- Interview by
- Sara Wexler
On Tuesday, October 25, workers at the Starbucks Reserve Roastery in Manhattan’s Meatpacking District walked out in protest of health and safety conditions at the store. Workers report a bedbug infestation that management has failed to address, as well as fruit flies and mold in the ice machines that has led to recurrent illness among employees. Workers at the location voted to unionize with Starbucks Workers United in April of this year, but, as at other stores across the country, Starbucks has refused to recognize the union or enter into bargaining for a contract.
The workers are now on day eight of their strike. On Friday, Jacobin’s Sara Wexler spoke with two workers, Athena Kosmopoulos and Alex Hall, about their union organizing efforts and the ongoing strike.
How did the union organizing start among all of you? What sparked the organizing and the strike?
It happened with a former partner named Ames. They were trying to get the ball rolling. One day, another partner was fed up with everything inside. And they went to Ames and said, “What is really stopping us from being a unionized store?”
Ames took that as a challenge. They got the ball rolling, and within less than a month, we petitioned to vote. And then we won our vote forty-six to thirty-six, on April 1.
The union was an idea before I got here. Within my first two weeks, I was already being asked if I would want to join or if I had any ideas about it. Of course, I was for it.
Starbucks didn’t really take much on their side in terms of making a contract and bargaining or any of that. This was April — nothing’s happened even now.
What started the strike was reports of bedbugs in the break room and throughout the building. We have families; we have our own houses; we don’t want to bring that stuff home with us.
So one day, one of the workers was just like, “I’m tired of this, I can’t take it.” Now we’re out here. We want basic health and safety protocols to be put in place. We want a real inspection. I say “real” because the company has been able to bypass certain departments. We want a real inspection; we want witnesses; we want a report filed. We want a list of chemicals and everything that they used.
There are also fruit flies and moldy ice. Moldy ice has been going on since before I even got here. We have photos that date back to last November; we have photos from two weeks ago. We have word from workers who’ve been here since this place first opened that it was a problem six months after it opened in 2018. So, it’s been almost three and a half years since the first report, and Starbucks has done nothing about it.
There was no organizing effort for the strike. We tried to organize strikes in the past, and a lot of us shied away. This strike [started] last Tuesday. I led this walkout. I came into work that day, and I was reading messages from my partners talking about how they were crying outside or crying at stores because they had to go and replace their clothes, because they were too afraid to take their clothes that they were wearing in our break room that [might] be bedbug infested and had to replace them at Target before they went home.
They were crying, and I was fed up. It was the straw that broke the camel’s back.
How has the strike been an organizing tool for you guys?
We did a march on the boss not too long ago, but that wasn’t as responsive or organized as this was. So much has gone wrong in this place. We had a ceiling cave in on a customer once.
The strike has been helpful as an organizing tool because it gives all of us courage. Even the partners that are [still working] inside, some of them wish that they were out here with us. They’re inside either because of money reasons or because of fear — a lot of fear tactics are being used, a lot of misinformation [from] management.
And this [location] is in one of the wealthiest neighborhoods of New York City.
Yeah, and it’s one of the more prestigious roasteries — there are only six of them in the world. You’d think they’d be taking better care of this one. All the higher-ups, everyone who’s in charge, they’re just kind of half-assing everything.
What do you hope to accomplish with the strike?
We really want basic health and safety. We want the reports filed to list all the chemicals used; we want to make sure it’s safe to go back in. Certain fumigations take up to three days to air out fully. We don’t want to come into work breathing in chemicals.
Besides that, maybe this is a starting ground for something bigger in terms of contract bargaining. [Starbucks has] avoided that — not just this location but throughout the corporation. Many times [Starbucks has] been reported to walk out of meetings or not show up for contract bargaining. It’s lazy. It’s degrading.
Starbucks is claiming that they have fumigation in process, a treatment that takes thirty days, which has been apparently updated to ninety days. What we want to see is a receipt of this fumigation that they’re doing. We want proof and not just words. We would also like our ice machine fully replaced and maintenanced, because it’s supposed to be professionally cleaned, not cleaned by the partners themselves.
We are hoping that this strike shows Starbucks that, as much as we are concerned for health and safety, we are also out here for our contract. It’s been almost half a year now and not one word from the Starbucks lawyers about our contracts.
How has Starbucks reacted since you started striking?
[Management] has backtracked a lot. At first, they confirmed that we had bedbug sightings twice: one two Sundays ago and one the following Monday, and one of them was actually from a manager. Now, they have backtracked and said that we, the partners outside, are making this up and that nothing was found at all.
Management backtracked on their own words. That’s definitely one of the tactics. We had new employees out here with us, and they went back inside because of the lies that they were being told. One partner used sick time to call out, and he was told they could penalize him for it. They are also allegedly promoting a lot of people that are [working] on the inside and [who are] not on the strike line.
Is there anything people can do to support you in the meantime?
We do have a GoFundMe page. The national labor union can give us 70 percent of our checks. But a lot of us do need the rest of our checks, because we don’t get paid very much from Starbucks. We are, in fact, one of the lowest-paid roasteries. We don’t get tips either.