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Starbucks union fight shows hard road for many toward contract

Prolonged negotiations and mounting complaints at the Seattle-based coffee retailer show the obstacles a new labor movement faces.

By Lizz Giordano, Crosscut, Crosscut
Published: March 4, 2023, 6:00am

Gray carpeting, gray walls and gray ceilings surrounded the four local Starbucks workers and two union representatives as they sat waiting along one side of a long gray bargaining table in a windowless hotel conference room in Seattle’s Westlake neighborhood. Even colorless art lined the room.

Two attorneys for Starbucks entered the room and, without taking a seat, glanced at the open laptop displaying a Zoom matrix of a half dozen workers logged in from stores around the country. One attorney slid the company’s latest negotiating terms across the table.

“If you want to bargain in person, we will be down the hall,” he said.

Union members let out exasperated laughter as the Starbucks attorneys headed over to an identically drab room next door. The union team pushed aside the terms letter and pivoted to organizer training. The late January bargaining session lasted less than 10 minutes.

Union representatives said session upon session in recent months had ended the same way: workers demanding open bargaining to establish a baseline for a nationwide contract, followed by Starbucks rejecting broad virtual talks in favor of in-person negotiations.

“What are we going to do, what if we never reach a contract?” asked barista Natalie Mattera, sitting in on her first bargaining session since voting to unionize her Eastlake coffee shop.

“We will have to shift our strategy,” replied Marina Multhaup, a lawyer from Barnard Iglitzin & Lavitt LLP, representing the union on its journey toward a contract. “Change where the fight happens.”

In December 2021, a Buffalo, New York, store became the first Starbucks to unionize, sparking a flurry of elections across the coffee chain’s thousands of locations. At least 286 stores have since voted to unionize, including 20 cafes in the corporation’s home state of Washington.

While stores are organizing and voting individually, the union wants to include workers from across the country on its virtual bargaining committee to adopt an initial contract that could consistently spell out what benefits workers would receive if their store unionized.

This story is part of Crosscut’s WA Workplace Watch, an investigative project covering worker safety and labor in Washington state.

Starbucks stands among a broader resurgence in unionization efforts across tech, service and retail industries in the wake of the pandemic. Washington-based corporations like Amazon, REI and Microsoft have increasingly grappled with unprecedented labor activity, while many other regional workers, from Seattle teachers to Yakima farmworkers, have flexed their collective-bargaining strength in recent months.

But unionizing is just the beginning of a long process.

A Bloomberg Law analysis found it takes, on average, 465 days from unionizing to signing a first contract. Organizers from a variety of industries describe a slew of challenges and alleged retaliation working against them during that vulnerable period, including store closures, firings, reduced hours, perks for nonunion staff and long bargaining delays.

The recent wave of labor activity has also strained the government agency that oversees the union certification process. The National Labor Relations Board warned last fall that staffing and budget shortages had slowed its ability to monitor or enforce fair labor practices. Organizers also argue the board has little authority to impose meaningful fines or deterrents against violators.

All of which, Starbucks worker Mattera said, makes it feel like they’re up against a lot.

“Being at the table with the big dogs, it makes it much more real,” Mattera said of her first bargaining session. “But at the same time, it sucked to just have them walk in and kind of look down their noses at us. It felt like they were entertaining a bunch of kids.”

As unionization efforts at Starbucks — and other workplaces — move from impassioned votes to difficult negotiations, the realities of organized labor are setting in for a new segment of American workers. To better understand that reality, Crosscut took a closer look at the experiences and allegations from many Seattle-area Starbucks workers, as well as those inspired by their votes and the unions that came before, to better understand this new era of labor.

A national labor surge

While the percentage of U.S. workers who belong to unions has declined over the past few decades, 2022 saw a surge in union petitions. The percentage of Americans who approve of labor unions also reached the highest level since 1965, according to Gallup polls.

“We see the labor movement being more younger people, people who may not have had the experience of having a union member directly in their family, but know that they want to come together collectively,” said Rachel Erstad, a research coordinator at the University of Washington’s Harry Bridges Center for Labor Studies.

Many low-wage workers have come to believe that businesses prioritize profits over living wages and, in some cases, employee safety, Erstad said, and the pandemic further exacerbated those feelings. Experts say a historically tight labor market also helped give retail and service workers new leverage to bargain for better conditions.

“We saw a lot of these organizations, sometimes gaining additional revenues over the pandemic or still remaining highly profitable at the least, and not seeming to be willing to share power,” she said.

In Washington, the rate of workers represented by unions has followed national trends, dropping about 1% to 19.1% between 2021 and 2022, a slightly larger decrease than the decline seen nationally as manufacturing jobs have given way to service and white-collar work. However, the number of union elections filed in the state jumped 37% during that period, propelled by workers from across the state.

Angelina Lara, a former crew member at Allan Brothers Fruit outside of Yakima, described feeling disposable during the pandemic. She and others held a 22-day strike to demand masks and cleaning supplies as COVID-19 set in.

“One thing that the pandemic showed us in the warehouses was the importance of having a company that will take care of you, even when you’re not able to work,” said Lara, who now runs worker-rights training for Fair Work Center, a nonprofit that helps workers navigate labor laws.

Voices opposing unions, like James Sherk, a research fellow at the conservative think tank The Heritage Foundation, argue that unions can increase a company’s operating costs, driving up prices that get passed on to consumers. The Hoover Institution, another conservative policy center, contends the decline in the rate of union membership is a good thing because union dues take money out of workers’ paychecks. And collective bargaining removes the direct relationship between employees and employers, which then “lowers overall productivity and often prevents entry-level employees from rising through the ranks.”

Starbucks has long positioned itself as a progressive employer, calling baristas “partners,” offering stock compensation and leading the way on wages in retail spaces. It has pointed to its “outstanding” wages, health care and free college tuition to build its case against unionization. Company leaders have also argued unions would impede their ability to engage directly with employees.

(Disclosure: Crosscut’s newsroom unionized in 2019 with the Pacific Northwest Newspaper Guild. Staff ratified their first contract in November 2021.)

The recent rush to unionize among Starbucks locations is not only happening in areas typically thought of as union hotbeds, like California, New York and Washington — which boast some of the highest numbers of unionized stores. Stores have also unionized in North Carolina, South Carolina and Texas, states with some of the lowest percentages of union membership.

While nonunion Starbucks stores still outnumber union locations, when elections have been held, workers have overwhelmingly chosen to join the union. Between December 2021 and February 2023, 80% of the 356 stores that petitioned for an election later voted in favor of joining Workers United. Overall, the company operates roughly 10,000 cafes around the country.

“There’s a ton of stores in this endless, huge organization,” the labor researcher Estad noted. “But a lot of places have had votes, and most of those places, a supermajority of those places, have been successful. … I think this is a unique situation, I think it will have a unique outcome.”

Pushback and alleged retaliation

On July 11, less than two months after her store voted to unionize, Erin Bray received an unexpected email announcing Starbucks planned to close her Chinatown-International District location. The email came through just a half hour before a last-minute virtual all-hands meeting that had already spooked workers, sparking a flurry of panicked messages ahead of the announcement.

The email from a lawyer representing Starbucks, obtained by Crosscut, cited safety concerns as the reason the CID store would permanently close in three weeks. Workers learned they would then be transferred to other area stores.

“It was one of the more stressful times in probably my entire life,” Bray said.

In all, Starbucks closed seven Seattle-area stores, three of which were unionized, and at least 17 across the country, several of which had voted to unionize in the past year.

The former CID Starbucks now sits empty except for a long white counter that stretches the length of the store, stripped of any sign that the iconic coffee shop once anchored a corner of the 11-story office building.

To Bray, this wasn’t a move to ensure worker and customer safety, but a scare tactic to discourage other stores from unionizing.

Organizers allege the company has also cut hours, threatened benefits, fired union leaders and conducted captive-audience meetings against unionization. Starbucks meanwhile offered nonunionized stores new benefits such as credit-card tipping and the relaxation of dress codes.

Starbucks declined an interview request from Crosscut, instead issuing a statement.

“We are listening to and learning from the partners in these stores as we always do across the country,” Starbucks officials wrote. “From the beginning, we’ve been clear in our belief that we are better together as partners, without a union between us, and that conviction has not changed. We remain committed to our partners and will continue to work together, side-by-side, to make Starbucks a company that works for everyone.”

Some workers from the CID store chose to be transferred to nonunionized stores, with the goal of bringing more stores into the Workers United fold. Others, like Bray, stayed. She said she wanted the security that belonging to a union brings, though some of that certainty was short-lived.

Through negotiations, Starbucks guaranteed each worker a certain number of hours for two months after moving to a new store depending on their average schedule before the closure, according to an agreement reached during what’s known as “effects” bargaining.

Bray said her hours quickly dropped off after the protected period, falling from about 28 to 23 hours, then in some weeks as few as 16. Dropping below an average of 20 hours a week endangered her health care benefits. She later gave up her supervisor role to increase her hours in order to keep the health insurance she counted on for costly screenings and medications needed to manage her Crohn’s disease.

“I made the decision to demote out just because it made sense for me,” she said, adding: “The difference in what I’m making is over $5 [an hour] less as a barista.”

Other baristas recalled similar store closure meetings and outcomes — hurried announcements followed by reduced hours a few months later once effects-bargaining agreements ran their course.

In September 2022, the company also began rolling out digital tipping, a longtime request from workers even before the pandemic — but only to nonunionized locations. This quickly created a stark difference between stores with and without union representation.

One former CID barista told Crosscut moving to a nonunion store with tips added nearly $200 a week to her paycheck.

“Everyone has been talking about how much [tipping has] been a benefit to them, and to not have it would be a major negative,” she said, asking to remain anonymous due to fears of retaliation.

Documents obtained by Crosscut show unionized stores may be left out of those changes because Starbucks argued that updates to wages and benefits could not be implemented unilaterally in stores with organizing underway.

In response, Workers United filed several unfair labor practice complaints over the store closures and the company’s implementation of credit-card tipping at only nonunionized stores. The complaints joined the stack of hundreds of charges piling up and making their way through the National Labor Relations Board adjudication process.

Enforcing fair practices

Those complaints from Workers United came amid a historic influx of notices received by the NLRB in 2022. The federal agency, established in the 1930s to mediate labor disputes, saw unfair labor practice complaints grow 19% since 2016, to 17,988 charges. Workers also filed 2,510 union representation petitions last year, the most since 2016 and a 50% increase over the previous year.

These were the largest year-to-year increases the NLRB had seen since 1976 and they came at a time the agency was losing staffing support and funding, according to an October press release.

“The increased case intake at both field offices and the Board occurred as the Agency struggled with funding and staffing shortages,” the release stated. “Adjusting for inflation, the agency’s budget has decreased 25% since [fiscal year] 2014. Overall agency staffing levels have dropped 39% since FY2002 and staffing in Field Offices has shrunk by a full 50%.”

Board agents examine each unfair labor practice complaint, and if the NLRB decides to move a charge forward, the agency represents the party that filed the grievance. If mediation fails, the charge proceeds down a prosecutorial path, coming before an administrative law judge. Decisions can be appealed to the full NLRB board, then to the U.S. Court of Appeals.

The NLRB has limited authority to punish companies found to have violated federal labor law. The board cannot leverage fines, but can force companies to hire back employees determined to have been terminated unfairly.

As of mid-February, 497 open or settled unfair labor charges had been filed against Starbucks or Littler Mendelson PC, the law firm representing the company, according to NLRB data. Of these, roughly 60 were filed on behalf of union workers in Washington.

Board agents have or are currently pursuing 76 of those 497 complaints, according to the NLRB.

Many of the complaints accuse the company of bargaining in bad faith, or of “coercive actions” such as telling employees that existing benefits will be reduced or lost if they unionize. Several also allege the company terminated employees for union activity.

Starbucks has submitted 83 open or settled complaints against the union, accusing representatives of refusing to bargain or bargaining in bad faith.

Adjudicating and remedying unfair labor practice complaints can take months. NLRB data shows that hundreds of such complaints filed against Starbucks remain in limbo — some awaiting investigation or a hearing, others because they are being appealed. The agency declined to make a board agent in Seattle available for an interview.

In several recent complaints, judges found in favor of the union and ordered the company to hire back workersAnother ruled Starbucks violated federal labor law by refusing to bargain and reset the union’s certification period for a store in Seattle.

Another recent decision out of Seattle found Starbucks engaged in unfair labor practices by threatening employees by telling them that existing benefits would be lost if they unionized at the Reserve Roastery location on Capitol Hill. And that the company held captive-audience meetings — compulsory meetings to discourage union activity. The punishment from the judge ordered Starbucks to cease and desist from such activities and required the company to post a sign announcing the company had violated federal labor law.

Leon Grunberg, a professor emeritus of sociology and anthropology at the University of Puget Sound who has studied Boeing’s union for decades, said the NLRB does not have the teeth or power to exert strong pressure on companies looking to avoid unionization.

Grunberg described watching power shift away from Boeing’s union after the company opened a nonunion factory in South Carolina in 2011. During each subsequent contract negotiation, Grunberg said, workers worried if a vote to strike would lead the company to take its jobs elsewhere.

“It makes [workers] be more careful,” he said. “They can’t be as militant.”

Why unionize?

In misty January rain, three baristas peeked through the gaps in the brown paper covering the windows of a Starbucks in Shoreline. They counted along as NLRB officials tallied ballots into two piles. Seeing the pro-union pile growing much larger than the other, they clapped and cheered as they became the first Starbucks in the Seattle suburb to unionize.

The store had filed for the election on Dec. 9, 2022 — the anniversary of the first successful effort to unionize a Starbucks store, in Buffalo.

Gabbie Perrine was one of the workers who had gathered outside the store as voting ended. Earlier that day, she’d marked a giant X on her ballot indicating her desire to join Workers United, and said she walked out feeling empowered.

“I could go to a different company and start there for more than I make here,” Perrine said while waiting for the vote count to come in. “[But] I’m interested in better treatments, and I think that’s what’s on the other side.”

Starbucks workers point to working conditions and a desire for guaranteed hours, along with wanting a seat at the table when decisions are made, as reasons they wanted to form a union. Shoreline barista Carl Addison, who led the unionization push at that store, cited pay equity as a key concern after learning some longtime workers were making just a few pennies more than staff who had just gotten hired.

“We just noticed that despite the promises for compensation equity and transparency, they really weren’t making good on any of those promises,” Addison said. “All the while just slashing our hours, slashing our support, and just asking us to do more and more and more for less and less.”

The energy and debate surrounding the national Starbucks unionization drive has also resonated with other Puget Sound-area service workers, like those at the Homegrown sandwich shop. Workers there cited many of the same concerns Starbucks workers have brought to their organizing, such as safety, wages and discrimination issues.

“We’re supposed to be a sustainable sandwich shop, but the pay isn’t sustainable,” Kai Ortiz said.

NLRB records show 84% of voting Homegrown workers at 10 Seattle-area stores voted in favor of joining Unite HERE in December. The delivery arm of the company also unionized last year.

“Seeing it happen at Starbucks,” Jeremiah Dingle said, “it was an easy way to talk about unionizing.”

Longtime union organizations have also welcomed the renewed interest in the labor movement. Jon Holden, president of International Association of Machinists District 751, which represents Boeing workers, said Starbucks workers are fighting for the same protections that have inspired workers across other industries to organize for decades. And that the Starbucks employees are dealing with the same backlash he has seen at Boeing.

“This is not new, this is not just Starbucks,” he said. “Every anti-union player uses the same playbook. And they try to delay and they try to discourage and they try to get people to lose confidence.”

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Even with 80 years of bargaining between IAM and Boeing, contract negotiations still don’t always go smoothly. Unfair labor practice complaints still pop up against both sides, according to filings with the NLRB.

As Holden watches Starbucks workers fight for that first contract from afar, he’s rooting for them.

“My dad used to tell me, ‘You need to find a union job.’ Why?” Holden said. “Well, because it pays better. You got benefits, you got a retirement, you have rights.”

“One of the hardest things to do is get that first contract,” he added.

Solidarity for now

Barista Mattera noted with pride that her Eastlake shop was the 100th Starbucks to unionize, but the long and contentious process has taken a toll. Nine months after their NLRB election, she is one of just two voting members still working at her shop that employs about 15 to work behind the counter.

With the first anniversary of her store’s unionization approaching this spring, the threat of a decertification vote looms over Mattera. As she watches negotiations drag on and Starbucks roll out benefits like digital tutoring to nonunionized stores, she said it’s harder to show newer baristas the benefits of belonging to a union.

“There’s a disillusionment that partners are facing,” she admitted. “All of these partners that are coming to new stores aren’t seeing what good a union can do. They’re only seeing that they’re missing out.”

Organizers across industries hope the labor movement can turn workers’ post-pandemic outrage and determination into a lasting foundation. Many have found hope in support from President Joe Biden’s pledge to serve as the “most pro-union president you’ve ever seen.” Other politicians have voiced support for unions as they court working-class voters, including Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, who recently demanded that Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz appear before the Senate in Marchcalling the company’s response to unionization a “concerted and relentless campaign against its workers’ efforts to organize.”

The company has so far declined to make Schultz available.

But many fledgling union locals now find themselves traversing the precarious gulf from unionizing to first contract. As Mattera found in her first visit to the bargaining table back at the Westlake hotel, a lot of things can go sideways or take longer than expected.

Companies do not always make the process easy. The NLRB does not always keep up with violations. Solidarity might not always last forever.

In the meantime, Mattera and other union members may have to shift strategy or change where the fight happens — out of the conference room and into more stores. She said she keeps trying to introduce the union to new employees. Many tell her they had no idea they belonged to a union or could get involved in organizing their shop. Some will. Some probably won’t.

“It’s just sort of been a fight to get people on the same page and then losing those people and having to get all new people on the same page,” she said. “It definitely just feels like we’re organizing all over again.”

Listen to reporter Lizz Giordano discuss this story on the Crosscut Reports podcast:

Crosscut is a service of Cascade Public Media, a nonprofit, public media organization. Visit crosscut.com/donate to support nonprofit, freely distributed, local journalism.