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INTERVIEW: How Illinois Starbucks Workers Won Unanimous Union Vote At Their Store

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In late January, Starbucks workers in Evanston, at Chicago Avenue and Main Street, voted unanimously to join Starbucks Workers United. Over the past year, employees at 14 other Starbucks stores in Illinois have voted to unionize along with over 280 stores nationally. Workers are organizing and demanding safer working conditions, more staffing, and better wages and benefits.

Starbucks corporate’s reaction to employees asserting their rights has been brutal. The company has used a range of union-busting tactics from firings, store closures, denying benefits, and reducing hours to take away health care, putting pressure on the union movement to win a contract that will deliver on workers’ demands and defeat the retaliatory attacks. 

The power of the union comes from building strong rank-and-file solidarity in the workplace and with the wider movement. ASHLEY GRAHAM and CONNOR BRENNAN, union baristas from the Chicago Ave & Main St Starbucks in Evanston, explain how they joined with others to win a unanimous vote to unionize at their store, and what’s next in the fight to win the demands they unionized for.

What strategies did you use to win your unanimous vote at your Starbucks store? 

AG: I think the most impactful strategy that led to the unanimous vote was sharing accurate information about what joining a union means for us workers. We had consistent weekly meetings for roughly two months before going public. We encouraged questions and comments, and exchanged information. Everyone in the store was thoroughly informed about other stores’ movements and what our own could look like.

CB: In particular, we had several individual and group conversations to inoculate our coworkers against retaliation and anti-union propaganda. We anticipated many of the arguments management might use to try to sway us into voting no. Since we discussed these arguments ahead of time and explained why they were untrue or misleading, we were all better equipped to handle the union-busting meetings and weren’t caught off-guard or easily manipulated.   

What were the things your coworkers cared about most that convinced them to vote yes for the union?

AG: Some of the biggest concerns we had as a store revolved around staffing and scheduling.  My coworkers are hoping for a more consistently staffed floor every single day of business, as well as being able to depend on a more consistent weekly schedule. 

CB: In addition to more consistent and humane staffing and scheduling, I would add that we were all motivated to organize for significantly higher wages and bigger annual raises.

We also want all workers to be eligible for health care and other benefits – beginning on their first day.

To build the movement for a strong union at Starbucks, what kind of collaboration do you think is going to be necessary with workers at other stores in the Chicago area? 

AG: I think that showing up for each other as partners, on the ground and online will build a strong movement. Whether we show support during a sip-in, picket at a strike, or something as simple as sharing on Twitter when another store has filed or voted yes. It’s been surreal being uplifted and celebrated by so many different organizers and stores.  The continuation of physical support is key in growing the movement and reaching a contract.

CB: The Chicago area is interesting, because the movement was slower to take off here initially, but now we are gaining momentum locally at a critical moment in the campaign. We have had four stores in Illinois win union votes in December and January, including two unanimous wins. 

I am very excited to be working alongside a really solid group of worker-organizers. We want to collaborate to support newly organizing stores as well as to protect each other by uniting against retaliation. We also need to be able to coordinate collective actions as we continue to build the movement and escalate toward a contract. We want to work with other stores across Illinois to plan these actions with as many workers as possible, reach more stores, make use of all our resources, community support, and critically evaluate our work so each action can be stronger and more effective than the last.

How do you foresee your battle for a strong contract as different from the fight to win your union? What kind of tactics do you think will be necessary to win?

AG: I think the biggest difference in the “battles” is the reach outward for support, rather than reaching inward. In order to win the union, we had to build our strength as a store team. We had to stay consistent in our conversations and build excitement within our individual ecosystem to achieve union status. Now that we are there, we must bring in other sources of strength: other baristas/stores, local organizers, community supporters, SBWU resources, friends, family and more.  We now need the public recognition and push so that Starbucks hears and responds to our need for a contract.  The more stores, community, and union supporters to build a movement – the better.

CB: I absolutely agree. The biggest factors in winning our union were the trust, solidarity, and communication we built between the workers at our store. In order to win a contract and our demands, it will take more than that. We need to build the movement and unite with workers across many stores as well as community and labor allies. We will need to be able to shut down business to force Starbucks to negotiate with us. This can only happen if more stores continue to organize, and are capable of taking a series of highly coordinated and escalating actions, and particularly strikes.

Smaller local actions like sip-ins, rallies, and informational leafleting can also definitely be useful in building momentum and boosting the profile of the campaign. However, these actions alone won’t build the kind of economic pressure we need to win a contract, but should be seen as ways to supplement and build toward larger actions that aim to shut down production and profits.

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