‘Red Cup Rebellion’: Striking Chicago Starbucks Workers Brave Cold to Send Message to CEO Howard Schultz

This article is a joint publication of Workday Magazine and The American Prospect.

Teddy Hoffman, a 31-year-old shift supervisor at the Starbucks on the corner of Clark Street and Ridge Avenue in Chicago, says his wife is expecting to give birth in February. Yet, even though his store overwhelmingly voted to unionize in May, he still doesn’t know whether he’ll be able to improve his parental leave before the baby arrives—a big priority for him, since he only receives six weeks paid, significantly less than what corporate, non-retail “partners” get. That’s because the store where Hoffman brews espresso and sweeps the floors is one of at least 257 across the country that have voted to form a union since late last year, yet still do not have a contract.

“We are protesting the company’s unwillingness to bargain in good faith,” he explains, shivering in the 34-degree air as he stands in front of his store, where about 20 Starbucks workers and supporters hold signs advertising their one-day strike. Theirs is one of at least 111 strikes at Starbucks stores across the country. Workers with Starbucks Workers United, affiliated with Service Employees International Union, say Starbucks is committing an unfair labor practice by refusing to fairly negotiate even a single U.S. contract. They’re calling it the “Red Cup Rebellion,” a reference to “Red Cup Day,” when Starbucks distributes reusable red holiday cups, typically one of its busiest—and most profitable—days of the year.

However, the store is not closed. Behind Hoffman, scabs can be seen working inside. The union supporters picketing outside say managers are providing the bulk of the labor to undercut the strike.

Hoffman, whose shop has already been on strike twice over what workers say is understaffing and unfair treatment of union workers, explains that Red Cup Day is usually “excruciatingly stressful. We’re trying to get Starbucks’s attention, and it also saves us from a stressful day.”

The workers behind the Starbucks unionization wave have faced a number of stressors, even though the campaigns themselves have been stunningly successful: As of late spring, union votes had an 85 percent success rate. But the company, despite the progressive image cultivated by its billionaire interim CEO, Howard Schultz, has been a vociferous opponent of this unionization drive, and the company stands accused of a staggering number of labor law violations, including surveilling and firing workers in retaliation for organizing, and shutting down shops that vote to unionize.

A Starbucks spokesperson claimed to Workday Magazine and the Prospect that “no Starbucks partner has been or will be disciplined or separated for supporting, organizing or otherwise engaging in lawful union activity.”

But, along with the numerous fired workers who have spoken out, the National Labor Relations Board appears to disagree. As Paul Blest reported for VICE News, “The National Labor Relations Board petitioned a federal court in Michigan Tuesday for a ‘nationwide cease and desist order’ barring Starbucks from firing its employees for union activity.”

“I have been through a lot like everybody else, trying to find a career path and a job that sustains my life so I’m able to pay my bills, and I thought Starbucks was going to be that,” Rachel Simandl, a 26-year-old barista, tells Workday Magazine and the Prospect as they stand at the drive-through of the Chicago Starbucks, trying to persuade customers not to cross the picket line.

Simandl has only been at this location for a few weeks: They were transferred after the Starbucks where they worked previously, at Bryn Mawr Avenue and Winthrop Avenue in Chicago, was closed down just months after it voted to unionize. Starbucks cited safety issues, but Simandl believes the closure constituted anti-union retaliation.

“We’re out here fighting for us to have a say in what our benefits are and demand the respect they claim to want to give us, but haven’t been showing us,” they said.

The Starbucks spokesperson told Workday Magazine and the Prospect, “We are aware that union demonstrations are scheduled at a small number of our U.S. company-owned stores.” The spokesperson stated that the company has a “commitment to bargain transparently and in good faith.”

But Hoffman says Starbucks’s negotiating has been anything but good-faith. Even though his store voted to unionize in late May, bargaining didn’t start until a few weeks ago. “Initially, Starbucks refused to bargain, then changed dates on us multiple times, and changed the location multiple times,” he said. Last-minute changes made it difficult for some of the union’s leaders to participate in bargaining, he says.

The latest development, Hoffman says, is that Starbucks refused to bargain with the union because members tried to Skype in organizers from Starbucks Workers United, a complaint that has been repeated at other stores. “Their lawyers saw laptops were open and they refused to bargain,” he says.

Shep Searl, a 25-year-old barista at the Clark and Ridge location, says while sitting near the picket line that there are a number of issues workers are eager to negotiate on. “Higher pay, guaranteed hours—those are the ones any store says they want. For a lot of the partners of this store, we want better safety measures, making sure we maintain the benefits we were promised, and making sure whether you are part- or full-time, you get health insurance, paid sick leave, medical leave.” (Starbucks refers to its employees as “partners.”)

These needs are not theoretical to Searl. Due to a disability, Searl says they had to file for paid medical leave, and were out from June until the end of August. But they were forced to return before they felt well enough, because the paid leave ran out and they needed the money, they say.

Searl says they wish the store had more robust protections for people who face such issues. Starbucks, for its part, has come under fire for extending benefits—like a savings account program, certain student loan repayment tools, and increased pay—to non-union stores, in what union supporters say is an intentional effort to undercut the organizing drive. As Josh Eidelson reported in June, workers report that managers in several states “have told baristas that its vaunted transgender-inclusive health-care benefits could go away if they unionize.” Those reports may indicate yet more violations of labor law.

Searl is on the bargaining committee, along with Hoffman, and says that of a store of around 30 workers, 11 were out on the picket line. “We have a very militant, very active store,” they say. “We made those puppets by ourselves,” they add, gesturing toward a larger-than-life-sized puppet of a Starbucks lawyer wearing earplugs, hoisted by picketers. Nearby is another puppet, a large pro-union “siren,” a reference to the Greek mythological figure, wearing a red Starbucks apron, her long green hair twisting in the wind.

“Starbucks has been framed as a beacon of progressiveness,” says Simandl. “If that beacon of progressiveness is being less than progressive, that has to be known.”

Hoffman says his primary goal in bargaining is to ensure that other workers don’t have to struggle as much as he did to secure basic stability for his family. “We need guaranteed hours and better wages,” he says. “My wife and I just moved into a condo. I have seniority pay and a promotion, and it wasn’t until I had been with the company seven years that I was able to save for a condo. That should be the base.”

“If you’re working an honest living at a company profiting billions a year, there is no reason you should have to wait almost ten years to get stable housing for your family.”

Sarah is the Editor for Workday Magazine.

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