Ever since a Starbucks in Buffalo, New York won its vote to unionize back in December 2021, over 140 stores have followed suit and gone public with their push for union representation. So far, 33 elections have been held, with only 2 stores voting against the union. With over 15,000 locations in the United States alone (around 9,000 corporate stores and a little over 6,000 licensed stores), 140 stores may seem like a small number, but this move to unionize has been fast-growing. In just one week, 4 stores in the St. Louis area went public with their filing. The first store to file in the area was the Ladue location on South Lindbergh, followed by a store in Bridgeton located on St. Charles Rock Road, a store on Chippewa and Kingshighway, and one on Hampton and Wise.
I spoke to both shift supervisors and baristas from the Bridgeton and Hampton and Wise locations to get a better understanding of why they made the decision to unionize. The general consensus was that they wanted the protection a union offers when it comes to employee benefits.
“Unionizing is the best option because a union contract would be a guarantee for any protections and benefits we have,” says Riley, a supervisor at Hampton and Wise. “Promises are nice, and like the promise of raises on the horizon are nice, but guaranteed protections for partners are guarantees, as in you legally cannot back out of them.”
A barista from Bridgeton, Enid, gave a slightly different answer. “We feel like unionizing will give us a voice and a say. It will actually give us that seat at the corporate table.” Between the two stores, having the protection a union offers, as well as having a
say in the negotiations seem to be the biggest reasons why stores have been unionizing recently.
Some of the benefits Starbucks offers their employees currently include medical, dental, and vision coverage. Other benefits include, but are not limited to, stock in the company, 100% tuition coverage to earn a bachelor's degree online through Arizona State University, a free pound of coffee each week, and free Spotify premium. However, Starbucks has offered other benefits in the past, which have since then been revoked, including one free beverage and food mark-out on employees’ off days to make sure that partners who might have been struggling during the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic were still able to feed themselves. Even though the pandemic is still ongoing, Starbucks got rid of this benefit on October 4, 2021, despite partner outcry.
The decision to unionize is not one that stores have been taking lightly. In order for a store to file for a union, Workers United asks for 70-75% of in-store support. With the majority of the store needing to come together to make this decision, morale has gone up at the Hampton and Wise location. “I feel like everyone’s been more positive, and felt more proud of the work they’re doing,” says Riley. According to her, since going public with their decision to unionize, the Hampton and Wise store set between 4 or 5 record-breaking out the window times, something that corporate Starbucks pushes heavily at all drive-thru locations.
Other big changes stores in the area have faced include new upper management. “We got a new district manager,” Maddie, a barista over at Bridgeton, tells me. “Our district manager… he quit, like, right after we filed. A couple days after, I think.”
While it is unknown if their district manager left the job due to Bridgeton’s decision to unionize, or if the timing was a mere coincidence, it is still a huge change that the store has experienced since going public with its move to unionize.
Workers United is the union that has been representing Starbucks locations across the United States. Recently, Starbucks announced that they are pressing charges against Workers United. These charges are based on Workers United representatives supposed inappropriate behavior, including blocking entrances and exits, hitting store windows in an attempt to intimidate those inside, and screaming profanities.
With heavy charges and disturbance claims like that, I was curious what Workers United’s involvement had been like at the stores in the St. Louis area. “So it started with us initially doing groundwork in the store,” says Riley, regarding her own store’s experience. “We sent out an email, and they [Workers United] put us in contact with our union rep. She’s done a great job of providing resources and information… and discussing our federally protected rights with us so we’re informed.”
Both Maddie and Enid reported similar things regarding their store’s relationship with Workers United. “They [Workers United] are super, super helpful with everything,” says Maddie. “They’ve been helping us organize, they’ve been running trainings… they do regional training, they did one last night for the Chicago-Midwest region… even though we filed, I’ve been going to those pretty regularly just to kind of keep up on what’s going on.”
Starbucks claims to be pressing charges against Workers United in order to protect both the physical and emotional well-being of its employees. Since Starbucks is claiming to press these charges for their partners’ benefit, I decided to ask those I spoke
to whether or not they believed the company had their best interests in mind when deciding to go against Workers United. My question was met with laughter from some of those I interviewed, but it was a unanimous no from everyone I spoke to. Enid had a lot to say on the matter:
“I absolutely do not believe Starbucks has partners’ best interest at heart in pressing charges against Workers United. If anything, Starbucks has been the one to cause emotional and psychological harm to its employees, even before the process of union organizing.” Enid goes on to talk about the staffing issues her store, as well as many others, have experienced due to labor cuts, and how they are not given enough time to properly train new hires.
“It’s pretty textbook union-busting tactics, and is honestly incredibly funny to see coming from a company that has, I think at this point 80 pending unfair labor practices being brought against them by the National Labor Relations Board,” says Riley when asked about Starbucks pressing charges against Workers United.
Starbucks has filed 2 unfair labor practice charges against Workers United, while Workers United, supported by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has in fact filed 80 unfair labor practice charges against Starbucks.
Throughout this process of stores filing for unions, Starbucks has denied any attempts to union bust. Despite the claim that they are not anti-union, the National Labor Relations Board has recently come out saying that they are suing Starbucks for supposedly retaliating against employees involved with organizing a union at their store. Since these charges from both Starbucks and the NLRB are still new, we will have to wait and see what the outcome will be.
Since February of this year, at least 18 Starbucks employees who were public in their support of unionizing have been fired for various reasons. While Starbucks claims that those former employees were not fired in retaliation, but rather for breaking company policies, this news prompted me to ask those I spoke to if they feared losing their job during their process of filing for a union.
Even though all of these interviews were done separately, everyone admitted to having that fear. “I feared losing my job for the whole process. I fear losing it still,” Enid admits. Despite that fear, everyone I interviewed still said that they were okay with being named for this article. “We’re all keeping our heads down… and trying to give them as few reasons to fire you as possible, and so far it’s working,” Maddie explained to me.
Despite the dread, Riley offered a more positive outlook on the situation. “Ultimately, I’m not super worried about it, because we’re a very tight-knit store and we all support each other through it… That fear is always there in the back of your mind, but I try to just focus on the more positive aspects of unionizing.”
Hampton and Wise will be the first store in the United States to have their union vote in person instead of via mail-in ballots on May 19th and 20th. Bridgeton will have their mail-in vote sometime in June. For a store to vote in favor of a union, 51% of the vote must be yes. With these election dates coming up, I’m sure many in the St. Louis area will be keeping an eye on these stores to see the outcome of their efforts.
Disclaimer: While I myself am a Starbucks employee, I am not a spokesperson for Starbucks, nor am I a spokesperson for Workers United. All of the information found here either came from the interviews I conducted or can be found publicly.