They came from very different backgrounds and different parts of the country, each with different reasons for seeking a job at Starbucks. Few of these workers had given any thought to unions when they started their jobs at the coffee chain. But now they are at the center of one of the most successful union organizing campaigns to take place in the United States in decades.
Naomi Martinez, 25, of Phoenix, started working at Starbucks two years ago so she could afford to finish school. The company offers tuition support for an online program at Arizona State University.
Michelle Eisen, 39, of Buffalo, New York, is the production stage manager at the local Irish Classical Theatre Company. She joined Starbucks in 2010 because she needed the health insurance.
Tori Tambellini, 23, of Pittsburgh, started working at the coffee chain in 2019 because, as a junior in college in her first apartment, she wanted to earn some money to pay the rent — and also to get free coffee.
And Nabretta Hardin, 23, of Memphis, said she wanted to work at her local Starbucks because it seemed like the workers there were having a good time interacting with customers.
Martinez, Eisen, Tambellini and Hardin are among the hundreds of Starbucks baristas across the US who have helped organize their fellow workers and make union votes happen.
The first Starbucks-owned store ever to vote for a union took place less than a year ago, in December 2021, at the location where Eisen worked. Since then workers at 243 other stores spread over 38 states have voted to join Starbucks Workers United — that’s more than five stores a week.
Votes have been held at 25 other stores but the results have yet to be certified by the National Labor Relations Board, the federal agency that oversees the votes. And 18 additional locations are either in the process of conducting or awaiting votes. So far, the union has had an impressive 83% success rate among stores where votes have been completed.
It’s been a true grassroots effort, with baristas at each store collecting signatures from their coworkers, pitching them to support the union and responding to the anti-union arguments being made by management.
Martinez, Eisen, Tambellini and Hardin’s efforts have shaken up not only the coffee giant, but they have also inspired workers at other retailers and food services outlets around the country, fueling a surge in union-organizing votes so far this year, including Apple retail stores, Chipotle and Home Depot.
“Winning is contagious,” said Todd Vachon, professor of labor studies and employment relations at Rutgers University. “It’s been very visible. It’s geographically diverse. There are shops in very red states, in the North and South, East and West. The pace it’s happening is breakneck. It’s remarkable.”
But by taking a high-profile role in the unionization efforts at Starbucks, the four baristas, along with hundreds of their counterparts who have also been active in the effort, have put their own livelihoods at risk.
Eisen has kept her job at the Buffalo store, but Hardin and Tambellini were fired after organizing efforts began, and Martinez says an organizer at her Phoenix store was fired. The union has filed unfair labor practices complaints on their behalf, as well as more than 100 other employees it says were wrongly discharged for their support of the union.
“When they told me I was fired, I was scared about rent and groceries and I had just found out my car needed $900 of work to pass inspection, so I was really worried,” said Tambellini.
Many of the employees who were fired said they had initially thought their strong work records would protect them from being let go even if they were active in supporting the union.
“When I called my mom and told her I was supporting the union, the only thing she had to say was ‘They’re going to fire you,’” said Tambellini. “I said, ‘No way, my manager loves me, I’m award winning.’ So I was surprised how hard the company came down on me.”
Hardin and six other union supporters at her Memphis store said they were fired for allowing a television crew working on a story about the organizing effort into the store after closing time.
Hardin and several of her fired co-workers in Memphis were recently hired back after Starbucks lost the unfair labor practice case in front of both the NLRB and a federal court. Starbucks defends the firings and said it continues to appeal the decision that forced it to rehire the workers.
“We filed the appeal because these individuals violated numerous policies by failing to maintain a secure work environment and uphold safety important standards,” said the company.
Still, most of the fired workers nationwide remain off the job, including Tambellini. Both Tambellini and Starbucks said her firing came after she was cited for violating attendance rules. She denies she did anything wrong.
Many of the workers have been able to land on their feet. Some have gone to work for the union itself, as paid organizers. Others have found a new job with employers desperate to find help in the current labor market.
“The pizza place next door [to the Starbucks store I worked at] offered me a job almost immediately,” said Tambellini.
Starbucks denies firings were for union activity
Starbucks insists that none of the employees, which it refers to as “partners,” were fired for their union activity, and it continues to fight the cases alleging wrongful discharge before the NLRB or in court.
“No Starbucks partner has been, or will be, disciplined for supporting or engaging in lawful union activity,” the company said in a statement. “But interest in a union does not exempt partners from following policies and procedures that apply to all partners.”
The company said it respects employees’ right to vote for a union, but believes employees are better off without a “third party” such as a union stepping between management and workers.
Richard Bensinger, a former organizing director at the AFL-CIO union federation and an adviser to Starbucks Workers United, said he’s never seen a more anti-union campaign conducted by any company.
“It’s become an epidemic of firing all over the country,” he said. “It’s a targeting of union leaders for the smallest of things, such as violation of dress code. It’s not subtle.”
The union has also filed complaints about Starbucks stores that were permanently closed after workers there voted for the union or filed for elections. Starbucks said the store closing decisions were made based on safety concerns for employees in the store, not on union activity.
The union has filed 398 unfair labor practice complaints against Starbucks since the start of the organizing campaign last year, while Starbucks has filed 15 complaints against the union. The NLRB has investigated and has issued 43 complaints of its own, all against the company, covering 141 of the 398 charges filed by the union.
Many of the organizers are young, like Hardin, Tambellini and Martinez, who are in their twenties.
“Their energy and their unwillingness to accept the way things are is why we’re where we’re at,” Eisen said of her colleagues. “The newer generation doesn’t apologize for wanting more, and they’re not asking for permission. They’re just doing it.”
In the past, most union-organizing efforts were at factories or other businesses where employees intended to spend their careers and wanted to improve jobs they expected to have for decades to come.
But many of the union leaders at Starbucks, weren’t intending to stay long term. Even Eisen, who has worked for the company for 12 years, had been planning to quit before the organizing effort got underway last year, since the health insurance Starbucks offered no longer provided a level of coverage that made working there worth it to her.
“The health benefits I had come to the company for — costs kept going up and benefits going down. I just didn’t think it was worth it anymore,” she said. “I think when I started there, part of the draw was they did care about their employees and the community. It was the last several years that things really shifted in how they were treating employees.”
But even though they might not have intended to stay long-term at Starbucks and had never thought about unions before this, they say the Starbucks organizing campaign has become a central part of their lives, and almost a full-time job away from work.
“The movement has literally changed my life,” said Martinez. “I have no intention of leaving my store at the very least until we get a first contract. I want to be involved in how my workplace runs.”
Wanting to be involved is a driving force for many of the organizers. They say that beyond wanting to see improvements in pay and benefits, they mostly want a voice on the job, a voice they say can best be achieved with a union.
Moreover, after working through a pandemic, many want rules put in place that will make them feel safe at work. And they want an opportunity to appeal what they say are unfair disciplinary write-ups or firings.
Significance beyond the campaign numbers
It might be easy to dismiss what Starbucks Workers United has accomplished: The stores that have voted to join the union represent only about 6,000 of the company’s 235,000 employees at its US company stores.
In addition, the union has yet to win any contracts for unionized employees. Both the union and management point to one another as the reason that negotiations haven’t progressed, even at the stores that have been organized for months.
But the movement at Starbucks is an important change for the US labor force, which has seen union membership steadily fall over the last 40 years, from 16.8% of workers at private sector businesses in 1983, the first year the Labor Department started tracking union membership, to only 6.1% in 2021.
Winning elections is hard for unions. Management faces few penalties if it fires employees for their support of a union — they only have to pay back pay, plus some interest, less whatever money the employee earned elsewhere while fired, with no penalties. Companies can close locations that are trying to organize. And they have the ability to require employees to sit through presentations at which they lay out arguments against voting for a union, and to make it difficult for union organizers to contact employees to make their case.
The difficulty winning union votes is part of the reason so few US workers are represented by unions and the changing nature of the labor force is another. Not nearly as many jobs are in more heavily unionized industries, such as manufacturing or transportation, these days — and the jobs that do exist face more competition from nonunion rivals both here and overseas, leading to job losses at unionized businesses.
Meanwhile retail and food services have become a far bigger share of the US economy, with more than 23 million jobs between them, or nearly twice as many as in US factories. Only 3.2% of retail and food service workers belong to unions.
The Starbucks organizing campaign may have made only a small dent in that number so far, but it’s an important first step, said Rutgers’ Vachon.
“We’re not a manufacturing economy any longer. We’re a service and knowledge economy. The Starbucks workers are really demonstrating that it’s possible to unionize in an industry where it was thought of as impossible to organize, due to high turnover and a large percentage of young people,” he said. “It turns out having so many young workers was a key to their success. Young people are the demographic that thinks they can change the world.”