Starbucks organizing wins and drives accelerate
Starbucks workers in Chesterfield, Mo., stand outside their store after filing with the NLRB for an union recognition election there. | Workers United via Twitter

ST. LOUIS —Workers United’s drive to organize the low-paid exploited baristas at Starbucks stores from coast to coast is accelerating, with the union’s win count up to at least 17 in recent weeks. And the number of stores with organizing drives is 201 and counting, says the union, a Service Employees sector which aids grass-roots worker-organizers.

The win count includes six more stores in upstate New York and two in Boston, where workers voted union on April 7-8.  And the National Labor Relations Board ruled elections can be held in coming weeks at stores on Olive Way in Seattle, St. Anthony, Minn., a store on Lyndale Avenue South in Minneapolis, and at the Howell Mill Road NW store in Atlanta, which employs 35 workers.

Those organizing drives monitored in various news stories include four more election filings in the St. Louis area, the St. Louis Labor Tribune reported. Store #201 in the overall drive is in the St. Louis County town of Chesterfield, Workers United said.

“We are proud to be part of this movement, and we are proud to inspire others to step forward and demand to be heard,” the Chesterfield workers tweeted on the Workers United website. “We are acting with courage and challenging the status quo, and that is what it truly means to be a partner.”

Like other Starbucks workers nationwide—and other exploited workers in industries ranging from fast food to warehousing to port trucking to adjunct professorships—the workers said employer mistreatment motivated the workers in the St. Louis area to unionize. And the workers started on their own before Workers United entered the scene.

The Starbucks workers also seized on leverage gained from rising recognition of low-wage workers’ plight—and that they have alternatives—due to the coronavirus pandemic. Also, like the other exploited workers nationally, the Starbucks workers are far younger than the average unionist, which is a sign of hope for the labor movement.

Around St. Louis, workers at the Starbucks store on Lindbergh Blvd., in Ladue, Mo., filed with the NLRB for union recognition on March 29, as did workers at the Natural Bridge Road store in Bridgetown two days later. On April 4, workers at the stores at 3700 South Kingshighway Blvd. and at Hampton and Wise avenues, both in St. Louis City, filed, too.

Ladue store workers said managers ignored safety concerns amid the coronavirus pandemic, promised and then delayed raises, and cut hours so drastically that a number of workers have been forced to seek second jobs or quit.

One Ladue employee told the St. Louis Labor Tribune the store’s former manager announced her resignation in February, telling the staff “Starbucks is going to start doing some stuff and I don’t want to be here for it.”

Ladue barista Jon Gamache, 28, said he got a raise from $11 an hour to $12 late last year, and employees were promised they would get a second raise in May. But the raise has been delayed to June. Company excuses for that decision range from Starbucks not being able to afford the raises to accusations that employees were dating food improperly.

Starbucks employees who work 20 or more hours a week qualify for health and benefits, and paid college tuition through Arizona State  University, but Gamache said managers have begun scheduling workers only 4-to-5 hours per shift and no more.

Starbucks workers in Raleigh, N.C., protest the firing of a pro-union colleague, 20-year-old barista Sharon Gilman, days before the union recognition election at the store. | Workers United via Twitter

“There’s a guy here that was working 39 hours a week who’s now getting four to five 4-to-5 hours shifts a week,” he told the Labor Tribune. “I was working 35 hours a week, now I’m working 14. You don’t get benefits at 14. It’s drastic, going from 40 hours a week to 20, you just lost half a job.”

“We think Starbucks is a great company, but there have been changes in the past few months that don’t match what they say they stand for, and we don’t agree with, and we think we can fix them by having a union,” added Ladue barista Carla Helberg, 22.

The Ladue store’s union organizing committee and supporters e-mailed a letter announcing their intentions to Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz.

“Despite being a highly profitable store during a highly profitable time for the company, we are being gaslit by management that we suddenly cannot afford sufficient staffing. Partners fear they will not meet their benefits eligibility, and many have felt forced to seek second jobs or new jobs entirely,” their letter said.

“Since new management has started cutting hours, fully a dozen members of our staff have left for other jobs. Those of us who remain face rock bottom morale and constant lies from management. We are announcing our union because we know we can stop this.

“There are other options than walking away: We can fight back. We no longer are able to trust Starbucks to do the right thing. As a unionized store, we (would be) happy to help drive the company in the right direction.”

In their own letter to Schultz, the Kingshighway Blvd. workers added: “Starbucks continues to be hugely profitable, so much so that the outgoing CEO was given a $60 million exit package…Yet the company fails to provide livable wages and thwarts our financial wellbeing by cutting scheduled hours.”

Despite inclusive rhetoric, Schultz responds with aggressive anti-union campaigns, including flooding stores with “assistant managers” and staging captive audience meetings.

Starbucks also trumped up an excuse—it alleged she broke a sink while washing dishes—to illegally fire pro-union barista Sharon Gilman, 20, a student at North Carolina State University. It fired Gilman from her Raleigh, N.C,, store just days before a scheduled union recognition election. Her dismissal drew roadside protests, Vice News reported.

Actually, the sink broke and fell on her. Starbucks fired Gilman two months afterwards. “My name was on the press release when we went public” about the union, she explained.


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.

Tim Rowden
Tim Rowden

Tim Rowden is an award-winning writer and editor with 25 years of progressive experience in daily, weekly and online journalism, media relations, and advocacy journalism, including editor of the St. Louis/Southern Illinois Labor Tribune, and reporter and bureau chief for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.