Starbucks Union Campaign at a Crossroads

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By Josh Crowell, Kansas City Starbucks Worker

In August, the Kansas City Starbucks bosses went on the offensive and shut down my location permanently, citing “safety and security” concerns. This was union busting pure and simple, and my co-workers and I launched four days of protests in response. Big companies have always relied on the tactic of closing stores, denying benefits and forcing workers into intimidating one-on-one meetings to stop organizing in its tracks by confusing and demoralizing workers. 

They announced this in a meeting of workers minutes before shuttering the store. We didn’t take this lying down, but immediately organized a picket line. We knew we had to stand together to fight back. Many of my coworkers, the ones who weren’t already directly involved with the organizing, were having this clarity for the first time, understanding that the only way to defend against these attacks was to organize with their fellow workers. 

Starbucks has shut down many locations across the country under the guise of “safety and security” with over 40% of those stores being unionizing shops (very disproportionate considering only 3% of stores are unionizing). Lead organizers have been fired, many still with no recourse. As we go into Starbucks’ busiest and most profitable time of the year, workers will continue to be stretched thin as Starbucks continues to escalate their anti-union campaign. Our union, Starbucks Workers United, must start organizing towards coordinated action at a scale not yet seen if we are going to have a fighting chance going into the fall. 

Far Fewer Stores are Filing for a Union

While informing my former customers about what really happened at my store and chatting with other workers at the protest, I have spent time thinking about the lessons I’ve learned from my experience as a first-time organizer. My store was one of the first 25 Starbucks locations in the country to petition for a union. I have been involved with the Starbucks Workers United (SBWU) campaign since January of 2022 and I have worked at Starbucks for almost four years. And now, with my store closed, a tied election (which means no legal union recognition), and no recourse but to protest for my job, I have learned many lessons and have come to believe that there are many things our movement nationally should be doing differently.

Our union needs a major change in direction if it’s going to go up against a ruthless corporation like Starbucks and win a union for all of the nearly 400,000 workers at 9,000 stores. Although only 3% of stores have unionized now, there have already been countless examples of heroic and inspiring organizing done by workers as part of our movement. However, we can’t just point to this, we have to take stock of the defeats, shortcomings, and challenges ahead as well. 

When other workers and I raise concerns, we are told by SBWU leaders that what we’re doing is working so we just need to stay the course. But when I look at the numbers of our campaign, I see that there’s a real danger we’re headed for defeats if we don’t change course soon. The number of stores that have filed for a union election has declined dramatically month-to-month from its peak of 70 in March. This was down to just under 40 in May, 14 in July, and only 8 in August. I have found that most workers are not aware of these numbers, which is a problem. In order to have an honest discussion about our strategy going forward, we need to have an honest picture of where things currently stand.

Source: https://unionelections.org/data/starbucks/

Lessons Learned as a First-Time Organizer

When we first started the union drive in my store, we got together a wide layer of workers into an organizing committee. This included workers from different shifts and ages, different lengths of time with Starbucks, and different positions. The strength of that diversity led to us quickly reaching 70% union authorization cards signed. Maintaining total secrecy from management and actively organizing on the shop floor, in our off hours over the phone, and in person supercharged this process. But while these moments were crucial to starting our organizing, when looking back I can see where we started to falter.

The advice that Workers United has been giving workers hasn’t put us in the best position to build the kind of strong organizing committees that are necessary for fighting retaliation and winning real gains. They didn’t tell us to start holding regular meetings where everybody could give democratic input or encourage us to start forming concrete demands that can speak to workers and motivate them to get involved. Unfortunately, they didn’t present a real plan for my store, or for unionized stores nationally, to actually win. SBWU’s ongoing emphasis on getting Starbucks to sign the “fair election principles” as their main strategic focus while the company’s anti-union crusade remains unrelenting, frankly, just doesn’t resonate with my coworkers. 

While my store was able to quickly get cards signed, we never transitioned into regularly-scheduled worker meetings. This led to many workers being “pro-union” but lacking any real engagement with the drive. Without these meetings, we weren’t able to draw more workers into the cause in an active way, and our organizing committee slowly dissolved into a committee only in title, not equipped with the level of activity required to keep workers organized. 

Having the right conversations matters. During the early days of the campaign, I believed all workers would understand how important this was in the same ways I did. By using vague ideas of “dignity and respect” and “a seat at the table,” I brought in some of my coworkers – but many didn’t see this as any different than what they already had at Starbucks, with its emphasis on “partnership” and being a “progressive employer.” 

The union-busting lies spread by corporate and our managers were taken at face value because workers didn’t have a concrete idea of what the union could actually win for them. I have heard time and time again leaders of SBWU explicitly advise against having concrete demands. They say they don’t want to “make promises they can’t keep” or that “if we say exactly what we want then Starbucks might give it to us and undercut the need for a union.” But that’s a big mistake! The lack of clear demands on the part of SBWU left many of my coworkers who were on the fence about the union inclined to choose Starbucks’ side, and Starbucks is never going to give up any major lasting gains without a fight

If we had concrete demands of, for example, $25 starting pay compared to “a living wage,” or the removal of hours requirements for health insurance instead of “workplace democracy,” I know workers would have been more inspired to fight by seeing the real changes a union could give them.

The other argument against demands the national leadership of SBWU promotes is that we don’t want to “show our hand” to Starbucks. This doesn’t make sense though. How are we going to get Starbucks to give us what we want and need if we don’t tell them? There is no amount or combination of clever moral arguments that SBWU leaders can make at the bargaining table that will convince Howard Schultz to pay and treat us better. SBWU’s current strategy doesn’t seem to grasp this.

Even the New York Times has reported on this. Back in June, they ran a story profiling Jaz Brisack, one of the founders of SBWU, which sheds some light on the way she and others leading SBWU view the question of strategy:

Mr. Schultz has long opposed unions at Starbucks, but Ms. Brisack, for one, believes that even business executives are persuadable…

She has even mused about using her Rhodes connections to make a personal appeal to Mr. Schultz, something that Mr. Bensinger has pooh-poohed but that other organizers believe she just may pull off.

“Richard has been making fun of me for thinking of asking one of the Rhodes people to broker a meeting with Howard Schultz,” Ms. Brisack said in February.

“I’m sure if you met Howard Schultz, he’d be like, ‘She’s so nice,’” responded Ms. Moore, her co-worker. “He’d be like, ‘I get it. I would want to be in a union with you, too.’”

I, for one, don’t think that business executives are persuadable by anything other than the sheer power of workers threatening their profits.

In our store, lacking these crucial demands for workers to identify with and never solidifying regular meetings, workers went through the union drive passively. What I know is when workers come together and show their power through collective actions, their belief in that power increases. They further lean into struggle. Without workers taking ownership in the union drive and seeing the role of escalating action in getting the wins they need, workers will end up on the crushing end of an offensive corporate attack. Workers must show the bosses they not only know their power but aren’t afraid to wield it. My store chose to wield our power too late. 

Workers of all levels need space to participate. Many of my coworkers were far too busy to engage in being a member of the organizing committee. Students have homework and classes and many of us have second jobs to afford our bills. Without regular meetings, my store never developed opportunities for workers to participate, even if that participation is only a five-minute vote on deciding what demands we have for a petition to march on the boss. Maybe a worker who couldn’t make a weekly organizing meeting would have been able to make a monthly city-wide Starbucks worker meeting. Being proactive in setting up opportunities for more people to have real ownership and democracy in their union is crucial to keep workers engaged. 

We Need to All Strike Together and Democratically Discuss Strategy

A national campaign needs a national strategy. Starbucks is a multinational corporation with an extensive – and so far effective – plan on how to deal with the union at large. For workers to have a chance to win against the bosses, we must also have an effective, nationwide strategy for organizing. 

This is why I, along with a group of other Starbucks workers from across the country who have similar concerns, helped launch a petition calling for a national strategy assembly where all workers can debate and discuss best strategies for how we can escalate against these attacks. These sorts of meetings should be ongoing and take up all questions of tactics, strategy, and demands for the struggle, allowing SBWU to become truly democratic and worker-led. But at this point, the time for discussion is running out. SBWU leadership should organize a one-day national strike, and out of that we should hold the national strategy assembly.

The strongest weapon that workers have is our ability to stop working and stop generating profits for the company. The bosses at Starbucks have 9,000 stores they profit off of daily and shutting down one store for a few days or even indefinitely will not affect their bottom line. But hundreds of stores going on strike at the same time would inflict more damage to profits and catapult the struggle into the national media spotlight, garnering even broader public support. As Starbucks continues to close stores like mine and fire worker organizers, SBWU should throw its full force at the bosses through coordinated and escalating strike action, beginning with a one-day national strike, backed up by a strong strike fund that’s democratically controlled and administered by workers ourselves. It’s no surprise at all that far fewer stores are unionizing when workers don’t feel confident that their job will be fought for effectively by the union if they’re retaliated against. 

The Starbucks union struggle is not going away anytime soon, and is spreading to other retail and service jobs across the country like Chipotle, Trader Joe’s, and others. My hope is that organizing workers everywhere, but especially Starbucks workers looking to fight for a strong SBWU, learn the lessons I have and help make the strategic changes necessary so we can reverse course, pick back up the rate of stores filing for elections, win a strong Starbucks union, and continue to rebuild a strong, fighting labor movement in this country.