Workers at a Starbucks store in its Seattle hometown voted unanimously to be represented by a union, giving the organizing effort by some company employees their most one-sided victory to date.
The store is a small one, with 13 employees eligible to vote, and only nine had their votes counted. The victory gives the Starbucks Workers United union one of its highest-profile wins in the organizing effort that has been growing rapidly since early December, when the first store in Buffalo, New York, voted in favor of the union.
Before Tuesday, five stores in and near Buffalo, New York, and one in Mesa, Arizona, voted to join the union. One in Buffalo voted no. The union said there are 149 other stores spread across 27 states where workers have signed cards in support of the union requesting an election.
Workers at the Seattle store who spoke to the media after the vote said they believe their win will make a difference at some of those upcoming union votes.
“It’s really cool to see. We were able to make a statement,” said Rachel Ybarra, a 22-year old barista who has worked for Starbucks for almost two years. “Being it’s in Seattle, where corporate is….I think that’s going make everybody feel that much more protected, that much more confident in organizing their own stores.”
The Seattle store is about a 10-minute drive from Starbucks’ main corporate headquarters. Ybarra said she was stunned the first time a customer told her that they worked in corporate and they supported the organizing effort.
“What I realized, and what kind of empowered me even more, is the folks who work in corporate are also folks. They have their own beliefs. They are also excited for us,” she said. “We are all workers. It’s the people making the big decisions that are fighting against us.”
Starbucks recently announced that long-time CEO Howard Schultz, who led the company from its early days, would return as interim CEO for a third time in the company’s top job. Schultz has been active in urging Starbucks workers across the country not to support the union effort.
The union organizing campaign is getting national attention from supporters and from Starbucks, even though a union win at all 150 stores trying to join the union would represent a fraction of the company’s total operations.
Company filings show Starbucks (SBUX) had 235,000 employees at nearly 9,000 company-operated stores in the United States as of October 2021.
Earlier Tuesday, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont sent a letter to Schultz asking him to change course and accept the unionizing efforts. He cited recent complaints from the National Labor Relations Board, which oversees union elections, finding that Starbucks unlawfully retaliated against two workers in Philadelphia after they attempted to unionize, and engaged in illegal surveillance and threats against union supporters in Phoenix, Arizona.
He ended the letter to Schultz writing, “This is a pivotal moment for Starbucks. As you return to the company, it is time to do the right thing: End the union busting and obey the law.”
The company has repeatedly denied doing anything improper in urging its workers not to vote for the union and is on record saying it will respect the outcome of the votes. Starbucks said it took action against the employees because they violated clear company policies.
“We have fully honored the process laid out by the NLRB and encouraged our partners to exercise their right to vote and to have their voices heard,” said a Starbucks spokesperson. It is challenging the results at at least two of the stores that voted for the union.
The company did not have a specific comment on Tuesday’s vote.
Starbucks also said it provides better pay and benefits, and has lower turnover, than many competitors in food services, including health care coverage for part-time workers and college tuition reimbursement.
It has issued two wage increases in the last 18 months, and in October, the company said it would raise wages to at least $15 an hour for baristas, with most hourly employees earning an average of nearly $17 an hour by this summer. It claims to have the best retention rate among food service chains.
But union supporters at Starbucks, many of them in their 20s, say they want more control over their work, including better protection from threats posed by the pandemic as well as better pay.
“We’re all coming out of a pandemic. We’re all coming out of unstable and insecure life changing events. Workers are finding they have a lot less to lose, and a lot more to gain, by standing up for themselves in their work place,” said Sydney Durkin, a 26-year old shift supervisor who had been at the Seattle store for six years. “The people who are making your coffee should also be making a living wage. They should be able to support their family.”