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labor Starbucks Baristas Say They’re Doubling as “Untrained Social Workers”

Workers at a “high-incident” Starbucks in Eugene, Oregon, are often expected to manage in-store conflicts and crises on their own. They say they're unionizing in response to the company not training or compensating them well enough for the task.

Baristas at Starbucks stores in Oregon are filing for union representation., (Courtesy of Ben Koditschek)

Recently, a job posting for a senior manager position on Starbucks’ Global Communications team made the rounds on Twitter, where observers noticed that it specifically requested applicants with “a passion for crisis communications.” As Starbucks stores file for and win union representation across the nation, many took the listing as evidence that the corporation is panicking behind the scenes.

Starbucks’ National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) filings have now surpassed the hundred-store mark. Some cities are especially hot, with workers in Eugene, Oregon having organized eight out of eight stores in their city. Corporate is not coping well. As Starbucks’ recent retaliatory firings of union organizers in Memphis and Buffalo demonstrate, the coffee giant is a lot less skilled at conflict de-escalation than many baristas.

In the last few months of Starbucks worker organizing, one workplace issue gaining visibility is the expectation on baristas to manage in-store crises and altercations with little support from management. In the letter announcing their filing, workers at the 7th and Washington location in Eugene cited “physical safety issues” at their “high-incident” store, alleging that the company has failed to adequately support and compensate workers facing these challenges.

Organizing committee members Sadie Goetsch and Cassandra Hicks at 7th and Washington addressed this and other concerns in conversation with Jacobin. They and their coworkers began talking about a union after they heard about organizing in Buffalo last year. The conversations began as “almost-but-not jokes.”At first they would lightheartedly approach coworkers, saying, “Dang, when are we going to do that? Wouldn’t that be awesome?” although at that time the Oregon baristas “didn’t really think it was possible.” Hicks added, “Most of us didn’t really know what unions are and what they meant and what they can do.”

That changed after the first store in Eugene, at 29th and Willamette, announced an NLRB filing on January 8 of this year. The local campaign, Hicks said, made employees at 7th and Washington more confident that unionization was an option and prompted them to get in contact with Workers United. As with other locations across the country, things moved quickly after that. The store at 7th and Washington announced their filing on January 31.

Oregon, and especially Eugene, has a high density of Starbucks stores with current filings. Workers at unionizing stores in Eugene, Portland, and Beaverton are in close and constant contact with one another. Organizing baristas in Eugene even have a dedicated group chat to talk about strengthening their efforts. “Every day it seems like there are new people in the Discord,” said Hicks. “It’s pretty cool.”

At nineteen and twenty years old respectively, Goetsch and Hicks are representative of the spirit of “Gen U,” as Workers United organizer Richard Bensinger has referred to the Gen Z organizers who make up a large portion Starbucks Workers United. The chain attracts young workers like Goetsch, who was sixteen when she first started working for the company.

Starbucks benefits from having a young workforce, as many of its employees are able to rely on parental access to health care, which makes them less likely to seek these provisions from Starbucks. Younger workers are also less likely to work full time and thus become eligible for other benefits. Workers allege that Starbucks often seems to prevent them from working full time when they try. Hicks and Goetsch said that the difficulty many workers face in securing more hours was a major impetus for unionization.

Another major issue for workers at 7th and Washington is employee safety, which workers say is jeopardized by the company’s policy of lean staffing. The store features a drive-through and a particularly large indoor café area. Although about twenty-five people are generally employed at the store at any given time, the location maxes out at six or seven people on shift at once and only schedules three partners for opens and closes. Baristas at 7th and Washington often need to step out from behind the bar to attend to a variety of crises involving community members at the busy location. In addition to confusion and sometimes physical endangerment, dealing with these crises also means more difficulty keeping the store running efficiently, making workers’ jobs even more difficult.

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Located near a busy intersection and across from Jefferson Park, a designated Safe Sleep Site, 7th and Washington is considered a “high-incident store.” Hicks called it an “intense store to work at.” Goetsch added that the environment at the Eugene store is distinct from their experience working at another Starbucks location in a wealthy area of Portland, where in-store conflict often revolved around customer “entitlement.” At 7th and Washington, Goetsch said, incidents are “more worrying and scary.” Hicks adds that incidents have included threats leveled against baristas, sexual harassment, and circumstances in which visitors to the store required emergency medical attention, protection, or mental health care.

Many community members rely on private businesses for resources like clean bathrooms and a warm place to sit. “We’re baristas,” said Hicks, “and at the same time we’re almost untrained social workers.”

Because they are located in Eugene, 7th and Washington employees are able to call Cahoots, a local alternative to the police that offers emergency mental health resources and transportation. Hicks and Goetsch are grateful for this service as well as a de-escalation training that the company offered to some staff — but they note that the latter was not provided to all employees. Hicks said that they would like to see these trainings offered to all Starbucks employees, but that at the very least “it should be incorporated in the training of our store.”

Since the store’s lobby reopened, taking precautions to prevent the spread of and exposure to COVID has become difficult, both due to insufficient time for sanitizing surfaces during periods of heavy customer traffic and due to the way baristas are advised to handle unmasked visitors. Hicks told Jacobin that the store policy on masks is centered around customer experience. If a customer refuses to wear a mask after being asked once, workers are told “to simply serve them and try and get them out the door as fast as possible, because if we start a scene or we escalate a situation, then we have created a bad customer experience for that person and we won’t get their business anymore.”

Following union certification, Hicks and Goetsch would like to see more workplace protections centering the health and safety of baristas. They are currently gauging the primary concerns of other baristas in their store by way of a survey, as they and Starbucks workers across the country await further updates from Buffalo, where the Elmwood and Genesee Street locations are in the process of contract negotiations.

Goetsch and Hicks told Jacobin that they hope other baristas, and workers in general, will also consider unionization. Hicks expressed the wish that “everyone had the information that we do now,” because changing the service industry “is a lot more possible than people realize.”

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Faith Bennett is a PhD student in US history at University of California, Davis.

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