Starbucks baristas win unions at four Michigan stores, set sights on ‘worker power’
Picketing outside the State and Liberty Starbucks location in Ann Arbor, Mich. | Courtesy of Noah Dollar

ANN ARBOR, Mich.—Starbucks workers in four different coffee shops across Ann Arbor won their votes to unionize on Tuesday. Workers at one location, on South University, lost the vote, 10–16, but organizers remain hopeful.

“Union power is union power,” said organizer and spokesperson for Starbucks Workers United Lindsay Calka. “We are a force to be reckoned with, with four legitimate unions. The wins we will have at individual stores will make conditions at South University better. And if it doesn’t, then we’re going to do something about that.”

Of the four locations, only two are within walking distance from one another, but you wouldn’t get that feeling during Tuesday’s celebration.

“I knew that there was a lot of support and that a lot of people have mobilized and voted, but just seeing the tangible proof of that is just so exciting,” said barista Elizabeth Blackwell.

A viewing party was held at one of the downtown locations that voted to unionize. The State and Liberty Starbucks is in a high traffic area where students, young professionals, professors, industry workers, and out-of-towners alike stop for a quick coffee fix. Open the door at the wrong time and you’ll be stuck deciding between having to find coffee later and rationalizing an acceptable time to be late to wherever you’re headed.

With the popularity of the location, it’s a wonder that these Starbucks workers continue to show up under such high expectations. Production pressure tops the list of concerns for these workers, and rightfully so.

However, as with baristas elsewhere, despite unfounded views that working in a coffee shop isn’t a “grown-up job” or that these workers are simply greedy for wanting more pay, these workers do in fact love their jobs.

Coffee shop and cafe workers are a part of their community no matter where they work, and what’s becoming unavoidably evident is that it’s not just baristas who want to organize, but fast food workers, servers, bartenders, bus drivers, housekeepers, sex workers, etc.—everyone from the working class to the working poor.

It’s not just profit-driven business models that depend on the lower classes to generate labor for lower costs, but it’s also the framework of everything we label as “community” that depends on them, too.

The organizing Starbucks workers and baristas everywhere know this isn’t the end of the road.

“We’re hoping our union isn’t just going to just be a vehicle for our pay and benefits, but it’s going to be a tool to fight for worker power throughout the county and hopefully throughout Michigan and then the country and then the world,” said union organizer Ruby Barron.

From Memphis to Chicago to Atlanta to Ithaca, Starbucks workers are uniting to fight back against entrenched anti-union employer pressure and the neoliberal views of labor that have been pushed by the corporate media for decades. With the tidal wave of organizing baristas, it’s easy to get lost in inflated fears of old views of union work: cost increases, “lazy” workers, corruption, etc.

Some companies have (truly) capitalized on the wave of wage increases over the last two years—one example being the Jimmy John’s restaurant chain, which started paying workers higher hourly rates but quickly increased menu prices as well.

However, the COVID-19 pandemic, the uncovered wounds of worker burnout, debates over who is and is not “essential,” and the systemic gaps in nearly every industry (but especially healthcare system) all play clearly in workers’ heads. In such a context, the drive for higher profits means very little in the face of the large-scale existential threats facing those who work for a living.

Above all, though, what has become clear to even those in safe, corporate-based jobs is that worker power is once again possible and needed. People are talking about threats to their livelihood no longer as individual problems but with their fellow workers, within departments.

Picketing outside the State and Liberty Starbucks location in Ann Arbor, Mich. | Courtesy of Noah Dollar

Winning other industries over is still a long road ahead, though.

One Detroit-based barista was lamenting the differences between industries when workers approach people about their unionizing efforts. “The disparities between industries has become a lot clearer to us throughout the process,” explains Beck Kaster of Comrades in Coffee after her experience picketing outside of a technology conference. “We had multiple people laugh or yell at us.”

There still exist ideas about which jobs deserve higher wages and benefits and which do not. And after multiple generations being subjected to the outdated notions that “hard work always pays off”, it becomes all too easy to forget that while we were keeping our heads down to get the promotion, to get the better salary, to pay off the student loans, we were foregoing talks on workers’ rights and power.

Organizing the service industry is about more than simply changing the discussion on deserving better wages and healthcare coverage. It’s about creating power for those who have historically been denied it.

“We are taking a short but much needed break and identifying people to join the national bargaining committee,” Ruby Barron told People’s World. “An area of interest in our district is in building connections [with] the coffee farmer’s movement and making sure our victory does not come at their expense.”

“We also hope to participate as the most locally visible service worker union in our area—a local, industry-wide organizing effort in coalition with several leftist and labor organizations.”

What Starbucks workers are doing is truly a lesson from the ground up for all other industries.


Andrew Wright
Andrew Wright

Andrew Wright is an essayist and activist based in Detroit.  He has written and presented on topics such as suicide and mental health, class struggle, gender studies, politics, ideology, and philosophy.