Barista Solidarity from Buffalo to Oklahoma City
For this article, New Labor Forum’s “Working-Class Voices” columnist Kressent Pottenger interviewed Alyssa Sperrazza, a barista trainer at Starbucks in Oklahoma City, and Media Communications Coordinator for Oklahoma City Starbucks Workers United. The Oklahoma campaign follows organizing successes at 289 Starbucks cafes, starting in Buffalo, New York. Most recently, Starbucks workers have won union representation in Seattle, Washington; Austin, Texas; and Birmingham, Alabama.
I am a barista trainer at Starbucks in the Nichols Hills neighborhood of Oklahoma City, and the Media Communications Coordinator for the Oklahoma City Starbucks Workers United. We are excited that there is already one unionized store in Oklahoma City. The 23rd and Robinson Street location won their election on May 31, 2022, by a vote of 15-2. We are thrilled for them, and hope other stores follow with similar results. At my own store, we held a union vote on February 22, 2022 and the union won 13-11.
I have worked as a barista on and off for almost a decade at different coffee shops, and at Starbucks for three years. It is the busiest coffee shop I have ever worked at. I work on the floor, make all the drinks, and train new hires. The energy in the morning is electric. We are a bustling location: a lot of people coming through on their way to work or school. We have our regulars, which is my favorite part of the day. Getting to see people consistently, and hearing about their life. We try to make connections with customers. Often we are the first people customers talk to in the morning, besides their family. We are setting the tone for the day for a lot of people. You learn how to make everyone’s drink, and how to make the made-up drinks that people request. There is a level of consistency that you have to use when making drinks. People want it to taste the same way each time. No matter what store you go to. When you are a barista, you are really just trying to make a good cup of coffee every time and making sure that the customer is satisfied with it. You have to make sure the stores are stocked and cleaned, even if it is really busy. It is standard restaurant industry work. You note what you run out of and let customers know. You update all of the computers so people aren’t ordering oat milk when you are completely out of it. A lot of the job is conversational.
I say half my job is making coffee. Half of it is talking with customers. Trying to remember details that they tell you so that, when they come in next time, you can ask how was your daughter’s ballet recital? People want their regular baristas to know their order. I have one customer who always gets a nonfat latte with half soy. She told me it makes her day that I know just what she is getting when she comes in. Part of the job is coffee, but the rest is really the customers.
The benefits are what initially drew me to Starbucks. I was a freelance journalist, covering politics and health care, and needed a job that would help pay the bills. I knew Starbucks offered partners—Starbucks’ term for its workforce—quite a variety of benefits: full tuition coverage for Arizona State University’s online degree program, a 401(k) retirement plan, differing levels of healthcare coverage, discounted company stock for partners, eligibility for paid time off, some sick time, and parental leave. They have a progressive image as an employer.
I say half my job is making coffee. Half of it is talking with customers. Trying to remember details that they tell you so that, when they come in next time, you can ask how was your daughter’s ballet recital?
We are paid for two weeks of training, but wages are another matter. I started with an hourly wage of under ten dollars an hour. Looking back, I wonder, what was I thinking? Last year was the first time I have gotten paid over $10 an hour—we received a $1 pay raise as thanks for working through Covid-19, which put me over $10. My hourly wage is now $12.25, an increase that was part of a small pay bump given to partners who have been at Starbucks for over two years. Baristas are arguing for a more livable wage. Pay that reflects the work that we put into the company. I am just in disbelief at what I was willing to accept. This is a multi-billion-dollar company that can very well offer higher wages. Breaks are a problem, too. If you work six hours or more, you get a lunch break which is thirty minutes, and you have to clock out for it. But what if you’re scheduled for a five-hour and forty-five minute shift? Breaks are a struggle sometimes, because you are on your feet constantly. You rely on your fellow baristas to cover for you if you need to run to the bathroom. If we are fully staffed, we usually have nine people working the floor, and our shift manager will put on an apron and get to work if we are short.
During the first wave of Covid-19, Starbucks did something that I know a lot of partners appreciated, and needed, which was offering a free food and drink mark out every day. Whether you were working or not. When they initially said, “Hey, no matter what, free drink, free food item every day;” for a lot of partners that was a meal that they needed. But that eventually went away. Management said that it was a Covid-19 policy, not a permanent one. The current policy now, and before the pandemic, is, when you are on the clock, you get free drinks. You get one food item. When you are not working, you get 30 percent off with your partner number, which is used to keep track of your food and drink mark outs and your store discount.
Starbucks did not provide Covid-19 tests, though we did get paid for going to get them. I think it was an hour of pay. You had to bring your Covid-19 vaccine card and show proof of vaccination for all three of the shots. Our café shut down at one point. Initially, it opened back up as a drive-thru only. Eventually, despite some concern from workers, our café opened up again to mobile orders. We had people coming in and out, everyone had to wear masks, and there was Plexiglas everywhere. It was apocalyptic. I do not think there was ever a time when we weren’t nervous about it. Everyone was on edge. But the district said we are opening back up again. Forcing customers to wear masks was suddenly added to our job requirements. Most customers were in compliance, which we really appreciated. Some made it difficult. I said listen, you do not have to wear your mask, but I also do not have to serve you coffee.
I started with an hourly wage of under ten dollars an hour. Looking back, I wonder, what was I thinking?
I will be the first to say that Starbucks handled lockdown well. They really did follow the Center for Disease Control’s guidance. They had a policy that, if the store shut down because of Covid-19, you would get paid for an average of your hours. We appreciated receiving pay very much. But later, the policy on how long you had to be out in order to qualify for pay kept fluctuating. First it was a week, a week-and-a-half, or even ten days. Then it was five days. Then it was if you were not the person with Covid-19. If you tested negative, even though you had close contact with someone who was infected, you were expected to come in. The message was confusing. I understood management was trying to figure this out, but it was so stressful. We asked: if a person had close contact with someone, why are they here? Because they did not show any symptoms? I said, “No, that is not how this works.” It impacts our lives if someone comes in without symptoms but is a carrier. It was particularly frustrating for coworkers who have small children. In my case, I could not see my parents for over a year because my mother is immunocompromised.
The policy and the timelines kept changing. It felt like there was this growing leniency. People were getting really tired of Covid-19 policy. They would go to the manager and say “This is freaking us out, what is going on?” As those months went by, the exhaustion and frustration set in. It just became a very different place to work. A lot of workers’ frustration, and the desire to organize, stemmed from the pandemic and from different store policies. It exposed a lot of holes, and we saw what management is willing to risk to make profit. And by risk we meant us. We went from feeling very taken care of, and very protected, to “You are willing to put me on the floor no matter what, and is getting Covid-19 worth a seven dollar latte?” And we could answer that right away: “Absolutely not.”
A lot of workers’ frustration, and the desire to organize, stemmed from the pandemic . . . [W]e saw what management is willing to risk to make profit. And by risk we meant us.
One of my partners came to me after talking with an organizer in New York. They said what do you think? Are you on board? My immediate answer was, “Yes.” I was frustrated. I was tired. I think that went for everyone. I had gotten to the point where I said we have to do better than this. If unionizing is what prompts that, if unionizing is what allows us to demand something better from a company, then I will do it. I have never organized before. We are learning as we go, which is rather terrifying. But it has also rebuilt that sense of camaraderie that we had before the pandemic. That sense of, “we are in this together,” because at some point during Covid-19 we were in it together, but we were all too tired to talk about it. The pandemic has definitely changed the dynamic of everything. It has definitely brought tension and frustration. It has stretched us out of our comfort zones. But it has really reunited us, too. We do not like that it is against the leadership and the company, but we do want them to recognize our needs and our rights, including the right to unionize. I have spoken with several people who said, “I would readily and happily work with Starbucks. No problem whatsoever. I just need them to stop union-busting.” This is a company that we worked through a pandemic for, and that many of us really do love. We believe in that message that they told us. At the beginning of training, they tell you that you are a partner not just an employee, and important to the company. Starbucks’ message is that you are essential in creating what they call a “Third Place,” a space between home and work where there’s a feeling of connection, belonging. The partners are encouraged to really create that environment. That is part of what drew me in. I wanted to work for a company that really cared about its employees, and that was willing to talk about issues. I wanted to work for a coffee shop that cared about more than just coffee. I really believed what Starbucks was telling me.
As we organize, more critiques of Starbucks surface, and stores across the country have joined in. It has been made clear that Starbucks does not want to talk about workers’ complaints. They do not want them to be publicized. They do not want those hard discussions that we would like to have. They would like things to just go back to “normal,” but we are so past that point. I do not think there is any going back to normal after Covid-19 in any job. I was on board with organizing, not because I knew what I was doing. I really did not understand in February 2022, when we voted, the full impact it would have. I just knew that I have partners who are really struggling right now. I myself have struggled. I am hearing of partners all across the country who really need help. We do not want it to be easy, but just a little easier. I said if unionizing is going to do that, I will figure it out.
We have had labor organizers across industries say they would love to talk and provide whatever assistance we need. It has been one generation shepherding and encouraging another generation. A lot of it has been learning on the go. Starbucks Workers United is an umbrella organization for all the stores organizing. But, every single store will negotiate their own contract, recognizing that different stores have different needs. If we all had the same union contract nationwide, we’d all have improved pay and better benefits, but the contract would not meet every partner where they are at. Which is what we are wanting each union to do. We would get to address different concerns for our store in Oklahoma than, for example, a store in Arizona. We have stores that are primarily trans workers. Workers in those stores are going to want different healthcare benefits than cisgender workers. There are stores with many single parents, so childcare is going to be more at the front of their mind than a store that is just young college students. But it is really allowing each store to step in and make it their own. Take ownership of it. Work for it.
In our store, as a first step, we wrote a letter of intent to former Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson and signed it from our union committee in Oklahoma City. The committee was really whoever was willing. Any partner could be on it if they had the energy, time, and desire to do it. We needed all hands on deck. We told them, your names are going to be on this letter. It is going to be public, there is not going to be any anonymity here. Different partners were comfortable with that. As a committee member, you are putting your name on this piece of paper, and we are publishing it to the internet. I am very publicly a part of this union. If I was to be wrongfully terminated, the National Labor Relations Board could point back to that letter and say to Starbucks you cannot do that. In a Memphis store, you had seven partners on the union committee wrongfully terminated—all of them were people of color. In Oklahoma City, the union went public right after the Memphis seven were fired. That was a huge driving force for our union committee. We said we are not standing for this. We know that partners in Buffalo, New York, and Arizona have been struggling. But Memphis was like the linchpin of “absolutely not.” You cannot do this to us and expect us just to be silent about it.
From what other labor organizers tell us, all of Starbucks’ union busting tactics are pretty standard. In addition to retaliation via wrongful termination, Starbucks announced they would increase pay and slightly adjust benefits for stores that have not stated their intent to unionize. I thought, that has to be illegal. Partners had been told since fall 2021 that we were going to get a pay raise. Many stores have been organizing despite that promise because none of us felt a pay increase was guaranteed. I fully attribute the possibility of a $15 an hour rate to partners successfully organizing in Buffalo. Whether they actually get it or not, the possibility exists because of them. When they started, it was just them; it still baffles me that they did it. Now, there is pressure all across the country.
In a Memphis store, you had seven partners on the union committee wrongfully terminated—all of them were people of color . . .
It makes my day when a union sticker comes through from a mobile order. That’s when a customer places an order and—in the place of their name—substitutes “union strong” or “solidarity forever.” Mobile orders seem to get monitored. Starbucks can cancel certain keywords. One customer said they tried mobile ordering “union strong,” and the system would not let them. So people have been getting creative with it. We have had so much support in Oklahoma City. I know, for our store, the community has kept up morale. I have people who come to the drive thru, they check in, and ask, “How’s it going?” As a barista, we really try to connect with customers; we try to create that “third place” where you feel known, appreciated, and seen. It feels amazing when the community starts doing that back to us.
Our election is over, and now we are telling partners once you unionize that’s Act One. You have two more acts to go. It is a very long play. You really need to keep reminding your fellow partners why we did this. Why was it important at the time? Maybe you said that healthcare benefits mean a lot to you. Winning benefits is important, even if you are not going to be with the company much longer. You could help improve benefits for the next workers that come in. It is really planting seeds, knowing that you might not get to see any of the fruit, but also knowing how important it is for the next generation of workers.
Kressent Pottenger holds an MA in Labor Studies from The Joseph S. Murphy Institute for Worker Education and Labor Studies at CUNY, and was awarded the SEIU 925 Research Fellowship by Wayne State University in 2012. She is currently working on a research project about 925 and women organizing in the workplace.