High-Octane Organizing at Starbucks

Caption: At the vote count. Starbucks workers in Falls Church, Virginia win 30-2.
Credit: Richard Bensinger

The first half of 2022 has been a remarkable period for Starbucks workers trying to form a union. After its first victories in Buffalo, New York in December 2021—at which Starbucks corporate management ran a blistering and unlawful anti-union effort—the union campaign has spread more quickly than even its most optimistic supporters could reasonably have expected. As of August 2, 2022, Starbucks Workers United (affiliated with Workers United–SEIU [Service Employees International Union]) has won 209 elections in thirty-three states (80 percent of elections conducted)—many by overwhelming margins—and has lost only 45 elections. In addition, workers in over 300 stores (out of almost 9,000 corporate-owned stores nationwide) have petitioned for National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) elections in thirty-five states, potentially covering 7,000 workers.

With its rapid momentum, at least through June 2022, the inspirational campaign—led by intrepid young worker-organizers—has so far resisted the worst impact of Starbucks’ ferocious union-busting: the NLRB has found that Starbucks has unlawfully fired union activists, closed stores to deter unionization, spied on workers, threatened workers, and offered unlawful benefits to discourage unionization. Despite this, the campaign with its rank-and-file dynamism has offered a media-friendly public face—young, mostly female, racially diverse, with many who are LGBTQIA+ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer [questioning], intersex, asexual). Starbucks management has found it difficult to counter this image. With their leadership, Starbucks Workers United has developed a self-sustaining drive that could end up with the coffee behemoth largely unionized.

From 0 to 150 in Six Months, Starting in Buffalo
In August 2019, prior to the Starbucks campaign, veteran labor organizer Richard Bensinger and several young organizers from Workers United–SEIU had helped baristas organize at SPoT, another coffee shop chain with stores in upstate New York. In June 2021, they did the same at Pavement Coffeehouse in Boston. In the case of Starbucks, these Worker United organizers have viewed their role as one of mentoring new grassroots activists and then providing them with the elbow room they need. They indicate willingness to help, but only at the request of store-level self-organizers. Thus, full-time union organizers do not organize workers at Starbucks; workers (or “partners,” as Starbucks calls its workers) organize workers. The International union, Workers United–SEIU, represents the institutional embodiment of their notion of workplace justice.

. . . [F]ull-time union organizers do not organize workers at Starbucks; workers (or “partners,” as Starbucks calls its workers) organize workers.

The first Starbucks campaign in Buffalo began in summer 2021 and became public in August of that year. As soon as it was public, Starbucks HQ engaged the services of Littler Mendelson—the nation’s largest union avoidance law firm—and proceeded to launch its fight against the union. (Ultimately, the regional NLRB issued a complaint against the company, alleging almost 300 separate violations of labor law.) As a result of the company’s delaying tactics, the workers did not get to vote in NLRB elections until December 2021. But after initial victories in two out of three elections, the campaign has taken off nationwide and appears to have developed an almost unstoppable grassroots-driven momentum.

Many observers believed the campaign would not expand beyond Buffalo until the Buffalo workers won significant improvements in their first contract to demonstrate the benefits of unionization. On the contrary, organizers knew that the more stores they unionized, the stronger their position would be in bargaining. The company knew this, too; and organizers believed it would never agree to a good contract for fear that it would spark organizing at many more stores nationwide. Since January, Buffalo workers have met with Starbucks in bargaining sessions for almost six months, and the company has largely treated these sessions as “captive meetings” where they repeat anti-union tropes. But even with no first agreement imminent, the organizing campaign has spread nationwide.

Partners Organizing Partners: Rank-and-File Dynamism
While momentum has been important to the rapid spread of the Starbucks campaign, there has also been a deliberate organizing process. Starbucks Workers United has created a replicable organizing model that has used social media to reach workers at new stores—often using a Pride theme, in recognition of Starbucks’ many queer, trans, and non-binary workers. It has also used Zoom trainings to mentor new  worker activists. These methods are clearly demonstrated in Boston stores.

Kylah Clay and Tyler Daguerre, who were final-year law students, worked at Starbucks in Boston. Neither had any direct experience in unions, but both had been involved in progressive political activism. Clay emailed Starbucks Workers United after reading about the Buffalo campaign; Daguerre, who wanted to unionize his store even before hearing about Buffalo, posted on Instagram about organizing his store. He was given the campaign’s phone number. Daguerre and Clay were then connected by Zoom with Buffalo-based organizers, who talked them through the unionization process: how to form an organizing committee; print union authorization cards; approach coworkers about supporting the union; respond to antiunion propaganda; send a “Dear Howard” letter  to company CEO Howard Schultz, requesting recognition of the union; and petition for an NLRB election. They also provided assistance as needed, as the campaign developed.

. . . [I]n Mesa, Arizona . . . only six workers signed the letter to management. Starbucks expedited the election process, but the union won anyway by a vote of 25-3 in the “most conservative big city in America.”

After collecting a majority of union authorization cards over several days and petitioning for NLRB elections at the Allston and Brookline stores where they worked, Clay and Daguerre exchanged information about management  talking points. They pushed back on anti-union statements at initial captive audience meetings—conducted by a combination of store managers, district managers, and district personnel officers. Ultimately, workers at both stores declined to attend these so-called “listening  sessions,” a tactic that has also been used at several other stores. Although it took five  months to get an election, workers at both stores voted unanimously for union representation.

Organizing at other Boston-area stores followed a similar pattern. When workers from other Massachusetts and Connecticut stores reached out to Starbucks Workers United, or to “Boston Starbucks Workers United,” they would be contacted by Clay, who would conduct  Zoom meetings with new activists. Daguerre has focused on building the campaign’s infrastructure through social media, public outreach, and events. In addition, Clay and Daguerre have conducted Zoom workshops on unfair labor practices (ULPs) and other labor law issues and have helped train workers to act as “partners on point”—Starbucks workers who serve as the first contact for workers who reach out to Starbucks Workers United. As of August 3, 2022, the campaign had won fourteen elections out of twelve in the Boston Metropolitan Area, which has become a center for barista labor activism. Some version of the Boston process has played out approximately 150 times across the country.

The campaign has spread largely in geographic clusters. Multiple stores in the same city or region—for example, Eugene, Oregon; Richmond, Virginia; Jacksonville, Florida; Ann Arbor, Michigan—have petitioned for NLRB elections together or have staggered petitions over a short period. The union has been strong in most regions, including traditionally tough areas for unions. For example, it has won elections overwhelmingly in the South Carolina cities of Greenville (once described by the New York Times as the “most virulently anti-union city in the country”), Anderson, and Columbia. These are all places where private-sector unions are virtually non-existent. The union has been especially strong in college towns, where many workers are part of the young, college-educated working class  that has energized recent union efforts at Amazon, REI, Apple, and Trader Joe’s. The campaign has spread more slowly in large urban areas with a high concentration of Starbucks stores, such as  New York City, Chicago, and Los Angeles. But, workers at several stores in these cities have voted to unionize, and the campaign may very well expand in those places.

Winning, Even in the Toughest of Circumstances
Starbucks has delayed most elections by exploiting the appeals process. In a few cases, it has facilitated rapid elections if it thinks it can win. This has often been a miscalculation. Management has measured support for the union by the number of worker signatures on “Dear Howard” letters. But, some stores have petitioned for elections or requested recognition with a relatively weak show of public support. Although, in these cases, the union appears to be vulnerable to Starbucks’ antiunion pressure, it ends up winning by overwhelming margins. For example, in Mesa, Arizona—the first store to vote outside of Buffalo—only six workers signed the letter to management. Starbucks expedited the election process, but the union won anyway by a vote of 25-3 in the “most conservative big city in America.”

Covid-19 has also been a factor in the Starbucks campaign. Prior to the pandemic, Starbucks employees—who work in close-knit teams—felt a strong sense of camaraderie with their colleagues. This kinship was heightened by “trauma bonding” during the pandemic. Workers felt abandoned by management when stores were closed and then reopened, often without adequate safety precautions. Mobile  app orders increased enormously but stores were frequently understaffed, and essential store infrastructure repairs went untended. The work got harder, more stressful, and more dangerous, and workers were not rewarded or taken care of. They could only rely on each other for support. This strong sense of community partly explains why the union has won many elections overwhelmingly—including fifty-two unanimous  votes—as workers have effectively supported unionization as a bloc. Rejecting Howard Schultz’s attacks on the union as an “outside force,” trying to disrupt Starbucks’ culture, pro-union  workers identify strongly with each other. They believe that they are the union; they are Starbucks Workers United.

The Manager in the Middle
Workers at Starbucks stores typically do not have much direct managerial supervision after shops are up and running with experienced baristas, who work in teams and develop strong interpersonal bonds. Prior to the union campaign, store managers rarely worked on the floor; thus, partners had considerable time to talk union, free from managerial supervision. However, since the start of the union campaign, Starbucks HQ has required store managers to spend more time working on the floor and has imported outside managers and corporate employees into stores during election campaigns so that workers have more supervision. As part of their anti-union duties, managers have attempted to keep known activists separate from undecided workers by scheduling them to work separate shifts in the lead-up to elections.

Workers felt abandoned by management when stores were closed and then reopened, often without adequate safety precautions.

In April, Starbucks senior executive Rosann Williams—then head of Starbucks North America—told store managers that their “number one responsibility” was to get workers to “vote no.” But, some store managers secretly support the union, while others lack the communication skills or relationships with workers that would make them effective anti-union persuaders. Some store managers are former baristas, while others are hired from the outside. But as one partner-organizer explained, “They are more like us.” Some store managers have been fired, reassigned, or had their hiring responsibilities removed during the campaign. Moreover, most baristas identify more closely with shift supervisors—who have no managerial responsibilities and are members of the bargaining unit—than they do with store managers. These bonds grew strong during the pandemic, and shift supervisors have played an important role in many stores, often serving as lead  organizers. Most district and regional managers—who are hired externally—have little affinity with baristas and have played a leading role in many store-level “vote no” campaigns.

Union Meetings
Starbucks’ management has conducted both group and individual anti-union meetings. It has typically held group captive meetings at the start of store-level anti-union campaigns and again shortly before workers vote. Store managers have “hosted” group captive meetings, but these meetings have usually been conducted by district or regional managers and district human resource directors. However, group captive meetings have often proved ineffective, as members of organizing committees have pushed back on anti-union messages. So, instead of group meetings, Starbucks has  focused mostly on small individual meetings—sometimes one-on-one—to get its anti-union message across. Activist workers do not get invited to these small meetings, so they often do not hear what is said at these meetings, which target uncommitted or fearful workers. If turned against unionization at individual meetings, these workers often refuse to talk to activists. Moreover, unions find it more difficult to prove ULPs committed in these individual meetings because ULP cases in this context often come down to a worker’s word against a manager’s. Moreover, the NLRB usually treats such allegations as separate incidents, even though store and district managers are almost certainly working from a script that is used nationwide.

. . . Starbucks senior executive Rosann Williams—then head of Starbucks North America—told store managers that their “number one responsibility” was to get workers to “vote no.” But, some store managers secretly support the union . . .

Like group captive audience meetings, most individual meetings have been conducted by the store manager and either the district manager or district personnel director. These managers stress standard anti-union themes, such as characterizing the union as an external third party that will create an adversarial relationship between partners and store managers. Some promise that management will respond more promptly than the union will to concerns about understaffing or a lack of investment in the store’s physical infrastructure. But the main focus has been on two central issues: first, management has threatened that—under a collective bargaining agreement—partners could lose their right to transfer to other stores. The right to transfer is a benefit many value, especially students residing in cities other than their home city. Second, management has said that, because of legal constraints, Starbucks cannot extend wage and benefit improvements—which came into effect August 1, 2020—to stores that have already voted for unionization or those that have started organizing. Intensive individual meetings have turned some workers—and, in a very few cases, whole stores—against organizing committees, and the union has lost some elections or withdrawn several petitions as a result. However, in mid-June, the union was still winning 80 percent of elections, often by large margins, and even in parts of the country in which private-sector unionism was extremely weak.

By August 3, 2022, the union had suffered only forty-five election losses—about 17 percent—mostly by very narrow margins. In addition to threats about benefits and transfers, and the fear of management retaliation, the main factor contributing to these defeats has been lengthy delays in scheduling elections. Union avoidance professionals have long recognized that delay can be a killer for organizing campaigns. In the 1980s, legendary union-busting consultant John Sheridan told employers, “If a petition is filed today, and the election is in two weeks, we’ll lose it.” And in the early 2000s, leading union avoidance law firm Jackson Lewis told clients, “time is on your side” in NLRB elections. Lengthy delay has played a key role in several Starbucks union losses. For example, in early June, the union narrowly lost two out of three elections at Chicago stores, where workers had waited over six months to vote after petitioning for an election.

The Chilling Impact of Starbucks’ Unlawful Anti-Union Campaign
The union campaign at Starbucks would undoubtedly have been even more successful if not for extensive unlawful anti-union practices on the part of management. Indeed, the brutality of the anti-union campaign—and the extraordinary number of labor law violations—has partially been obscured by the union’s extraordinary success. As of July 27, 2022, the NLRB had 254 open Starbucks-related ULP cases spread across twenty-six states; and regional offices of the NLRB had issued nine complaints, covering fifty-seven charges. The firing of seven pro-union workers in Memphis—including six organizing committee members—in early February and terminations of over twenty union activists in Phoenix, Buffalo, Kansas City, and elsewhere has significantly disrupted the campaign’s momentum. Workers at several stores in Tennessee, who had started organizing and had formed workplace committees, decided not to petition for an election after the Memphis terminations. Knoxville’s Maggie Carter, who was Tennessee’s partner of point, estimates that she lost about half the states’ stores that were intending to petition for elections in the weeks after the terminations.

Indeed, the brutality of the anti-union campaign—and the extraordinary number of labor law violations—has partially been obscured by the union’s extraordinary success.

The situation has been compounded by delays in Labor Board proceedings. The regional NLRB took four months to issue a ULP charge on the Memphis firings, and the underfunded and understaffed labor board did not issue a court injunction, ordering reinstatement of the fired workers, until mid-May.

After a slow start, the NLRB escalated its action against Starbucks’ unlawful union-busting. In early May, the NLRB regional office in Buffalo issued a sweeping charge against Starbucks, incorporating almost 300 instances of labor law violations, most of which occurred during the organizing drive last fall. Moreover, the complaint called for remarkable remedies, including a video message on the right to organize from CEO Howard Schultz or Chief Executive Rosann Williams to be played in every Starbucks store. In addition, remedies included mandatory training for store managers on workers’ rights; reinstatement of terminated  activists at Buffalo stores; and the right of the union to reply to Starbucks’ captive meetings.

However, delay is again a huge problem. As of August 3, 2022 the hearing on these Buffalo charges was ongoing and, in any case, Starbucks  could appeal a decision all the way to the federal courts. So, the union is unlikely to benefit from these extraordinary remedies anytime soon.

The media coverage has inspired thousands of young labor activists beyond Starbucks; . . . millions of Americans have gotten an education in how powerful antiunion corporations abuse and exploit weak labor laws.

As the union campaign expands, Starbucks has expanded the scope of its union-busting campaign. In early May, Howard Schultz announced that the company would provide benefit increases—including enhanced sick leave and credit- and debit-card tipping—but only to workers in stores without active organizing campaigns. In making this announcement, Starbucks wrongly claimed that federal law prevented it from unilaterally changing conditions in stores engaged in bargaining or in stores that had already voted to unionize. In reality, Starbucks organizing and bargaining committees immediately informed Starbucks HQ that they would not file objections to the benefit changes and called on management to extend these increases to all Starbucks workers. Thus, the company’s only reason to perpetuate the benefit threat was to slow down a rapidly expanding union drive, involving almost 9,000 company-operated stores, employing on average about twenty-six employees per store.

In mid-June, Bloomberg reported that Starbucks had also threatened to eliminate transgender-inclusive and other healthcare benefits at unionized stores. If implemented, this could affect many employees who identity as queer, trans, and non-binary. Threats to restrict benefit increases—which were immediately amplified by store managers and district managers throughout the country—have in fact slowed the number of stores petitioning for elections and have contributed to several union loses in close elections,  even at some stores that petitioned for elections with strong support. The union has attempted to “inoculate” workers against these threats and has filed a ULP charge in this matter against the company. However, unless the NLRB rules quickly and decisively against the company, such threats will continue to disrupt organizing. Starbucks HQ and its union avoidance law firm are intent on exploiting the NLRB’s cumbersome processes and its long-standing problems of delay and inadequate remedies.

Howard Schultz—who has a lengthy record of fighting unions—blamed the campaign on “outside forces” and claimed that corporations nationwide were being “assaulted” by union activists. He has accused pro-union workers of disloyalty and stated that Starbucks would never engage with the union because the customer experience would suffer if a “third party were integrated into the business.” However, the question is not whether a “third party” might be bad for the customer experience but whether, under the law, collective bargaining is what Starbucks workers want. But, to the union’s advantage, Starbucks—which prominently associates itself with progressive values, for example, LGBTQIA+ rights, Black Lives Matter, environment justice, and abortion rights—is subject to greater public scrutiny than most companies. Its anti-union campaign is documented in real time by traditional and social media. Starbucks risks significant damage to its progressive reputation if it were to intensify its war against pro-union employees.

Can the Starbucks Campaign Ignite a Broader Wave of Organizing?
In the first few months of 2022, unions have won remarkable victories at both Amazon and Starbucks, among the highest-profile non-union corporations in the United States. While union campaigns at both companies have relied on ground-up organizing techniques, their methods differ in some significant respects. The rank-and-file dynamism of Starbucks Workers United appears to be replicable nationwide, whereas the organic model of grassroots worker-organizers utilized by the Amazon Labor Union (ALU) may be less so. The first Staten Island victory depended on an extraordinary set of activists who coalesced within JFK8. In the second Staten Island warehouse, this did not happen to the same degree. Both corporate behemoths are anti-union in their DNA, and both unions have to contend with the same inadequate labor law. So why might the ALU struggle to retain its hold on its historic Staten Island victory, while the  Starbucks union has spread nationwide? Amazon warehouses, of course, can be hundreds of times larger than Starbucks stores; the nature of the work at Amazon is more isolating, with greater management supervision; turnover at Amazon is higher. The ALU drew upon activists within the facility who were a combination of long-term employees and “salts”—workers who had taken jobs there with the intention of organizing.

And the first ALU victory was unique: there’s only one first time, and any future Chris Smalls will be operating in an environment not only different from, but also altered by, the remarkable achievement of the original. In the second Staten Island facility, the campaign was unsuccessful, in part, because the facility offers mainly part-time work, which does not generate much job commitment or the kind of in-house leadership that made for success at JFK8.

For the ALU, then, replication is arguably not a useful way to think about the future. Starbucks Workers United, in contrast, has demonstrated that the labor movement can be organizationally flexible enough and capable of adapting itself to the needs of the independent-minded workers who constitute the ranks of Starbucks baristas. Ironically, Starbucks has effectively hired exactly the kind of self-confident workers that have provided the union campaign with its dynamism. If the campaign continues to enjoy its current level of success, Starbucks could end up mostly unionized, and joining a union could become just another characteristic of being a barista.

The Starbucks union campaign has generated enormous traditional and social media coverage, which is how most workers at new stores find out about the campaign. The media coverage has inspired thousands of young labor activists beyond Starbucks, and it has gotten the public to pay attention to union issues in a way not seen for decades. At the same time, millions of Americans have gotten an education in how powerful anti-union corporations abuse and exploit weak labor laws. As a result, even if all the recent activism at Starbucks were beaten down by the company’s ferocious union-busting, it could still inspire an organizing wave across the low-wage service sector, similar to the organizing campaigns of the 1930s, which drew the working underclass into the mainstream and empowered the labor movement. The new American labor movement might just have started at a coffee house in Buffalo.

I would like to thank Jaz Brisack, Maggie Carter, Casey Moore, Kylah Clay, Tyler Daguerre, Sarah Pappin, Colin Cochran, Hayden Mullen, and other Starbucks Workers United partner organizers who provided information for this article.

Author Biography
John Logan is a professor and Director of Labor and Employment Studies at San Francisco State University. He was previously an assistant and associate professor in the School of Management at the London School of Economics and Political Science and Director of Research at the University of California–Berkeley Labor Center. He has published widely on labor-management relations and employer opposition to unionization in the United States and globally.