labor Unionized Starbucks Workers Are Considering Calling for a Boycott
Given the growing popularity of the hashtag “#boycottstarbucks,” social media users could be forgiven for thinking that unionized Starbucks workers are making an explicit demand for customers to lay off the lattes. In truth, they aren’t — for now. But Starbucks Workers United (SBWU) is teasing the idea, provocatively calling its customer solidarity pledge “No Contracts, No Coffee.” And certainly many individual Starbucks baristas might encourage you to spend your money elsewhere amid a corporate avalanche of unfair labor practices (ULPs).
In the wake of both a recent SBWU day of action and Cornell University’s announcement of plans to cut ties with the corporation, SBWU said in a statement to Jacobin: “Our campaign hasn’t yet called for a boycott, though it’s clear that Starbucks customers are fed up with the company’s union busting and are ready to take action.” The campaign expressed the need for and appreciation of customer solidarity as it has been demonstrated through past store adoptions and the customer pledge. “We understand the power of consumers in our fight for a better Starbucks,” SBWU said in the statement. “Their solidarity is part of how we will win our fight for a union and a fair first contract.”
SBWU’s September 14 day of action relied heavily on customer solidarity, thought it did not explicitly encourage or discourage patronage of the business. “Thousands of our allies and supporters showed up at nearly 750 Starbucks stores across the country,” SBWU noted in their statement, “and talked with tens of thousands of customers about Starbucks’ egregious union busting.” The primary deliverable of this action was a massive petition to CEO Laxman Narasimhan, demanding he come to the table to bargain in good faith with unionized workers. The large nationwide showing also served as a notable escalation of scale from prior actions, and a potential structure test for a future boycott.
In the past, SBWU has called for short-term, targeted boycotts of individual locations or a cluster of stores. In April 2022, workers in Depew, New York, urged customers to boycott the store to protest the unjust firing of union organizer Angel Krempa. That year in Ithaca, New York, three locations filed for election before two were shut down. The third retaliatory closure came in June 2022. Following this development, Ithaca organizers called on the community to boycott the company entirely. Notably, Cornell student activists — some of whom were former Starbucks employees — successfully organized to end the university’s financial partnerships with the chain, citing concerns over union busting.
Several Starbucks locations across the country saw limited strikes in 2022 over ULPs both locally and nationwide. Workers at many stores participated in the “Red Cup Rebellion,” a coordinated one-day strike across more than one hundred locations that corresponded with the company’s “Red Cup Day” — a notoriously chaotic day when the chain offers free limited-edition plastic red cups to customers as they celebrate the annual roll out of holiday offerings. In a clear indication of the growing movement, SBWU’s next large ULP strike — June 2023’s Strike With Pride action — lasted a week and involved over 150 stores.
In a festive action last winter, SBWU urged customers to abstain from purchasing holiday gift cards until the company agreed to bargain. Limited asks like these were easily legible by name alone and invited viral participation from union teachers, writers, and other supporters. As we head into the next holiday season, we might anticipate similar actions to those from last winter, but with even broader participation as consumer awareness of labor conflict at Starbucks grows.
Many of SBWU’s recent actions involve customer participation, raising the question of a nationwide boycott. If it were to happen, a large-scale boycott could hit the coffee giant where it hurts, as the change in popular attitude could prove detrimental to the company’s bottom line. A consumer boycott spearheaded by Cornell student activists informed the university’s decision not to renew its contract with Starbucks. Imagine the impact of that kind of action on a nationwide scale. University campuses, which like 40 percent of Starbucks locations nationwide licensed “Proudly Serve” vendors instead of official stores, are a natural laboratory for the strategy — especially with student activists on hand to pressure administrators.
At the University of California (UC), where five out of nine campuses license the chain to operate, the UC Student Association has called on the university “to stop contracting with all anti-union corporations and support fair labor practices in all companies it contracts with.” This resolution was authored in part by student activist David Ramirez, who previously worked as a Starbucks barista himself and hoped to unionize his cafe. Ramirez told Jacobin that the resolution has led to continued talks with the UC Board of Regents, who “have expressed that this issue needs to be approached at the local campus level since the contracting for Starbucks on UC campuses differs from campus to campus.”
Boycotts are a powerful and intuitive channel for consumer solidarity, and are the natural extension of the community approach SBWU has been taking. That doesn’t necessarily mean that SBWU will call one big boycott, however. For now, the strategy is to plug customers into the campaign in whatever ways are most effective. If a big boycott happens, it will be the culmination of those efforts.
“These on-site actions will continue to expand to greater numbers of stores as we build a powerful network of customer supporters for our fight,” SBWU commented after the September 14 day of action. In the meantime, the victory at Cornell and the similar campaign at UC signal that even bigger losses could be ahead for the business that claims to inspire with every cup.
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Faith Bennett is a PhD student in US history at University of California, Davis.