didn’t mount an aggressive anti-union campaign against the union, knowing it would lose heavily. Instead, the company decided to concentrate its resources elsewhere, a pattern it has repeated several times.
Following the first Seattle victory, led by shift supervisors such as Sarah Pappin, the union has won victories at three other stores in the city and won at Seattle’s flagship roastery (by thirty-eight votes to twenty-seven; the company’s three roasteries are much larger than the stores, where the median bargaining unit size is twenty-six) in late April, following an earlier victory at the New York City roastery. On May 27, the union won its hundredth victory in Seattle, again winning unanimously.
With victories in Olympia, Washington, and Eugene and Portland, Oregon, the Pacific Northwest has become a strong union region for Starbucks workers, with several stores also striking to protest the company’s ongoing unlawful anti-union practices.
4. Knoxville, Tennessee, March 29. Vote count: eight to seven.
The first victory in the South was important, and it came early in the campaign. Maggie Carter, a Knoxville barista, reached out to the campaign after reading about Buffalo and was given a step-by-step guide on how to organize her store: printing cards, reaching out to other workers and responding to anti-union talking points, drafting a letter to Starbucks, and petitioning for an NLRB election. Shift supervisors at Knoxville opposed the union, and the workers were subjected to weeks of intimidating one-on-one meetings with the store manager, district manager, and HR personnel.
The Knoxville election, which succeeded largely because of Carter’s determination and persuasiveness, was close, but the margin of victory would have been greater if several pro-union workers had mailed ballots on time. Carter subsequently played a key role in organizing a second Knoxville store and assisted Memphis activists after management fired the “Memphis Seven,” including six members of the store’s organizing committee, in early February.
The union has had other remarkable wins in the South, including a thirty-three-to-two win in Boone, North Carolina, a twenty-seven-to-one win in Birmingham, Alabama, a twenty-five-to-six win in Augusta, Georgia, and an eight-to-one win in Greenville, South Carolina, which has a 0.3 percent union density and was once described by the New York Times as “among the most relentlessly anti-union cities in the country.” And on May 31, Starbucks Workers United won its first unanimous victory in the South, an eighteen-to-zero victory in Anderson, South Carolina.
But the Knoxville victory was important because it sent a message that if the union could win there, it could probably win anywhere in the South. When asked about the significance of the hundredth win, Carter said, “I’m looking forward to the one thousandth victory.”
5. Boston (Brookline and Allston), April 11. Vote counts: fourteen to zero and sixteen to zero.
The Boston stores were the first outside of Buffalo to petition for an election after Mesa. In Boston, two young activists, Kylah Clay and Tyler Daguerre —both of whom were also law students — reached out to the union campaign. Having elections scheduled together enabled them to exchange information on Starbucks’s campaign and coordinate their responses.
As the campaign has grown, stores have often petitioned for elections in geographic clusters, either on the same day or staggered a few days apart. After the initial captive-audience meeting at the Allston store, at which activists pushed back on management’s anti-union talking points, workers shared those talking points with the Brookline activists, and workers at both stores subsequently decided collectively to boycott further captive meetings.
The original two activists at Brookline and Allston have built up an extraordinary campaign infrastructure — for example, running weekly Zoom meetings on how to identify and document unfair labor practices — which reflects the rank-and-file dynamism of the campaign. The Brookline and Allston victories were soon followed by five more victories in the Boston metropolitan area, and other stores in Boston and now also in more conservative Western Massachusetts have petitioned for NLRB elections. Boston was the first major city outside of Buffalo to become a Starbucks Workers United stronghold.
No More Heroes
The remarkable success of the Starbucks campaign has partly obscured the relentless nature of the company’s efforts to stop workers from unionizing. Starbucks workers have created one of the most inspirational union campaigns in decades in the face of one of the most unlawful union-busting campaigns. They are heroes. But American workers shouldn’t have to be heroes to exercise what is supposed to be a federally protected right.
In the past two months, the NLRB has adopted tougher measures against Starbucks’s unlawful practices, including seeking court orders to reinstate workers in Phoenix and Memphis, and extraordinary remedies in response to its lawbreaking spree in Buffalo. But that likely won’t be enough to rein in Starbucks’s unlawful behavior. Starbucks has almost nine thousand corporate-owned stores in the United States. The Joe Biden administration will need to act more decisively if Starbucks Workers United is to celebrate its thousandth election victory.
If the president can’t protect the most inspirational worker-driven organizing campaign in decades, his administration should give up on the pretense that American workers enjoy any meaningful right to choose a union.