The Starbucks union drive is spreading rapidly around the country

Starbucks now has three stores that have successfully voted to unionize, and many more are showing interest.
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4 min read

The unionization drive at Starbucks stores across the country is gathering momentum faster than the most ardent brand loyalists can say “venti caramel macchiato.”

What started as a fledgling union effort last summer at a Starbucks in Buffalo, New York, has expanded to include employees at 105 locations across 26 states filing petitions to organize with Workers United, an affiliate of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), Richard Minter, the union’s vice president, told HR Brew.

Starbucks employees involved with the union campaign say the company has actively tried to deter unionization, including by staging mandatory meetings with corporate leaders that employees have described as intimidating. Several employees in different states involved in unionization efforts have been terminated, including seven workers at a store in Memphis, Tennessee, earlier this month. Starbucks spokesperson Reggie Borges told the Washington Post that the firings were prompted by violations of safety and security policies and were “unrelated to the efforts to unionize.”

So how did the globe-conquering coffee behemoth find itself in the midst of a burgeoning union movement, which has spread from western New York to its front door in Seattle, Washington? Pull up a chair (no purchase necessary).

To Buffalo and beyond. In December, a majority of workers at two Starbucks locations in the Buffalo area voted in favor of unionization, while a third voted against. Since then, more Starbucks workers across the country have filed petitions with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) for union elections. The momentum behind the union drive isn’t new, exactly: Starbucks baristas have pushed for better working conditions for years, but only three of the nearly 9,000 corporate-owned locations in the US have successfully voted to unionize, according to the Wall Street Journal. While the company announced a wage hike last October that would raise hourly pay to average nearly $17 for “partners” in the US and to a maximum $23 per hour by this summer, one worker told Eater in December that he’s hopeful a union contract could secure a wage increase to $25 per hour.

Lydia Fernandez, who works as a barista in Philadelphia, told Axios that she was inspired by the union drives at other Starbucks locations. “We saw what was happening and we realized we could do this for ourselves, too, and now could be the time where we can take action…so that we can improve our working conditions, improve our lives, and just be happier at Starbucks,” Fernandez said.

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NLRB ruling. Last Wednesday, the NLRB ruled that workers attempting to unionize at a store in Mesa, Arizona, would conduct their vote individually, rather than with all the other stores in the greater geographic region, as Starbucks preferred. The decision overturned Starbucks’ argument that union elections should not proceed on a store-by-store basis, but include all stores in a given area, a, the New York Times reported.

The union is confident that all elections will go forward. Workers United attorney Ian Hayes told HR Brew: “We expect Starbucks to do the right thing and to stop raising the issue of appropriate units from this point forward in every Starbucks case across the country.”

On Friday, the Mesa store successfully voted to unionize by a count of 25-3, with three challenged votes, the New York Times reported. The vote brought the number of stores that have successfully voted to unionize to three.

Today’s union momentum. Matthew Lasar, a history lecturer at the University of California, Santa Cruz, told HR Brew that “the Starbucks organizing drive points to a key constituency taking a new look at unions: college-educated young adults.” These workers are dealing with the “quadruple whammy of high housing and health-care costs, student loans, and a dreary landscape of dead-end gig-economy jobs” all of which are compelling younger workers to consider unionization, he said.

Editor’s note: A spokesperson for the public relations agency Edelman, which is representing Starbucks, declined to be identified in order to provide a comment for this article, instead directing us to a previously published letter from their EVP and North America president addressed to “Starbucks partners.” Because HR Brew does not publish unattributed comments from corporate spokespersons, we have not included their statement; the letter can be read here.

Quick-to-read HR news & insights

From recruiting and retention to company culture and the latest in HR tech, HR Brew delivers up-to-date industry news and tips to help HR pros stay nimble in today’s fast-changing business environment.