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Victory! – Starbucks Stops Opposing Its Baristas’ Union

In a historic breakthrough, Starbucks and its workers announce they’ve come together. In a joint announcement Starbucks and Workers United agreed “to begin discussions on a foundational framework designed to achieve…collective bargaining agreements.”

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“This is what we’ve always wanted,” says Michelle Eisen, a Starbucks barista who’s been with the company since 2010 and works at the Buffalo outlet that was the first to vote to go union, back in 2021. “We wanted Starbucks to actually be the company they always said they were.”

On Tuesday, Starbucks may have finally become just that. In a joint announcement released by both Starbucks and Workers United, the baristas’ union that is part of SEIU, the company agreed “to begin discussions on a foundational framework designed to achieve … collective bargaining agreements for represented stores and partners.”

The somewhat operatic language (“discussions on a foundational framework”) raised some questions about whether this was just more delay to a first contract. But the Prospect has learned that Starbucks has affirmatively agreed to bargaining with workers and their representatives to craft a master contract that applies to all unionized outlets, to be augmented, if necessary, by add-on contracts dealing with issues specific to particular outlets.

To demonstrate its good faith to understandably skeptical workers, the company also agreed to let them receive credit card tipping and also receive the back pay from the raises and benefits the company had given to all its employees, except those in outlets that had voted to go union.

After decades of decline, the American union movement has seen a dramatic uptick in the past couple of years, with a wave of unionizations among difficult-to-replace professional workers (university teaching assistants, hospital interns and residents); a landmark contract for unionized autoworkers; and rulings from President Biden’s National Labor Relations Board that enable workers to win back some of their organizing rights. But organizing and winning contracts for the kind of workers who can be replaced, whom managers have routinely fired when they seek to join or form unions, has still presented a nearly insuperable obstacle. And as a result, union density hasn’t really budged amid these victories.

This is why Tuesday’s announcement is the single most important breakthrough American workers have achieved in a very long time. Until Tuesday, workers in industries such as fast-food or other parts of the service sector appeared to be all but unorganizable, so fierce and successful (and routine) was management’s opposition to such initiatives. It certainly was fierce at Starbucks so long as the company founder, Howard Schultz, called the shots. During the more than two years since the Buffalo baristas voted to go union (since followed by baristas at nearly 400 other Starbucks, out of the 9,000 that the company owns), the company has faithfully followed the union-buster’s playbook, firing workers who led organizing campaigns, refusing to bargain with workers who’d voted to go union (who now total roughly 10,000), and withholding raises from them.

Despite that, the workers persisted. In recent weeks, baristas at 21 outlets all filed for unionization elections on the same day, and a slate of three pro-worker notables (including Wilma Liebman, who chaired the NLRB during the Obama presidency) have been running for Starbucks board director seats at the company’s annual shareholders’ meeting, to be held two weeks from tomorrow. In recent weeks as well, the company, now led by post-Schultz CEO Laxman Narasimhan, released a statement suggesting it was willing to alter its course, though no tangible course alterations were apparent until Tuesday. 


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The grounds on which company and union came together was a mediation process to settle a company suit and a union countersuit over some workers’ use of the word “Starbucks” to identify themselves during an action they took in opposition to the ongoing Gaza war. Over just the past week, that mediation broadened to include settling the underlying disputes between the company and its workers. It was only on Tuesday, however, with the release of the joint statement, that the baristas learned that a larger agreement had been reached.

“Our initial reaction was shock,” says Eisen. “And then tears—lots of tears, of disbelief and then relief.”

Beyond the immediate factors, what really was behind Starbucks’s epochal shift was a change in the zeitgeist. Unions are more popular today than they’ve been in 60 years, and young workers—a description that covers the vast majority of the company’s baristas—are overwhelmingly pro-union. Over the past two years, 90 percent of thousands of university student employees who’ve participated in unionization elections have voted to go union, and I suspect we may see a similar rate at hundreds and perhaps thousands more Starbucks outlets now that the company has said it will work toward a master agreement for unionized shops.

Does this change at Starbucks betoken a change in the nation at large? The UAW has just invested $40 million in its campaign to organize the country’s non-union auto and battery plants, and also on Tuesday, it announced that more than half the workers at the Mercedes plant in Alabama—Mercedes’s largest factory in the U.S.—had signed union affiliation cards. If the UAW can organize those plants, following on the victory at Starbucks, will that trigger the kind of wave that followed the UAW’s sit-down occupation of General Motors factories in 1937, which led to the unionization of the country’s largest employers? Will it spur the Teamsters to take on Amazon? Or other unions to take on Walmart?

If so, that would signal an epochal shift in the nation’s political economy. Organizing private-sector workers, save only those whose special skills or knowledge meant they couldn’t be fired if they sought to organize, more or less ground to a halt during the 1950s. At that time, in a world where the egalitarian effects of the New Deal continued to shape the nation’s economy, and prosperity was broadly shared, unions represented about a third of the nation’s workforce. Many union leaders viewed continued organizing as unnecessary. The already “organized fellow is the fellow that counts,” said AFL-CIO President George Meany, voicing a complacency that proved to be nearly fatal to unions’ effective existence.

As big business managed to steadily weaken the New Deal’s social contract, private-sector union growth ceased, the middle class shrank, and stratospheric levels of economic inequality came to define today’s American economy. Workers have been pushing back, largely unsuccessfully, for some time now. It’s only in the past few years that we’ve seen some breakthroughs. None have been so hard-fought or dramatic, though, as yesterday’s at Starbucks. Just how dramatic, and how historic, depends on how successfully a largely somnolent labor movement, slowly awakening to the change in climate, can roll it on.

[Harold Meyerson is editor at large of The American Prospect.]

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