Why are Starbucks baristas unionizing?

In the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Starbucks at 47th Street and Cedar Avenue closed its doors to customers, but its drive-thru window remained open for business.

“Being a shift supervisor, I was the one putting people at the window,” said Emily. “I started having nightmares where people would call me a murderer because I was sending my friends and coworkers into danger.”

Emily took two weeks off to manage the stress and nightmares caused by workplace duties.

“That stress hasn’t gone away–it’s shifted into frustration at not being able to have a say in my safety and the safety of the people that I care about,” they said. “Caring about all those people and not being able to keep them safe is really frustrating and makes you feel so small.”

In the Twin Cities, workers are finding power in collective action. Collective bargaining is making mainstream headlines and affecting the community in profound ways. Educators with the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers Local 59 and its ESP Chapter have engaged in a historic strike for three weeks and just reached a tentative agreement. Many workers, like food service workers and public defenders, are fighting for fair contracts with their employers and voted to authorize strikes before reaching deals.

Meanwhile, baristas are fighting for the chance to be represented by a union and participate in collective bargaining. To these workers, collective action in the workplace is the ultimate gesture of care.

“It feels good to support each other and know we have each other’s backs,” said Emily of her coworkers. “We’re reaching out to grab that seat that’s been promised to us. We deserve a higher wage across the board to reflect that expertise and the hard work we put into making these stores run. All we’re asking for is respect.”

Measuring the motivation

This year, workers at three local Starbucks stores have announced they’re organizing unions and filing for elections. Two stores made announcements in February: the 47th and Cedar store in South Minneapolis and another in St. Paul on Snelling Avenue near Macalester College. Workers at a third store in St. Anthony at 37th and Silver Lake Road made an announcement on Tuesday.

The workers, who include baristas and shift supervisors, are organizing with the labor union Chicago & Midwest Joint Board, Workers United (CMJB), an affiliate of Service Employees International United (SEIU). These organizing efforts are part of a broader movement of Starbucks workers brewing up unions nationwide.

Rep. Ilhan Omar visited the Cedar Ave Starbucks and spoke out in support of the workers.

As a former Starbucks “partner” and barista myself, I reached out to a few workers to learn more about their organizing, work struggles, and growing consciousness. Food service and retail jobs like baristas tend to be occupied by younger people. A younger generation of progressive and diverse people are joining the workforce and discovering the false promises of working for the American dream. The baristas I talked to are aware that their working conditions belie Starbucks’ failing progressive brand and marketing, and they recognize the need to join a movement and act collectively for widespread change.

Steaming up the conversations

“You start working in food service and you’re like, hey, what if I got paid more, had better working conditions? Which is something everyone thinks about,” said Marshall Steele, a barista at the St. Paul location. “Unionization had been a topic around the store for a while. I think talking gave people an outlet for airing their grievances. When Buffalo won their union, it wasn’t just theoretical. We could actually do this thing.”

Marshall is a first-year student at St. Paul College and is thinking of studying history. They’ve worked at Starbucks for ten months. Like Emily, they’ve noticed a disconnect between workers and decision-makers about safety and regulations.

“What they really care about is what will make customers buy more coffee, not the safety of their employees,” said Marshall. “Outside the workplace, my personal experience has been that the people making these huge decisions don’t really care and aren’t affected by those decisions. And those things drove me toward working with a union.”

Anton Deborst, a shift supervisor, has worked at Starbucks for almost eight years. He moved here from Texas, where he said a lack of trust in customers made him feel uncomfortable at work. When Starbucks offered, he took a paid leave of absence at the beginning of the pandemic. After returning to work and being offered three extra dollars an hour for hazard pay, it was still a struggle to build consensus around safety regulations, like making sure every barista and customer wore masks.

Last year, he moved to Minnesota and transferred to 37th and Silver Lake. Although he’s never been in a union before, he was familiar with organizing unions because his mom organizes unions in Central America and he helped translate documents when he lived there. He started talking with Starbucks Workers United and began conversations at his store. Since he mainly works closing shifts, he first gained support from the night crew, and then started talking with the morning crew, using his knowledge to build consensus for a union.

Fueling the movement

To work in any customer-facing food service role, you have to have a certain amount of communication and people skills. People have told me to get a “real job,” but it is a real job, and it can be a career. Many of the baristas I know need the flexibility because we have to work multiple jobs or are putting ourselves through college. Like many others in low-wage, hourly positions, baristas may be stereotyped as brainless, but they are smart, savvy, and know how to have conversations. They read the news and see a top lawyer at Starbucks receiving a five million-dollar bonus, the CEO receiving a 39 percent pay increase, and the 31 percent increase in company profits. “That’s a lot of money, and none of that is coming to your partners,” said Anton. “We’re not trying to go against the company. We want to be able to go to Starbucks with our own ideas and decision-making and be able to have a say in the workplace.”

Organizing a union has been a full-circle moment for Jennifer Lehfeldt, who is also from Texas and a shift supervisor at 37th and Silver Lake. Jennifer first started to work at Starbucks seven years ago while getting her first degree in business administration. She finished her degree and left for an entry-level managerial position at a manufacturing plant for PepsiCo, which owns FritoLay, whose workers went on strike last summer. After being fired, she found herself answering the green siren’s call once again.

“I left to go have a salaried job that I thought was going to be the forward movement for my life. And then the industry said no and they cut me loose. It was very difficult to process that,” said Jennifer. “Even with a degree, having experienced the managerial corporate side of a business, I wasn’t willing to go back to it. People ask me, you’ve been a shift for so long, when are you moving up? And I tell them absolutely not. Companies ask you to dehumanize your frontline employees, and whether they intentionally mean to or not, their actions and what they ask you to do says that. ”

Jennifer is close to finishing her master’s degree in library science. Even though she plans to pursue work using her masters degree in the future, she recognizes the benefits of organizing a union at her current workplace for workers now and in the future. “It’s such a great company to work for–that’s what I believe and tell myself–but at the same time, I work my butt off…and at the end of the day, are the bills going to even out at the end of the month?” she said. “Today, I woke up and I was like, wow! My body felt tired! I had a normal work day, but I ran myself for the last couple days. I buy a new pair of work shoes every three months because I run through them.”

Anton said that the Silver Lake Starbucks is one of top three busiest stores in the Midwest.

She’s worked at 37th and Silver Lake since it’s opened, and has gotten to know every barista that has come and gone. At the beginning of the pandemic, she worked overtime to help her store remain open. She told me her goal with organizing is to make the process less scary for others. “It was interesting to not be aware of where I stood, and then to have those conversations and hearing [Anton] ask about it and pull up articles. For me that’s a very librarian thing to do,” she said. “I don’t know this information, but let’s look it up together. What are these trusted sources of information? What are they telling us?”

So far, the 47th and Cedar Starbucks has an election start date slated for April 11, and the St. Paul store has an election start date slated for April 8.

Amie Stager is the Associate Editor for Workday Magazine.

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