labor On the Long Road to Organizing a Starbucks Union
In a word, the ongoing union organizing drive that has swept the coffee giant Starbucks can be described as ‘unprecedented.’ Never before has a mass unionization effort of this magnitude gripped a fast food company in the United States. The humble origins of the barista-led Starbucks Workers United can be found in the Rust Belt city of Buffalo. It is there where the nation-wide unionization effort was publicly launched in August 2021.
As Starbucks Workers United (SBWU) expands from shop to shop, workers face an onslaught of union busting tactics from the company. But union fever is spreading rapidly nonetheless as Starbucks workers at over 400 locations have filed petitions for union elections, with more planning to do so.
Starbucks’ response to these efforts came as no surprise to veteran union organizers and former baristas involved with a lesser-known and very different unionization effort at the company that took place years ago by the Industrial Workers of the World.
Workers have won union elections at 291 stores and at two of the company’s three roastaries at the time of this writing. Those numbers are only expected to grow. There are 7,335 workers represented by SBWU at union stores.
Starbucks barista Colter Chatriand got involved early in the organizing at his shop in Philadelphia. It kicked off “once Buffalo started to make the news,” he said. “And what that did for us was, when I would be talking to people or trying to start conversations with people, it was extremely easy to just be able to reference Buffalo.”
All eyes were on the three locations in Buffalo when the unthinkable happened: workers at two of the stores won their union elections, with tightly contested results at the third. Chatriand and other baristas were ecstatic.
Arjae Red was a barista and union organizer at SBWU’s flagship store in Buffalo. They were aware of the organizing going on before they were hired, and joined a union organizing committee shortly thereafter. It did not take too long for Red to see the writing on the wall for how the company treats its workers.
“They just basically lie. They’re like military recruiters. They say you’re going to get all these benefits when you come out and then you don’t have anything,” said Red.
Both Chatriand and Red have a similar background that propelled them to organize at Starbucks.
In 2017, Chatriand was living in Butte, Montana, an old mining town with a deep history of labor militancy with the radical, anti-capitalist Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), popularly known as the Wobblies. Chatriand became enamored with the history of the union, and in particular with Wobbly organizer Frank Little.
“He was lynched by the bosses for his efforts to organize. He’s a local labor martyr in Butte,” Chatirand said. “It was the 100 year anniversary of his death when I moved up there. So that’s that part of what piqued my interest.”
As he researched more about the history of the Wobblies, Chatriand learned that the union was still active in Butte. He joined the IWW and attended a workplace organizer training to learn how to form a union at his workplace.
When Wobblies Organized Starbucks
Both union activity and union busting are as old as the company itself.
Although the current Starbucks campaign is the most widespread unionization effort at the company in the U.S., it is not the first. The United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) represented about 120 workers at Starbucks before the union was decertified in 1992, the same year Schultz bought the company.
It was not until 2004 that the first nation-wide, sustained IWW organizing campaign at Starbucks surfaced at a storefront in New York City. Organizers named their newly formed union Starbucks Workers Union (SWU).
When Wobblies filed for a union election with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), they received a rude awakening about the limitations of labor law in the U.S. The board determined that the bargaining unit would have to include every Starbucks location on the entire island of Manhattan.
At that time, powerful unions like SEIU and UFCW were not interested in organizing on such a scale in the fast food industry. It would be near impossible for a small, anti-capitalist union on a shoe-string budget to do it alone. Wobblies pulled their union election petition and adopted a strategy called “solidarity unionism,” which marked a return to their union’s roots.
In practice, solidarity unionism took on many different approaches as the SWU spread across New York City and ultimately across the U.S. Rather than waiting to bargain for a union contract and relying on union officers to represent workers off the shop floor in lengthy grievance procedures, Wobblies and their coworkers took direct action to address issues as they arose on the job.
“Solidarity unionism, to me, means staying up all hours of the night writing press releases, and having long meetings where you definitely bring snacks, and tease out strategy—strategy beyond, how do we get somebody to sign a card,” recounted Anja Witek, another former Starbucks Workers Union organizer who worked at a shop in Minneapolis.
Echoing the sentiments outlined by long time labor and civil rights activist Staughton Lynd in his book, Labor Law for the Rank and Filer, Witek said that Wobblies did use labor law as a defensive tactic, but never as a guiding element of their strategy.
In 2009, Starbucks fired Witek’s coworker Azmera Mebrahtu, falsely accusing her of stealing $1,200 from the company. She said that the company’s firing of Mebrahtu, an Ethiopian immigrant, was racist, and she and other Wobblies picketed the store and organized other actions to pressure the company to rehire her.
“In the IWW, we say ‘direct action gets the goods,’” Witek said. “We filed an Unfair Labor Practice but it was the direct actions that got her job back. She didn’t have to wait for the law.”
The most successful IWW Starbucks campaigns centered around wages. Union activists won three wage increases, or a 25 percent total increase, for baristas across New York City. This bump in pay spread in various forms to other cities and states.
In a separate three-year-long battle, organizers won company recognition of Martin Luther King Jr. Day and time-and-a-half holiday pay for workers.
“We’re not going to win this,” Locke recalled thinking while organizing around the holiday. “I was just depressed and bogged down. But everybody else on the organizing committee said ‘we still want to’ and we went with what the committee wanted.”
The IWW announced a march and Locke, who worked at Starbucks for nearly a decade and was one of the core organizers for seven years in New York City, was later in disbelief when fellow union organizer Anja Witek texted him on MLK Day about the major win.
“I immediately looked up the employee manual, because they did digital updates all the time, and it had Martin Luther King Day listed as one of the holidays,” Locke said. Tears over that bitter victory streamed down his face.
“Since 2013, we have gotten $1.3 million of additional money into the pockets of baristas across the country on Martin Luther King Day for paid holiday pay, as well as a paid day off for managers, which was a side effect,” said Locke. With pay increases and company growth, that initial dollar amount has increased over the years.
“I have never been more proud of anything in my whole life,” Locke said of the union victory. “It’s really profound the way that that specific campaign touched a lot of baristas, the way that it mattered to them when they learned about the labor fights that Dr. King supported and fought for, and the fact that he was in support of unions.”
King was a vocal backer of unions. His final act before his assassination in Memphis was supporting a mass strike of union sanitation workers.
According to Locke, at the union’s peak there were only “300 baristas nationwide organizing.” In New York City, he said there were about 200 SWU members and an additional 900 workers who took collective action but never officially joined the union. Wobblies organized at Starbucks in over a dozen states.
A small-yet-committed group of union members were able to achieve victories. However, many union leaders were targeted and fired in the course of the campaign. There was constant turnover of workers, and organizers endured an incredible amount of mental and physical pain from the daily grind of the job. Union leaders were burnt out.
In the end, the company’s brutal union busting pushed the IWW campaign into oblivion.
The Workers United Campaign
The IWW and Workers United – SEIU could not be more different unions. They certainly overlap on the basics of organizing, but the differences in overall strategies and structures between the two are night and day.
The IWW has marched to the beat of a very different drum since its founding in 1905. While the dominant American Federation of Labor practiced a “pure and simple unionism” that focused exclusively on improvements to wages and working conditions under capitalism, but also actively excluded Black and Asian workers from union ranks, the IWW preached revolutionary socialist and anarchist ideas, militant industrial unionism, and practiced racial equality.
Because of their power to disrupt industry and their criticism of World War I, the IWW was brutally repressed by the U.S. government and nearly destroyed.
Today, the IWW in the U.S. and Canada has only about 9,000 members, but Wobblies contest that what the union lacks in numbers it makes up for in its unique approach to organizing: solidarity unionism that transcends industries and national borders, a refusal to get involved with electoral politics, and a grassroots directly-democratic structure. Wobblies still cling to their radical, anticapitalist ethos and were the first union to endorse Occupy Wall Street when it erupted in the streets of New York City in 2011.
SEIU by contrast is the largest union in the U.S. and Canada, and boasts a membership of 2 million. While many unions in the U.S. have decreased in membership over the years from an anti-union onslaught, SEIU has been steadily growing and taking the lead in organizing nurses, service workers, janitors, and adjunct faculty. They were behind the Fight for 15 campaign to demand “15 dollars and a union” across the fast food industry, which resulted in widespread wage increases for fast food workers.
The promise of such unions organizing at Starbucks is finally coming to fruition. SEIU towers over the IWW in numbers and material gains, but it is a hierarchical, staff-driven organization that has deep ties to the Democratic Party.
There are plenty of reasons why the SBWU campaign under SEIU is taking off in ways that the IWW’s Starbucks Workers Union campaign never did.
A significantly more favorable political atmosphere is one of them, which created fertile soil for SBWU to plant firm roots. Mass movements and protests like Occupy Wall Street, the Wisconsin Uprising, the Dakota Access Pipeline protests at Standing Rock, and Black Lives Matter, have all made a deep imprint on the landscape of organizing in the U.S. Rising income inequality, inflation, and the stresses specifically faced by service industry workers from the COVID-19 pandemic have also ripened conditions for organizing.
There are legal forces behind SBWU’s boost, too. “I think the reason why this movement is so widespread is because the judge in Buffalo allowed [bargaining units and elections] to be on a store by store basis,” Chatriand said. “That was the ruling that took us by surprise.”
“We were anticipating that the law was not going to be on our side, and that they would rule against us and in the favor of Starbucks,” he said. The favorable ruling has made the process of filing for union elections much easier.
Unlike other SEIU campaigns, SBWU only has a small handful of staffers who are assisting Starbucks baristas. New baristas are constantly reaching out to Workers United expressing an interest in organizing but the organization lacks the staff necessary to provide deep support. By necessity, union leadership and staff have turned to empowering workers to learn the skills necessary to become organizers, run their own campaigns, and bargain their own contracts.
The resulting structure of SBWU, according to Arjae Red, is very democratic and run essentially by Starbucks baristas.
“We don’t have the union staff speak for us, we just do it ourselves. And then we refer to them if we need advice,” said Red of Workers United staff.
Organic worker-to-worker networking has developed across “a web of stores that are connected to each other,” Red shared. This includes baristas in Buffalo, Memphis, Phoenix, and other cities.
Baristas also set up city-wide committees and regional networking structures to share resources and offer support.
Chatriand sees this campaign as “very worker driven.” He believes that the past organizing at Starbucks “was too top heavy with the UFCW, and it was too bottom heavy with the IWW. But I think now with Workers United it’s finding some sort of middle ground where it’s kind of the best of both worlds.”
Tactically, Starbucks Workers United activists are not solely organizing around union elections.
“There’s a lot of random little strikes that are being called, one day strikes, one day boycotts, weekend boycotts,” Red said. “As people get fired from stores, the stores are walking out. And this is not really something that we’re coordinating on a country wide scale, but our union still fully supports these autonomous strike actions.”
Workers are getting more bold with their actions as well. At the Starbucks roastery in New York City, they walked off the job on October 25, 2022 over the health and safety concerns surrounding a bedbug infestation. The historic strike lasted 46 days, and workers won on several of their demands as a result.
In mid-December, baristas staged a three-day strike against unfair labor practices that involved over 1,000 workers and over 100 stores. Much of the work to pull off these actions came from the shop floor.
The roastery workers released a statement when they ended their strike, stating, “We are excited to return to work, but we recognize that our fight as a unionized store has just begun… Our next step is to bargain a contract!”
All eyes are on Buffalo to see what that first union contract might look like.
“We want to get a strong first contract so we put out a bargaining survey around the whole country and got a poll of what everybody wants,” Red explained as a member of the barista-led bargaining committee.
The belief is that Buffalo will set a precedent, good or bad, for stores across the country.
‘Starbucks Has Been Crushing Unions Since Day One’
Starbucks Workers United has thus far weathered the storm of union busting, but given the severe anti-union history of Starbucks, there is no telling what lies in wait for workers.
“Starbucks has been crushing unions since day one,” said Arjae Red. Shortly after buying the six-store company in 1987, CEO Howard Schultz set his sights on the UFCW union membership at the company.
“He quickly stomped out the union,” Red explained. “Howard Schultz lied and told these unionized workers, if you decertify at your next vote, then you’ll maintain all your benefits, and we don’t need a union once we do the merger. And unfortunately, I guess they fell for it because they decertified.”
Starbucks has fostered a public image as a progressive company that champions racial justice, LGBTQ+ rights, and a variety of progressive causes. That image stands in stark contrast to the reality experienced by workers.
In 2020, a movement of Starbucks baristas emerged in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement. Baristas wore BLM buttons and face masks in support of the movement, but managers and the company pushed back against them. In a company-wide memo sent to baristas, management explicitly forbade workers from wearing anything in support of the movement. They argued this public display of support might incite “agitators” to violence.
Public pressure on the side of the workers mounted and the company conceded. They allowed workers to wear BLM buttons and masks, and created a company sponsored BLM t-shirt—a move that Red and other baristas called “tokenistic.”
“What they’re doing is just using the struggles of marginalized people just to advertise,” Red said. “It’s just a way to make money.”
“They present themselves like their cafes are a safe space for LGBTQ+ people, people of color and all kinds of different people who need a place to go. The workers do a good job of trying to make that a reality, but the company, really, it’s not compatible. Many of their values and principles that they’ve claimed to have are totally contradictory to just the way that they run as a corporation.”
Red, who is queer and non-binary, said they were misgendered by managers “on a constant basis.” They want the company to “hold their managers to a higher standard” and “train them better.”
Liberte Locke faced an even deeper level of homophobia at the coffee chain. “Starbucks used my queerness heavily in the anti-organizing campaign,” said Locke, who identified as a queer woman when in the IWW, but has since transitioned.
“It’s not untrue that Starbucks offers assistance with IVF, supports gay marriage, and has pretty extensive language that’s supportive of trans employees. But I feel like Starbucks knows too much, so they are able to use it against us,” he said.
While Locke was organizing in New York, Starbucks replaced the store manager—a straight Puerto Rican woman—with a new manager, who, like Locke at that time, identified as a lesbian woman.
“Starbucks took the basics of queerness and tried to make sure that I would identify with the person,” he said. “And then she did her job as an anti-union person of doing everything she could to appeal to that in me.”
But the approach failed, and the manager was eventually fired.
Several months later, Locke’s former manager asked to talk to him privately. “We met in the park for my lunch break. And she tells me, she says, ‘listen, everything you think is happening is happening. Everything you’re worried about, they’re actually doing.’”
Locke was a primary target for Starbucks’ effort to bust the IWW, and the company attempted on multiple occasions to write him up over minor issues and fire him.
Daniel Gross was one of the original IWW organizers at Starbucks, and one of the Wobblies who asked Locke to join the union in 2007.
When the IWW initially filed for a union election, Gross “had a meeting with all these Starbucks lawyers and district managers and his lawyer, and they had offered him a certain amount of money in the 10s of 1000s to just quit Starbucks and never come back,” recalled Locke. Gross refused the bribe and kept organizing.
At a union picket in 2004, Gross and another union activist were singled out by the police and arrested. Starbucks fired Gross in 2006 in what he and other members say was an attempt to destroy the organizing effort.
In the years-long court battles that waged over Gross’s termination, and the thousands of documents that surfaced in discovery, it was revealed that Starbucks went so far as to send managers to follow Gross and other union members back to his home to spy on them.
Meanwhile, Starbucks reserved its harsher actions for Black union organizers, many of whom were fired.
One Black union leader targeted by the company still leaves Locke with a feeling of deep unease. She was on the organizing committee with Locke at the 17th and Broadway Starbucks store.
“She was galvanizing everybody,” he said. “She got people to join the union and to take action.” Locke declined to give her full name out of concern over retaliation from Starbucks.
Locke said that, in early 2009, an irate customer threw a cup of coffee at the union leader, who responded by deflecting it. The customer was not hurt, but filed a complaint with Starbucks which then used the incident as justification to fire her.
According to Liberte Locke, the union leader was a single mother of three facing foreclosure. She begged management not to fire her.
“And then Starbucks said, ‘we won’t fire you, but only if you give us the names of everyone that’s in the union in the city that you’re aware of,’” Locke said. He claimed she was also asked to steal his notebook. “And she adamantly refused. And they fired her on the spot when she had no previous write-ups.”
The union was primed to take both legal and collective action, but the fired union leader never showed up. “We couldn’t get a hold of her. We couldn’t find her,” he said, and figured she was burnt out and afraid.
Liberte Locke did not hear from the fired union leader for two more years when he happened to run into her at another barista’s apartment. He was incredibly relieved to see her. What she told Locke made him speechless.
“She just told me: ‘I had to sign this stuff where I wasn’t allowed to talk to you, where I wasn’t allowed to talk to the IWW anymore. And I wasn’t allowed to go to the organizing trainings, or talk to the media, or talk to anything or they wouldn’t give me my house.’”
“Starbucks literally gave her a house in Queens,” Locke claimed. He repeated the words so as to let that reality sink in again years later. “They literally gave her a house.”
Ultimately, the company was successful in crushing the IWW Starbucks Workers Union through the use of threats, intimidation, targeted firings, spreading lies, bribing union activists, and spending millions of dollars in the process. The company has utilized some of these same tactics against the current SBWU campaign. Starbucks continues to target Black and other union activists of color, too.
On Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a group of Starbucks baristas in Memphis went public with their union. In a public statement, workers noted that they were doing so “in the city where [King] was killed while fighting for the right of sanitation workers to organize.” The workers urged Starbucks to “embrace Dr. King’s vision” and asked the company to not employ union-busting tactics.
Starbucks responded by firing the entire organizing committee, which was made up almost entirely of Black and Latino workers.
Although it is illegal in the U.S. for employers to fire workers for union activity, employers will find other justifications for doing so. Starbucks, for example, claims Memphis workers were fired for violating various company policies, which the union argues were arbitrarily enforced to target activists. Starbucks Workers United launched a national campaign to demand the “Memphis 7” be rehired. The campaign was ultimately successful. Last August, a federal judge ordered Starbucks to reinstate the fired workers.
“Starbucks obviously doesn’t treat any of the organizers well, whether they’re Black or white, regardless of ethnicity,” said Red. “But they acted particularly viciously against Black organizers compared to the stores that have majority white organizing committees, for example, like in Buffalo.”
The NLRB issued a statement against Starbucks on April 22, stating Starbucks broke the law and fired the seven workers because they “joined or assisted the union and engaged in concerted activities, and to discourage employees from engaging in these activities.”
Another union leader, Leila Dalton, was fired from her store in Phoenix, AZ after a recording of her manager harassing her went viral. “She’s the only Black worker at her store. She’s 19 years old. And the company targeted her heavily, they were just non stop harassing her, trying to threaten and intimidate her. And they fired her,” said Arjae Red.
Starbucks has used a variety of other tactics as well. Red said that, in the lead up to the union election at their Starbucks store in Buffalo, the company closed another local store that had a particularly anti-union reputation, sending much of its workforce over to Red’s store.
“Many of the votes that we had, in the end, were actually people that didn’t even work at our store. It was really obvious that Starbucks was trying to just stack the vote with people they thought would vote no,” said Red. They alleged some pro-union workers never received election ballots. The vote was 15-9 in favor of forming a union, and an additional 7 ballots were challenged.
Starbucks also conducted a series of captive-audience meetings across the country, often shutting down stores for hours without public explanation. During the sessions, managers lied to the workers about the unionization effort and attempted to derail organizing. Union activists and supporters across the country also had their hours and benefits cut.
In April, Howard Schultz told store managers across the U.S. that he would review a plan to expand benefits for employees but exclude employees from stores that have undergone union elections from those same benefits.
The union filed charges against Starbucks with the NLRB, saying that Schultz’s comments were illegal and a violation of the National Labor Relations Act.
Arjae Red was not immune from retaliation. Over 100 barista union activists were fired across the country. Many more found themselves in a situation similar to Red’s. “The company slashed my hours and I was forced to look for options elsewhere,” they said. “I actually liked working at Starbucks and would’ve preferred to stay.”
On March 1 the NLRB finally made a ruling on multiple unfair labor practices filed by the union in Buffalo.
In a scathing condemnation of Starbucks’ union-busting tactics in Buffalo, NLRB Administrative Law Judge Michael A. Rosas ruled in favor of the SBWU in a 218 page decision. The company must rehire and compensate union activists who were retaliated against, according to Rosas, and reopen stores that were closed in an effort to stymie the union drive.
‘It’s Bigger Than Just Your Contract’
If this history of organizing and union busting has anything to teach Starbucks Workers United, it is that the union will continue to face a torrent of attacks from the company. Baristas are bracing for this.
The struggle ahead will be an arduous one, particularly so since the union’s goal is to bring every one of the 7,000 Starbucks locations across the United States into the union fold. And while the unionization effort has only spread to a few hundred locations so far, for now there appears to be no end in sight for the eagerness and tenacity of union baristas to keep building their union from coast to coast.
Red said the next big fight for the union is over bargaining for a first union contract. Starbucks is dragging out the bargaining process, according to union activists. Workers are demanding an increase to wages and benefits, including a more robust health insurance plan and guaranteed hours.
While the company does offer benefits to employees, including health insurance, and college tuition to Arizona State University online courses and programs, the company is notorious for cutting employees’ hours to disqualify them from receiving them.
“The problem is that many of us, even people that have been at Starbucks for years and have been getting those benefits, they’re getting their hours slashed down to 5, 10, 15 hours a week,” which puts workers below the 20-hour-a-week minimum for eligibility.
Citing comments that Howard Schultz made during a Starbucks town hall meeting with employees in March 2022, Red noted that the CEO “has a class-wide perspective. He’s not just thinking about it in terms of his own company and his own money. He’s looking at the entire capitalist class under assault by the workers.”
“I think if these corporations have a class-wide perspective, then the workers need to have a class-wide and international perspective, too,” said Arjae Red. “That’s something that I’ve been trying to point out to people, that this is bigger than just getting your store a contract or even just unionizing Starbucks as a company. We have to be linking up with Amazon workers, and other workers. We’ve got to be linking up with other left forces. It’s bigger than just your contract.”
Brendan Maslauskas Dunn is a social movement journalist and organizer from Utica, NY affiliated with Copper City Collective. His work has appeared in Le Monde Diplomatique, The Indypendent, the Hudson Mohawk Magazine and elsewhere.
Chatriand moved to Philadelphia in 2019 and got a job working at Starbucks, but he had not yet fully put the knowledge he gained from the IWW union training to use. “I was kind of just keeping it in my back pocket,” he said.
Arjae Red also joined the IWW around the same time that Chatriand did. They attended the same IWW training in Buffalo and made an attempt to organize at a factory where they worked.
Their work intersected with a range of other left wing organizing around Black Lives Matter, LGBTQ justice, and socialist base-building. As a low-wage worker who saw the bigger picture of organizing, it made perfect sense for Red to get involved with the Starbucks campaign in its earlier, still underground, stages.
Red noted that a number of organizers with SBWU, which is a part of an affiliate of Service Employees International Union (SEIU) known as Workers United, are also Wobblies. However, they were quick to point out that this cross-union activism represented only a small minority of SBWU activists.
“A lot of the people who are organizing at Starbucks right now are doing it for the first time,” said Red. “And a lot of them are not activists, they’re not people who were super political before. Many of them are people who are, for the first time, becoming politicized by the struggle.”