The Starbucks Workers’ Union Has Finally Broken Through

After years of relentless union busting — costing the company nearly a quarter-billion dollars, in one estimate — Starbucks Workers United has now forced the corporation to negotiate. It may prove the most important organizing breakthrough in decades.

Starbucks workers hold a rally on October 5, 2022 in New York City. (Michael M. Santiago / Getty Images)

How do you force a multibillion-dollar corporation to bargain in good faith with its workers? That’s a question many in the US labor movement have been asking over the past few years as workers launched ambitious organizing drives at some of the most recognizable brand names in the country — Starbucks, Amazon, and Trader Joe’s foremost among them — and found themselves stonewalled by management who stubbornly refused to stop fighting their newly organized unions and negotiate contracts.

Now, just over three years since baristas launched their union drive at a Starbucks in Buffalo, New York, we have at least one version of an answer. On Tuesday, Starbucks Workers United (SWU), the fiercely independent Service Employees International Union (SEIU) affiliate, announced a breakthrough in securing first contracts at the nearly four hundred stores that have unionized.

“Workers United and Starbucks have agreed to begin discussions on a foundational framework to achieve collective bargaining agreements for represented stores and partners, the resolution of litigation between the union and the company, and a fair process for workers to organize,” the union said in a statement.

The vague legalese is a major victory. Starbucks has waged a scorched-earth campaign against its employees, firing pro-union workers, closing profitable locations where union support was entrenched, and aggressively pursuing litigation over a wide range of issues. Starbucks is pursuing a case against the union over “trademark infringement” after SWU made a pro-Palestine social media post (the union responded by countersuing arguing that the company had defamed them by implying the union supports violence), and the Supreme Court has agreed to hear Starbucks’s challenge of a federal judge’s order to reinstate seven union supporters who were fired at a store in Memphis, Tennessee.

Starbucks employees currently have a staggering seven hundred unfair labor practice (ULP) charges against the company at various stages of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) process; more than 250 of those charges specifically concern firings. The corporation’s union busting has had serious consequences. Baristas in Ithaca told me their coworker fainted from hunger after their hours were cut in what employees claimed was retaliation for organizing.

The union says that Starbucks has agreed to bargain a master contract for all unionized locations, with the likely addition of local contracts to address store-specific issues. (One can imagine, for example, a store with an onerous layout or a uniquely grating drive-through setup requiring such store-specific language.) As a show of good faith, the company has also agreed to implement credit-card tipping and provide back pay for the raises and benefits it denied workers at unionized locations while offering them to workers at its other 9,700 corporate-owned US stores.

We don’t yet know what the process for bargaining will look like, but it’s clear that the news means that at long last, the company has realized it cannot defeat the union.

“Getting those long-denied benefits is a step in the right direction,” said Michelle Eisen, who has worked at Starbucks since 2010. Eisen works at the Elmwood store in Buffalo, which was the first Starbucks to unionize. Workers at that location have been denied such benefits for years, making the back pay a significant gain.

So why is Starbucks raising the white flag?

We can’t know what’s in the minds of its executives, but a few factors stand out. An analysis from the Strategic Organizing Center estimates that the company has spent some $240 million on union busting. Its attempt to defeat a pro-worker insurgent campaign for seats on its Board of Directors alone seems to be costing a small fortune. But that enormous war chest has failed to stop workers: just last week, twenty-one stores filed with the NLRB for union elections, the largest number of single-day filings since the campaign began.

“For every one exhausted barista that had to take a step back, there were ten more willing to take their place,” Eisen said. “It’s an almost endless source of power.”

Pro-union community support, too, has only continued to grow. In August 2023, students at Cornell convinced university administration not to renew the school’s contract with Starbucks; similar campaigns to kick the company off campus are in the works at the University of Washington and in the University of California system. For Starbucks, this must look a lot like evidence that they’re at risk of losing a generation of consumers. Even company shareholders are siding with the workers: last year, 52 percent of shareholders approved a proposal to have the company’s labor practices independently audited.

Then there’s dissension among store-level management. From SWU’s earliest days, the company has leaned on low-level managers to serve as anti-union frontline soldiers. That has created problems for the company: while some managers surely relish the role, others, many of whom have long tenure at their stores and care about the well-being of their employees, have been prime sources of leaks and covert union support. Workers I spoke to say the company is having difficulty hiring store managers lately, presumably because very few people want to deal with the stress, grief, and headaches that come with being the tip of the spear for corporate’s deeply unpopular policies.

“I’d like to believe there were enough people within the company who said, ‘Enough is enough, this is not who Starbucks is supposed to be,’” Eisen said.

So what happens next? Unionized baristas already have a national bargaining committee who helped draft bargaining proposals and revised them with the input of thousands of unionized baristas. Those proposals include just cause, seniority protections, the expansion and strengthening of health insurance, expanded paid time off, and a higher base wage with guaranteed annual raises. Each store is its own bargaining unit, so to negotiate a master agreement, the union will presumably reshuffle the committee or elect a new one entirely, with representatives from each unionized location.

The union says that Starbucks has reiterated its desire to see contracts ratified by the end of the year, a time line it previously laid out in a letter to Workers United president Lynne Fox in December 2023. While it’s worth celebrating this step forward, true victory for the workers will require Starbucks agreeing to the union contract proposals.

The company says it also wants to resolve all outstanding litigation. We still don’t know exactly what that will entail — people familiar with the discussions say the details of the agreement are still being worked out, and talks are expected to continue in the coming weeks. But both sides have reasons to want to settle the litigation: Starbucks is bleeding money on lawyers, and unionized workers are doubtless sick of the endless legal maneuvering. A quick settlement to their hundreds of ULPs, if done fairly, would surely be preferable to the NLRB process, which can take years to wend its way through appeals, an unacceptable time line for a fired worker who wants their job back.

That’s the path forward for SWU members. But there’s also the matter of what this victory means for Starbucks workers who are not yet organized into the union.

Starbucks’s denial of credit-card tipping and other benefits to unionized locations served as a powerful tool to stop workers from organizing additional stores. If workers see that they will be materially penalized for unionizing, it’s hard to blame them for not wanting to bother. With Starbucks’s assent to putting an end to that policy, we can expect to see a wave of additional stores unionizing. Should the agreement also include commitments from Starbucks not to union bust in the future — and a statement from the company noting that the framework being ironed out will include a “fair process for organizing” suggests it will — there’s no telling how many stores SWU might organize in the coming year or two.

“The fact that they’ve made the statement that they want to set up a fair process going forward for elections is big,” Eisen said. “They’ve never said those words before. There’s a lot of work still to come, but the roadblocks that we faced are gone, and hopefully other workers who want to organize in this company in the future will not have to face any of that.”

SWU’s victory is proof of concept for other workers in low-wage, high-turnover industries. Traditional wisdom in the US labor movement saw such workers as unorganizable, the ease with which bosses could replace them and the short tenure of the average worker a seemingly insurmountable obstacle to the arduous, lengthy process of unionizing. No longer. Starbucks workers have now shown that, with the right support from organized labor and the freedom to take the lead on organizing themselves — a means of scaling up a campaign in a fashion that moves faster and costs less in organizing resources — it can be done.

That proof couldn’t have come at a better time. Workers are now as eager to unionize as they’ve been in decades, and public sentiment is resolutely pro-union. More than five hundred thousand workers went on strike last year, and most of them won big. It was a textbook example of seizing the moment, using the tight labor market to go on the offensive.

But all of that activity didn’t change union density, which is now down to a measly 10 percent. And that number obscures an even more ghastly one: while 32.5 percent of public sector workers are unionized, it’s a mere 6 percent in the private sector. Meanwhile, a growing number of employers have signaled their intent to challenge the constitutionality of the NLRB itself.

Workers United chose to pony up the resources needed to organize workers into the labor movement. The union trusted maverick organizers and found ways to support worker-leaders facing retaliation: the union has built an organizing department over the course of the Starbucks campaign, and more than a dozen of that department’s staff are former baristas, a handful of whom were terminated following organizing activity.

The result may well be the most important union organizing breakthrough in decades, one that becomes the source of inspiration and model for the large-scale unionization of food-service workers nationwide, almost none of whom are currently organized.

“The fight is just beginning, and I don’t just mean here, with this campaign,” Eisen said. “I mean across the labor movement: the working class is being pummeled and pummeled and pummeled, and you’re finally seeing workers say, ‘Enough is enough.’ A lot of us are saying it, and at the same time, across different industries.”

We need far more of this type of ambition in the labor movement, especially as we stare down the barrel of a potential post-NLRB landscape. The UAW is another union awake to the moment, as evidenced in its recent decision to direct $40 million in new resources through 2026 to organize nonunion autoworkers. We need more of that, and fast.

Workers want to organize, but they haven’t yet, stymied by all manner of legal obstacles and union busting. It is incumbent upon unions to find a way through, and to trust that with a little bit of training in the nuts and bolts of organizing and a whole lot of faith, workers can defeat even the most intransigent employer.