How Starbucks and Colectivo Coffee Workers Rode a New Wave of Labor Organizing

How Starbucks and Colectivo Coffee Workers Rode a New Wave of Labor Organizing

International cafe giant Starbucks is the latest coffee chain to see pro-union workers usher in a new era of labor organizing within the hospitality industry, with a group of baristas last week in Buffalo, New York, voting to become the first unionized outpost of the brand’s 9,000 corporate-owned U.S. stores.

Despite an aggressive and highly publicized anti-union campaign on the part of Starbucks leadership, the union coasted to victory on last Wednesday with a vote of 19 to 8 in favor of joining Workers United, an affiliate of Service Employees International Union (SEIU). Employees at a second location in the Buffalo area voted down a union effort, and the outcome of a third election has yet to be finalized, according to Eater N.Y.

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Pro-labor Starbucks workers in Buffalo, New York, celebrate their union victory.
Photo by ELEONORE SENS/AFP via Getty Images

Starbucks’s historic vote comes about four months after some Chicago coffee workers prevailed in their own tumultuous union fight with Colectivo Coffee, a Wisconsin-based chain with five Chicago-area locations. At Colectivo, organizers and management spent more than a year locked in a contentious battle over a vote to join the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW), with some current and former employees alleging so-called “union-busting” tactics including waves of unexpected firings, mandatory meetings with anti-union speakers, and schedules changing rapidly with little notice.

Nevertheless, the ball is rolling, and arguably picking up speed: workers from three more Starbucks stores in the region filed for union elections in November. On Monday, employees at two Boston-area Starbucks locations followed suit. These numbers will likely increase as employees across the hospitality industry are beginning to demand more of their bosses.

Colectivo’s union saga in the Midwest bears marked similarities to that of Buffalo’s Starbucks workers, and in many ways could foreshadow future coffee industry organizing throughout the country. Here are a few key parallels between both cafe chain’s labor drives.

What defines “progressive values” is debatable

Union organizers at both Starbucks and Colectivo have successfully leveraged their respective brand stances on social justice to great effect, and that could be seen as contradicting management’s responses to union campaigns. At Starbucks, organizers drew attention to the company’s own social responsibility standards for third-party suppliers, which requires them to “recognize and respect the right of workers to freedom of association and to bargain collectively,” TruthOut reports.

The Internet is changing the labor landscape

Hoards of hospitality workers turned to social media to share fear, frustration, and a range of allegations in the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, transforming a whisper network among colleagues into a digital bullhorn. Union-supporting employees both at Starbucks and Colectivo have made ample use of social media and streaming to disseminate their stories and cultivate support across the U.S., drawing national attention with events like a livestream town hall with Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont. Instagram has emerged as a particularly effective tool for organizers to argue their cases in the court of public opinion and rally fans to take action.

Context matters and gaffes add up

In its efforts to convince workers to vote against unionization, leadership at both Colectivo and Starbucks made ill-advised historical references. In a video sent to Colectivo employees in January 2021, co-founder Lincoln Fowler referenced the failed insurrection at the U.S. Capitol as a symbol of the need for unity at his company and in the country at large — a comparison that to some workers felt was loaded and inappropriate. Former Starbucks chief executive Howard Schultz, the chain’s largest shareholder, stepped in a similar mire in November when in a meeting with workers, he likened his view of the company’s generous ethos to that of Jewish prisoners during the Holocaust who shared meager resources in Nazi concentration camps.


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