Chinook Centre Starbucks workers in Calgary filed to unionize with the United Steelworkers this week—joining a wave of union drives at locations across North America.

On Jan. 19, the USW District 3 announced 17 baristas in the mall’s food court applied for a union vote to the Alberta Labour Relations Board. 

If successful, the Chinook Centre Starbucks will be the second Canadian location to unionize since the start of the pandemic.

‘The job of a barista has changed’

According to the Union, the past few years have seen the Starbucks workload steadily rise as orders become more complex. More “mobile orders” means constant multitasking, with little extra pay. 

Starbucks’ low-wage workers have also faced serious health and safety risks over the past two years—both from COVID-19 and from unhinged, anti-mask customers.

“Throughout the last few years, the job of the barista has changed,” USW organizer Pablo Guerra said. “In addition to brewing your standard coffee order, baristas now have to enforce mask mandates and deal with complex custom-order drinks while enduring the added pressures of mobile ordering. Often baristas are faced with angry and verbally abusive customers with some subjected to coffee thrown in their face.”

Back in August 2020, drive-thru Starbucks workers in Victoria, near Mayfair Shopping Centre, also voted to join the Steelworkers. 

“We’re sick of being paid minimum wage to work for a multibillion-dollar company, being understaffed during a global pandemic,” one worker told CTV News. “We don’t like decisions that directly affect our safety being made without us.” 

The workers’ first contract—ratified last June—increased their wages by $2.47 per hour. The contract also secured a signing bonus and, among other benefits, ten days paid leave for those facing domestic violence—double the legal minimum.

Union drives across the United States

Since early December 2021, workers at about a dozen Starbucks locations in the United States have also signed union cards—staring down an “aggressive anti-union effort” from management. 

Starbucks management has taken to nagging workers to vote against unionizing during their time off. The company has held countless mandatory anti-union meetings and tried to renegotiate the terms of union votes. More recently, workers in Buffalo complained the company broke the law in its efforts to deter their organizing drive. 

This isn’t the first time, either. Back in 2008, the U.S. National Labor Relations Board ruled against the company after it illegally fired three workers for their union activities, in New York City.

This time, however, the company’s union-busting efforts appear less effective. Reporting that three new Buffalo locations are slated for a union vote in the coming weeks, the trade magazine Restaurant Business ran with the headline: Starbucks Loses Another Round In Its Struggle To Halt Unionization.

Victory to the workers

According to Starbucks’ most-recent Annual Information Form, the company saw a 24 per cent increase in revenue, to $29.1 billion, in 2021—assisted by massive corporate bailouts in both the U.S. and Canada.

Yet, management still insisted on closing over 800 locations, on understaffing and on union-busting.

The billions in revenue Starbucks reported didn’t come from the sky: its value is generated by the company’s low-wage workers.

Organized, these workers can wrest control of the enormous value they produce. Unionization is the first step in the process of winning long overdue pay raises and the restructuring of the workplace in relation to health and safety. Once achieved, these workers must reach out to their fellow baristas in other companies, which Starbucks actively pushes out of business. Building this working class unity will create a foundation for the future struggles against not just companies like Starbucks, but the system that enables these companies to exploit their workers in the first place.