Seven Lessons from Starbucks Workers’ Historic Victory

The entire labor movement should wake up and pay attention to the lessons from Starbucks workers’ victory this week.

Starbucks and the SBWU have announced an agreement to begin collective bargaining. (Elliot Stoller / Flickr)

The only thing harder than winning a union election against a megacorporation is winning a first contract. So it’s not surprising that countless skeptics suggested that Starbucks workers wouldn’t be able to muster enough power to force management to the table. Thankfully, Starbucks baristas and organizers ignored their critics. And this week, it paid off.

Though details have not yet been released, a joint management-union statement on Tuesday announced an agreement to start bargaining a first contract in earnest. Skepticism is warranted, given the company had led a scorched-earth union-busting campaign over the past two and half years. But this deal does seem to constitute a white flag from Starbucks, since it requires the company to stop illegally denying equal benefits and credit card tipping to unionized workers. It’s hard to imagine why Starbucks would give away its most effective union-busting weapon unless it actually planned to start bargaining in good faith.

Though the struggle is far from over — organizing will need to ramp up to unionize thousands of stores and keep the bosses from backtracking — all signs point to a simple, if still hard to believe, conclusion: Starbucks workers are going to win a first contract. Not only have they taken on and beaten one of the largest corporations in the world; they’ve inspired a grassroots labor effervescence that could upend some of the pillars of America’s political economy — especially if other workers follow suit and established unions finally rise to the moment.

In the hope of helping make that possibility a reality, here are seven key lessons from what could become the most important US union victory since the 1930s.


Worker-to-worker unionism wins big.

Starbucks workers have brilliantly demonstrated the viability of a new model of worker-to-worker organizing in which rank and filers take on responsibilities usually reserved for paid staffers.

There is no way Starbucks Workers United (SBWU) could have filed 251 union elections in the first four months of 2022 had it used the traditional staff-intensive model in which at least one full-time organizer is needed to closely guide every workplace drive from inception to victory. That type of unionism at its best can win significant victories and tremendously empower workers. But in all its different forms, it suffers from one basic limitation: it’s incredibly expensive, costing upwards of $3,000 per worker. For that reason, its scope is inherently limited.

The good news is that a scalable approach to building worker power capable of achieving exponential union growth has been developed by SBWU, in addition to similar initiatives like the NewsGuild’s member organizer program and United Electrical Workers’ Graduate Worker Organizing Committee. Lillian Allen, a Starbucks worker organizer in Austin, Texas, put it well: “Our movement is really exciting, because not only is it shaking up these large corporations but also . . . the way that unions work in this country.”

I dig into the details of this model in a forthcoming book, We Are the Union: How Worker-to-Worker Unionism Can Transform America (University of California Press, 2024). Put simply, the new organizing model can be differentiated from even the best staff-intensive union efforts by the inclusion of a) workers getting organizing efforts off the ground without established union guidance and support, or b) workers training other workers in organizing methods.

The latter innovation, workers training workers, has been particularly central within SBWU. One of the dozens of Starbucks workers I interviewed for my book was Brian Murray, a Buffalo barista tasked with responding to the unexpected outpouring of national requests for organizing support in late 2021 and the first half of 2022. Here’s how he described the onboarding:

There was never like a national plan that workers had to follow. When I spoke with new stores, it was more like, “Here’s the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) process, here are some helpful talking points with coworkers, here’s why it’s important to have a strong OC that covers every shift.” The basic message was, “Here are some organizing tools, take these and run with them. If you have any questions, or if you want to brainstorm, we’re here as resources, as other workers at Starbucks, to help you with that.”

We told workers explicitly, “This is your union you’re building from the ground up, and whatever you want that to look like, it’s up to you.” And that’s what they did in terms of how they organized their stores, how they organized regionally, or the actions they took, like creating their own logos or deciding to walk out and then afterwards telling us about it.

Inspired by events in Buffalo, workers across the country — especially in areas like the Pacific Northwest, Massachusetts, and Virginia — quickly took the lead on organizing themselves.

Olympia barista Billie Adeosun explained to me how they organized the West Coast’s first Starbucks strike:

We started off completely in the dark, but we got so much support from partners everywhere that by the end, we were ready to do it again. And each time we’ve gone on strike, or helped others plan one, it gets easier. It feels good to be able to “each one, teach one.” I learned how to do it, and then I did it, and now I can teach somebody else and empower somebody else.

Epochal changes in political economy have made it particularly challenging to scale up worker power. At the time of US labor’s meteoric rise in the 1930s, workers lived in dense, work-adjacent communities, and at the heart of the economy were large, centrally located establishments like steel and auto factories. Employers were no less viciously anti-union back then, but organizers could focus their limited resources on a handful of big, geographically concentrated targets.

That’s no longer the case. Strategically targeted organizing today needs to be combined with initiatives that can let a thousand organizing flowers bloom.


Digitally train and connect workers.

By dramatically lowering outreach and communication costs, digital tools like Zoom have made it easier to quickly and widely scale up drives across huge spatial divides — and for rank and filers to directly coordinate and support each other without relying as much on paid staff and union resources. As notorious union-busting firm Littler Mendelson laments, new technologies have allowed employees to “begin organizing on their own in a grass-roots fashion . . . [that] allows local organizers to use the collective knowledge of the best organizers around the country.”

Starbucks Workers United — like the NewsGuild, United Electrical Workers, and others — has innovatively used digital tools to put national worker-to-worker guidance at the heart of its organizing processes, through both one-on-one mentoring and mass trainings. Rather than resort to the time- and money-wasting practice of having staffers teach organizing methods separately to workers in each new drive (or simply doing it themselves, instead of workers), unions can use mass Zoom trainings to front-load the teaching of essential skills.

And because organizing coordination and discussion can now take place remotely rather than in person, Starbucks baristas across the country can easily connect with each other to pass on organizing tips and to strategize. Jacklyn Gabel, who unionized her Starbucks store in Santa Cruz and became a volunteer organizer for all of Northern California, described the dynamic as follows: “Since so much of this is volunteer-based, it’s just easier to do Zoom if nobody has the funds to pay us to drive somewhere.”

It’s a major historical change that workers no longer have to live in the same city or region to help guide each other’s organizing efforts. So while it’s true that recent worker-led efforts like SBWU build off of the best traditions of rank-and-file unionism, they aren’t just more of the same. Through trial and error, they’ve forged something new in the heat of battle. As SBWU staff organizer Daisy Pitkin notes, “There’s no blueprint for what we’re doing.”


Salting works.

Movements often look spontaneous and inevitable from the outside, but more often than not, you can trace their roots to someone daring to take an organizing initiative. In this case, the impetus came from a crew of radical salts — people who purposefully take a job in order to organize it — in Buffalo, New York, supported by a small regional unit of a small union, the Rochester Regional Joint Board of Workers United.

Salting is an old tactic in the labor movement. But it remains surprisingly underused by most unions, despite the recent emergence of a young generation of leftists inclined to believe that billionaires should not exist and eager to make that belief a reality through the labor movement.

Buffalo showed that salting works; it’s significantly easier to build union support when you’re a worker yourself, rather than a staffer supporting from the outside. Fortunately, SBWU cofounder Jaz Brisack is working to build a project called the Inside Organizer School, and the Democratic Socialists of America has recently launched a project to support salting. Other unions should either start supporting these efforts or build similar initiatives for their own industries.


Seize the moment.

Nobody had originally planned to organize Starbucks nationwide. The Buffalo push was part of an ongoing regional campaign to unionize coffee shops in upstate New York. But to the surprise of everyone involved, requests for organizing support erupted after Buffalo filed and won its first elections in late 2021.

Most unions and organizers would have stuck with their original game plan. It seemed like borderline lunacy to undertake such a daunting battle, especially with so few resources and so little preparation. But Buffalo’s organizers were confident enough in workers’ fighting capacities to take the risk.

It was at this point that a relatively traditional and modest campaign morphed into something qualitatively different: a national worker-driven explosion embodying the spirit of Napoleon’s military adage On s’engage et puis on voit — “Jump into battle and then figure it out.”

Buffalo barista Casey Moore describes the dynamic after they won their first election:

So when things all of a sudden went national, it was kind of like an all-hands-on-deck thing. Even had we wanted to be more staff driven, we couldn’t have been, because there just weren’t enough [full-time] organizers to follow up with everybody reaching out to us. I was taking stores in Florida and Tennessee and Texas and different places — like I literally didn’t have a life at that time, because I was working at Starbucks, helping organize stores, and also doing a lot of the media for the campaign. But that’s the way it grew exponentially.

With momentum suddenly on its side, SBWU focused on spreading as widely and as quickly as possible. Brian Murray acknowledges that there were costs to this approach. But in his view, these were outweighed by the benefits:

Any approach always has its downsides, and I think it’s true that when you move really fast, you don’t tend to build as solid roots and structure. But at that point in the campaign, had we tried to be too methodical, it would have been an impediment, because there were hundreds, thousands of workers self-organizing, and every time a new store won, it’d inspire others to do the same. So it made sense to ride and stoke that momentum as far as possible, and I don’t see how a more systematic approach would have gotten us any further.

Unfortunately, this seize-the-moment spirit is sorely lacking at the top of most national unions. The United Auto Workers (UAW), which recently pledged to put $40 million toward organizing autoworkers across the South and beyond, is one of the few exceptions that proves the rule. When it comes to new organizing today, business as usual remains the norm, even though a tight labor market, the pandemic’s shock, strongly pro-union public opinion, youth radicalization, and a vigorous NLRB under Joe Biden have produced an exceptionally ripe moment for union growth.


State policy matters.

Though unions shouldn’t subordinate themselves to politicians or depend on legal reforms, the Starbucks experience shows that state policy does have a major role to play in helping workers win widely. Full-employment policies since March 2021 have been a huge boost to organizing low-wage workers all across the country.

“The fact that bosses in this industry are just so desperate for workers gives us a lot of leverage,” notes Lua Riley, who unionized their Philadelphia Starbucks store.

The new NLRB under Jennifer Abruzzo has been no less pivotal. Among a dozen ways the board has boosted SBWU, one in particular should be underscored: had the NLRB not sided with Buffalo workers’ request to hold store-by-store elections, there may have been no national Starbucks unionization campaign.

With the legal guidance of Littler Mendelson, Starbucks, in fall 2021, insisted that all workers of a given city would have to vote jointly for a union, since this would be far harder for the union to win. Brian Murray recalls the situation: “We were hoping at first to go for the whole city of Buffalo. But it eventually became clear that we just didn’t have enough stores on board, so the NLRB’s decision on whether to let us hold elections at specific stores was absolutely pivotal — had the Board not sided with us, we probably would not have moved forward with elections, period.”

Not only did the subsequent December 2021 Buffalo union victory electrify service workers across the country; going through the NLRB gave workers a relatively transparent step-by-step process that they could copy in whatever city or state.

As a point of comparison, a 2004 Industrial Workers of the World union drive at New York’s Starbucks at 36 St and Madison Ave had its request for a single-store election denied by George W. Bush’s NLRB, obliging baristas to pull their election petition. Of the multiple reasons why the Wobblies’ ongoing efforts to organize Starbucks on a “solidarity unionism” model never caught on, the absence of any legitimizing (and publicity-generating) election wins was one of the most important.

Since Elon Musk, Amazon, and Trader Joe’s are now pushing for the Supreme Court to declare the NLRB unconstitutional, it’s important to be clear-eyed about what is at stake in the fight to defend and strengthen the board. No less dangerously, a Donald Trump victory this November — enabled by Biden’s infirmity and his green-lighting of genocide in Gaza — would lead to Abruzzo’s ouster as NLRB head, thereby undercutting a significant leverage point for workers.


It takes union resources to win.

In today’s decentralized conditions, winning big will likely require more union resources than a century ago, when organic connections between workers were tighter. This was clearly shown in the Starbucks campaign, especially after vicious union busting kneecapped workers’ momentum in summer 2022. Ever since then, it has taken a large amount of sustained support — staffing, legal, research, corporate-pressure campaigning — from both Workers United and, eventually, its parent body, Service Employees International Union, to keep things moving forward. Credit should be given to both unions, which, after some initial reservations and internal wrangling, embraced and funded SBWU’s efforts. Combining national union support with a worker-to-worker thrust has not been an easy or frictionless process, but since it takes both worker leadership and deep pockets to win big, the path forward everywhere lies in navigating these tensions.

Yet it’s important to keep in mind that the impetus for this historic victory did not come from national union leaderships. Getting other established unions to start moving toward ambitious organizing will similarly require bold bottom-up organizing initiatives from worker organizers and militant local union leaders, combined with the types of internal rank-and-file union reform that have transformed the UAW and the NewsGuild.


Public opinion and pressure is pivotal.

Why did Starbucks settle? Sustained workplace organizing was certainly a critical factor. Despite two years of scorched-earth union busting — estimated to have already cost the company over $240 million — nearly four hundred stores have successfully unionized. And a record-high twenty-one stores filed for union election just last week. Yet this amount of shop-floor power on its own could not have plausibly forced a company with over fifteen thousand stores in the United States to the table.

Here’s the other piece of the puzzle: service sector companies depend on a loyal customer base to continue buying products, creating significant potential for leveraging consumer pressure — especially for brand-sensitive “liberal” companies like Starbucks.

SBWU has provided a master class in how to win the battle for public opinion and inflict major brand damage by combining inspirational shop-floor militancy with a savvy, worker-led communications strategy. In my research, I found that the Starbucks drive was the single most cited effort driving up the explosion of the media’s union coverage from 2022 onward (see figure below). Billie Adeosun in Olympia summed it up well: “I love that we’ve made unionizing sexy.”

Yearly Press Coverage of Unionization

Salience of the term “unionize” by year, in over 22,000 archived US newspapers (Source:

Clips of Starbucks workers walking out in response to illegal firings have regularly gone viral, exposing the hypocrisy of a nominally progressive corporation and inspiring other workers to take similar actions. For instance, a video of Buffalo partners walking out to protest the firing of union leader Sam Amato has drawn over twenty million views on TikTok.


@Starbucks is this what you want to be known for? #starbucks #unionbusters #howardschultz #mellodyhobson #workersrights

♬ No Hands (feat. Roscoe Dash & Wale) – Waka Flocka Flame

Starbucks’s vice president of partner resources subsequently admitted that she had to turn off social media because it “has been very disheartening. And yet perception is reality in some way, shape, or form.” There are good reasons why the salt trainings led by Buffalo SBWU founders included a session on “TikTok as Class Struggle.”

Casey Moore, who volunteered to lead SBWU’s communications while simultaneously working as a barista in Buffalo, explains that “social media is a way to engage directly with the broader public in a way that most unions haven’t been doing very well. And while of course getting articles in the New York Times helps, we’ve found that viral TikTok videos end up reaching a much wider group of people.”

But unlike previous PR-oriented mobilizations like OUR Walmart and the Fight for 15, the Starbucks campaign has combined a comms air war with sustained grassroots organizing at workplaces and in the community. College students across the country have begun successfully kicking Starbucks off campuses. Parallel to this, SBWU launched a holiday season campaign to convince customers to not buy gift cards until the company bargained a first contract.

Starbucks’s bottom line has taken a real toll from the constant litigation and bad press about union busting combined with the strikes, protests, and boycotts. Bloomberg thus recently reported that in November–December 2023, the company suffered “the longest [stock] rout since Starbucks’s public debut . . . a decline of nearly $12 billion. . . . This marks the third straight week of decelerating trends amid boycotts and recent labor strikes.” Starbucks’s corporate execs appear to have concluded that the cost of continued union growth and deepening brand damage was greater than settling.

The ultimate significance of the victory will depend on what happens over the coming months at Starbucks and beyond. We urgently need workers in all industries and regions to step up today to unionize — the Emergency Workplace Organizing Committee has a form for anyone who wants help getting started.

And we need as many local and national unions to go all in on organizing the unorganized now. History will not look kindly on those union leaders who sleepwalked through the best opening for labor organizing in generations. Any massive investment in organizing would be welcome, though for it to be as impactful as possible, unions should do their best to replicate the core lessons of SBWU’s worker-to-worker campaigning.

Starbucks workers did the impossible. Now it’s everybody else’s turn.