Coffee shop workers are a bright spot in union organizing

Coffee shop workers are a bright spot in union organizing

Indeed, many baristas I spoke to described the shared dread of taking and filling drink orders in tight spaces during morning rush hour as one of many bonding experiences. And some employees who recently unionized pointed out that, even in coffee shops that do have a kitchen in back, worker divisions were often negligible. Zach Anderson, a kitchen manager at SPoT, said that baristas and kitchen staff at the cafes are usually not fixed positions and that wages for non-managerial employees are all the same, with tips distributed evenly regardless of a person’s station. “In situations where you’re dealing with long lines on the busiest weekend days and tickets in the kitchen and on the barista station are congested, all of us feel food rushes and feel being overworked and understaffed,” he said. “Misery breeds company.”

4. Three gallons community support

Being located in hyperliberal college or historically pro-labor communities—or in some cases, both—has also been a boon for workers in the middle of a union drive. Laskonis, whose father is an IBEW organizer, said that a number of her co-workers could remember the Act 10 protests of 2011, when tens of thousands of people flooded the state capitol in Madison for weeks to rally against legislation that weakened public service employees’ collective bargaining rights. During the Colectivo union drive, one of Laskonis’s favorite customers turned out to have a labor background and regularly stopped by with friends who were active or retired union organizers. In Buffalo, hundreds of people turned up for rallies supporting the SPoT union, and New York’s Democratic State Senator Tim Kennedy urged customers to boycott SPoT after the company allegedly fired three employees for organizing. And workers at Darwin’s Ltd. saw any opposition to the union drive by their employer, which has long sold itself as a community-focused hub in a solidly left college town, as self-sabotage.

“It would look so bad if they tried to do any kind of retaliation or any kind of union busting here because we had state representatives doing photo ops [and] we had multiple city councilors retweeting us,” said Eleanor McCartney, a shift manager at Darwin’s and a member of the organizing committee. “It is so much like liberal peacocking. That’s what people care about here, like how liberal can you be?”

That’s not to say companies, big or small, won’t try to crush budding unions. Colectivo affirmed in a letter published by the local news outlet Urban Milwaukee its support and care for its workers. But in the year leading up to the NLRB vote, the company hired consultants who, according to workers, attempted to deter them from joining a union through “captive audience” meetings; as was the case with SPoT, Colectivo workers I spoke told me they strongly believed that management had fired or let go of workers for organizing. When I reached for out for comment, a PR representative for Colectivo responded with a copy of a letter it had sent to workers during the union drive, which encouraged them to support the company by voting no on a union. She also forwarded the company’s public response to election outcomes in August. 

Starbucks continues to brand itself a pro-worker business. And with much deeper pockets than many small independent chains, it also has more resources at its disposal—be it to cover the costs of consultants or the financial penalties for what the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has found on several occasions to be an illegal effort to fire workers for organizing.

For the Buffalo drive, the company has hired Littler Mendelson, which describes itself on its website as “the largest law practice in the world exclusively devoted to representing management in employment, employee benefits, and labor law matters.” It also parachuted in corporate officials and managers from other states to Buffalo, which employees documented in a photo posted to Twitter. Higher-ups have since held “listening sessions” to discuss workplace complaints, which workers said carried an anti-union tone, and routinely made their presence known via store visits. Reggie Borges, a Starbucks spokesman, told me that these visits and meetings are standard practice to address complaints and concerns, and that company leaders have held about 2,000 listening sessions this past year.

Earlier this month, it was reported that the coffee chain temporarily shuttered two of the five Buffalo stores that had filed petitions for union elections. (Of the five stores, two had withdrawn their petitions to help speed up the unionization process.) The company has said the temporary closures were unrelated to workers’ organizing efforts. 

On Wednesday, the company announced that it will raise its minimum wage nationwide to $15 an hour next summer, which Borges said is also unrelated to the union drive. “Back in December of 2020, Kevin [Johnson, president and C.E.O of Starbucks] went on the record saying we have a goal of reaching $15 an hour by 2023,” Borges said. “This is in line with the commitments we had made.”

Yet even in the face of an increasingly uphill union drive, Starbucks employees say the company’s resistance is reason to continue their fight—and, they hope, inspires others to do the same. If a drive can be successful in a nearly 9,000-store chain, the thinking goes, perhaps indie coffee shops won’t prove to be outliers for much longer.

“People believe in this and we want it to happen,” Moore, the Starbucks barista, said. “We’re not giving up because Starbucks wants us to vote no.” 


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