Starbucks Is Punishing Workers for Unionizing

The only unionized Starbucks location in Canada is being excluded from a company-wide pay increase. Why? Because the raise is “not in the workers’ union contract.” The company has hit peak petulance just in time for more unionization bids.

A Starbucks store in Canada. (Brent Lewin / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Workers at the only unionized Starbucks in Canada were recently excluded from a company-wide wage and benefit increase. This was not a matter of oversight — the location is being punished because its workers are unionized.

On May 3, Starbucks Canada senior vice president and general manager Lori Digulla sent a company-wide email announcing pay increases for all classes of employees — or “partners” as Starbucks calls them — across the country. According to United Steelworkers (USW), which represents the workers at the Douglas Street Starbucks in Victoria, British Columbia, the location’s workers received a further email explaining that the wage increase announcement didn’t pertain to them. The Douglas Street workers wouldn’t be included because the wage increase was not in their union contract.

In a news release, the union said its membership is “steaming mad” about their exclusion.

Starbucks assured us that they would respect our choice to unionize. We feel that not agreeing with the union to extend the wage increase to our store is not respecting our choice. We understand and agree that our collective bargaining agreement must be respected. That is why there is a clause to allow for bilateral agreements for things such as extending the wage increase to our store.

“This is nothing more than retaliation on their workers for joining a union,” says USW western Canada director Scott Lunny. “We have language in the collective agreement, negotiated by both parties, that allows for changes deemed necessary by mutual agreement of the employer and the union, at any time, during the life of the agreement.”

The Threat of a Good Example

It seems unlikely that the company’s efforts to isolate the one unionized location in Canada a week after five locations in Lethbridge, Alberta, filed for certification with USW are coincidental. The unionization efforts are, in part, the result of poor pandemic working conditions. As USW organizer Pablo Guerra explains:

Workers are burning out and are struggling mentally and physically. From challenges of PPE, employee shortages, being forced to come into work sick, and added pressures from mobile ordering and complex drink orders, workers have had enough and are demanding better from Starbucks.

More than 115 workers are represented at the five stores in Lethbridge, a city of one hundred thousand people in southwestern Alberta. In a statement to CBC News, Starbucks Canada made no secret of its disapproval of the union drive but called all claims of union busting “categorically false.” Of course, if Starbucks is engaged in union busting, it is unlikely that the company is eager to admit to such activities. The company also claims that there is no anti-union sentiment behind its decision to close a location in Ithaca, New York, because of an overflowing grease trap. It is simply a coincidence that the store voted to unionize in April.

When asked to comment on suppression tactics in Victoria, Starbucks spokesperson Carly Suppa-Clark said the company was merely fulfilling its end of the three-year contract it signed in June 2021. “Since then, Starbucks has fulfilled all obligations of that contract, including the negotiated annual increases, which are unique to Douglas Street partners, as agreed upon by the partners and the USW,” Suppa-Clark told local Victoria news outlet CHEK News. If the workers want a pay increase, they’ll have to negotiate it in their next contract, she added.

A History of Union Suppression

Starbucks’ history of anti-union animus goes back to the 1980s, when the company’s roastery and six stores in Seattle were unionized with United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW). In his 1999 memoir, CEO Howard Schultz described union efforts as a personal affront. “I was convinced that under my leadership, employees would come to realize that I would listen to their concerns. If they had faith in me and my motives, they wouldn’t need a union,” he wrote.

When Schultz took over the company in 1987, he set out to crush the union. “He went ballistic screaming at me, telling me to get out of the plant,” Pam Blauman-Schmitz, a former UFCW union rep, told the New York Times about Schultz’s first visit to her store. “He followed me all the way out.”

Over the next several years, the stores and the roastery voted to decertify. In his memoir, Schultz claims that a lone employee — who did their own “research” — started the anti-certification drive. This hardly sounds like the grassroots movement Schultz claims is responsible for the company’s union aversion. In Blauman-Schmitz’s account, union members were convinced Schultz handpicked the anti-union activist worker.

Schultz also collaborated with the CEOs of Costco and Whole Foods in 2009 to gut President Barack Obama’s Employee Free Choice Act of provisions that would have introduced automatic certification if more than half of employees sign union cards. The act would have also forced employers into binding arbitration if they couldn’t reach a contract agreement within one hundred twenty days.

“The way the wind is blowing we’re heading toward a bill that is not the right approach,” Schultz said at the time. “My responsibility is to not be a bystander but to offer a voice of reason offers a more positive alternative that levels the playing field.”

When workers were gearing up for their successful union drive in Buffalo, Schultz showed up in person to try to dissuade workers from voting in favor of certification. In Buffalo, Schultz delivered a speech in which he told the story of a person in a Nazi concentration camp during the Holocaust who shared their blanket with five other prisoners. Likening the prisoner’s selfless generosity to the company’s largesse, Schultz claimed that “so much of that story is threaded into what we’ve tried to do at Starbucks.” For some reason, that effort backfired.

Good News From the Lone Star State

Last week, Texas saw its first successful Starbucks union drive. If unionization of Starbucks can happen in the notoriously anti-union state, it can happen anywhere. The success also demonstrates the limits of the company’s union suppression abilities.

The workers at the Austin store had a prominent ally in Greg Casar, a former labor organizer and Austin city councilor who is running for Congress. Casar wrote a letter to Schultz and chairperson of the Starbucks board Mellody Hobson in March, urging the company to work “cooperatively with a unionized workforce.” He added that “when workers have an independent, democratic voice through their union, we are all better off for it. History proves it.”

At least ten stores in Texas have expressed their intention to unionize. CJ Craig, an organizer in San Antonio whose store is set to vote on certification on June 14, said Texas’s so-called “right to work” legislation, which permits workers to join unions without paying dues, has inadvertently defanged one of Starbucks’ main anti-union talking points.

“It doesn’t apply here, it doesn’t,” Craig told Texas Signal.

If we have any partners in our store who did not want to be a part of the union, they’ll still be working under the same union contract that the rest of us have negotiated and ratified, but they don’t have to pay dues if they don’t want to. So if anything, it honestly made it an easier sell for everybody.

The successful union drive in Austin shows that the company and local states’ anti-union efforts can backfire. This is good news for the workers in Lethbridge who are staring down the company’s efforts to discourage Canadian workers from organizing.