Starbucks Hasn't Unionized In The US In Decades. That Just Changed

In what is being reported as "a big symbolic win for labor" (per The New York Times), Starbucks workers at one location in Buffalo, New York have formed union — the first in the U.S. since the 1980s. The Seattle-based coffee giant has somewhat of a checkered past with such organization efforts, including contentious unionization battles in New York and Philadelphia. This recent, Buffalo-based push finds Starbucks employees hoping to negotiate better salaries and a stronger voice in the way their individual stores are operate. According to CNN, Starbucks has 235,000 employees in the country and almost 9,000 outlets.

Per Fortune, around 100 employees from six Buffalo area Starbucks voted to decide whether they'd like to receive support from Workers United, a group that is a part of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). According to pro-union employees, some Starbucks stores are "understaffed" and have provided unsatisfactory training to their staff members, leaving them to grapple with "shoddy equipment" at the stores.

Maya Panos, a 17-year-old barista from a Starbucks outlet in Buffalo told Fortune that she felt compelled to support the unionization efforts for several reasons. She explained, "The more I worked, the more I saw the flaws in the work system and how much they work us for just $15 an hour. They expect us to bend over backwards for customers, and if we don't, our job is on the line."

It's a polarizing topic

According to Fortune, Starbucks claimed that at least a third of its workers are paid $15 hourly and that by next year, the company plans to make sure that its baristas would earn between $15 and $23. The company stated that it offers several perks compared to its competitors such as healthcare benefits for part-time staff and college tuition support. Starbucks also mentioned that "it has the best retention rate in the industry" (via CNN).  

Other locations in New York and Arizona are still attempting to form a union, per NPR. According to a labor studies professor from Rutgers University, Rebecca Givan, this is a positive development that will motivate others, although such unionization efforts are always hard fought. Proof of that is shown in the results of this latest organization push. Of the six Buffalo-based union votes, one was rejected, and the other four are still pending, as of this writing.

Last month, workers pushed for a federal labor charge, stating that the company was attempting to "intimidate" them and undermine unionization efforts through various tactics (via CNBC.) Starbucks refuted these allegations, with executives telling The New York Times that the company merely responded to calls "for help" from specific stores, and provided additional staffing in response to pandemic-related worker shortages. The company did, however, attempt to force all 19 Buffalo-area stores to vote as a whole, rather than individually, but the move was rejected by National Labor Relations Board (via The Wall Street Journal).