A new chapter in the saga of the Starbucks workers’ union drive is now unfolding. After being hit with a wave of retaliatory firings of union organizers across the U.S. in recent months, workers have responded in kind with a string of walkouts and strikes. In total, there have been at least 55 job actions across 17 different states. A video of one of the walkouts in Buffalo caused such a stir that it accumulated 27 million views and 4 million likes on TikTok, showing that there is immense public sympathy for the workers’ cause.
In their strike action, the workers have demanded reinstatement of their victimized colleagues, and an end to the company’s union-busting efforts. Some have walked out for a limited number of days, whereas others have gone on indefinite strikes. All of them are united in their demand for union rights, a demand which they now must realize they are not going to get without a determined fight.
In the process of all this, the Starbucks corporation and its billionaire CEO Howard Schultz have revealed their true faces. While they like to refer to their employees as “partners”, it will be clear to many of these workers now that they are in fact mere commodities in the eyes of their employers, and were never meant to have a voice. They have dared to raise this voice through their union organizing efforts, and this has led Schultz and his cronies in management to move decisively to crush them.
Where the drive stands
As of present, 343 stores across 36 states have filed union election petitions. Of these 211 have already been certified or won their union vote, with 47 more still awaiting their turn. In Canada, four stores in Victoria, Calgary, Surrey, and Langley have won their votes and been recognized, with at least a half dozen more having filed for one.
It is incredible that the vast majority of this has taken place over just the last 10 months. In the initial period from November 2021 to January 2022, a modest yet impressive 39 stores filed petitions for a vote. Over the next three-month period from February to April, however, this number soared to 203! Over the most recent four months, petitions have declined to just 94, with only five recorded in August.This could signal the end of at least the first wave of stores unionizing, but this is by no means certain.
Across both Canada and the U.S., it helps to put the matter into perspective when you realize that there are more than 10,000 Starbucks locations in total. The 350 or so stores that have officially filed for a vote represent a mere four per cent of this number. There are certainly hundreds of more stores where union drives have started, but which have not yet met the legal threshold to file for a vote. Regardless of the precise number, the point here is that there is immense potential for subsequent waves that could be even larger than the first.
In the beginning, Workers United, an affiliate of the Service Employees International Union, set about organizing coffee stores in just a single state—New York—in 2017. Progress at first was slow, and eventually cut across by the pandemic. By August 2021, however, likely radicalized by the experience of the latter, 50 workers from 18 of the 20 Starbucks stores in Buffalo formed a citywide committee. A few months later, the Elmwood store became the first of these 18 stores to file for a union vote. As news spread of this initial success, mutual connections between workers in Buffalo and those in other cities led the drive to spread. From this point the wave really took off, lighting a spark of combustible material that had been gathering from years of overwork and underpay.
At the peak of the wave in April, Starbucks announced that Howard Schultz would be returning as interim CEO. Schultz had previously held the position from 1986 to 2000, and again from 2008 to 2017. He had seen the company through the critical transition of going public in 1992, and then helped it weather the storm of the great crash in 2008. All of this was achieved, of course, on the backs of the workers.
Over these years, the profitability of Starbucks led Schultz to become a very wealthy man, today worth an estimated $4 billion according to Forbes. Before the union drive blew up, he was likely relaxing on his $140-million yacht, replete with helipad, onboard spa facilities, and a glass-bottomed swimming pool. Called back into service once again to defend the holy grail of profit, he surely could not refuse the opportunity to put his “partners” back into their place.
Reaction selectively gives with the left hand…
In May, Schultz announced that a wage increase and new benefits were to be granted to Starbucks employees across the country, amounting to a $1-billion investment. Those hired since May 2 would receive a three per cent raise, whereas those with two to five years on the job would receive a five per cent increase—with the most senior staff with over five years’ experience receiving a seven per cent bump. New benefits included student loan refinancing, enhanced in-app tipping options for customers, and profit-sharing initiatives.
Aside from the fact that these wage increases are still below inflation, there was yet another major caveat. Stores that had unionized were not to be included in this billion dollar bag of goodies! The company argued that it could not legally extend the offer without first bargaining with the new union. The National Labour Relations Board (NLRB) stated exactly the contrary on Aug. 24, arguing that Starbucks illegally withheld these improvements from unionized stores in order to discourage the further spread of the union drive. The NLRB ordered Starbucks to extend these wage and benefit increases across the board, including back pay to the union stores, and demanded that Schultz read a statement to workers affirming their union rights.
…to better prepare to strike with the right hand
This selective wage and benefit increase was merely the opening gambit in a systematic and ramped up union-busting campaign under Schultz’s oversight. Examples from across the country show a steady and increasing stream of management surveillance and harassment at stores where drives were underway. District and regional managers who were typically not present would suddenly start showing up at these stores on a regular basis, closely scrutinizing daily work routines and holding meetings with workers that the latter described as “interrogations”. These managers were in the end looking for any minor violations of company rules that they could use as a pretext for firing union organizers, or making them up when no such reason could be found. In one case, a worker was fired as a result of being written up while working an understaffed drive-thru, in what amounted to their first and only write-up in 18 months of employment!
To date, 295 unfair labour practice complaints have been submitted to the NLRB by Starbucks workers. The company has even gone so far as to close stores, in two cases in Kansas City and Seattle not long after a petition for a union election was submitted! Overall, 19 stores have been closed in recent months, 42 per cent of which had prior union activity. Compared to the 0.2 per cent of stores nationwide that this number represents, it is clear that unionizing stores are being targeted with a scorched-earth policy.
Management’s offensive has taken its effect. Aside from the slowdown in stores applying for a union vote, the success rate of petitions fell from a high of 83 per cent of those originally submitted in March, to 63 per cent of those submitted in May, and only 50 per cent in June. If it proves to be the case that the company has managed to halt the spread of the drive, it will likely turn to organizing decertification drives at the 200+ stores which have already voted for a union.
Workers fight back
The company’s aim in all of this appears to be to roll the clock all the way back, and to completely eliminate the “threat of unionization”, as Schultz put it back in April. Class consciousness is a tricky thing, however, and once it has been let out of the bottle, there is no stuffing it back in. After just a few initial strikes in March and April in response to retaliation efforts, seven stores walked out in May. In Portland, management brought in scabs during a 24-hour walkout. Workers actively picketed outside throughout the morning, managing to convince every other customer to turn away, and by noon the store shut down completely for the day.
A Boston store has been on indefinite strike for over a month, making it officially the longest strike in Starbucks history. U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders joined their picket line in solidarity on Aug. 21, supporting their demand to remove or reprimand their store manager for retaliatory efforts made against the union. In total, the 55 strikes that have taken place over the last few months have caused $375,000 in lost revenue for Starbucks. The Starbucks Workers’ Union (SWU), a body created by organizers to coordinate their efforts, has with the support of Workers United created a $1-million strike fund to supplement lost wages while on the picket lines to support the fight.
What way forward?
These are all positive steps forward. But to give SWU the best possible chance of victory, more must be done. After the initial explosion of union organizing in the early months of the year, workers have been put on the back foot by the company’s coordinated offensive. In war, however, it is often said that the best defense is a good offense, and so Starbucks workers must prepare to go back on the offensive. Spontaneous, isolated strikes against reprisals must give way to coordinated national strike action of hundreds of stores simultaneously, complemented by mass rallies mobilizing public sympathy. Millions of views on TikTok are nice, but ultimately this must be translated to the movement on the streets if it is to have a real effect on the struggle.
Many workers have been encouraged by the role the NLRB has played in calling out the company for its obvious union busting. It should also be remembered, however, that this government body cannot force Starbucks to do anything it does not want to do. And not only has the company ignored its pleas, but it has even attacked the NLRB, accusing it of being biased in favour of the workers and calling for a halt to any future union elections.
To any worker who has been on strike or studied the history of union struggles, the idea that the government would be biased towards workers is laughable. The bourgeois state in almost all respects acts as an executive committee for managing the affairs of the capitalist class as a whole. If any one arm of the state steps out of line, in this regard, it is typically brought to heel. If the Biden Democrats won’t do their dirty work for them, the Republicans will surely crack the whip against the NLRB when they get their turn. It is for these reasons that Starbucks workers must hold no illusion in the NLRB or any other government bodies to come to their aid. They must learn to trust only in their own strength, and that of active solidarity of the broader working class and oppressed masses.
Despite comprising the overwhelming majority of society, workers often find themselves on the losing end because they lack organization and leadership. Throughout the Starbucks union drive thus far, a whole new layer of worker leaders have arisen, organizing themselves and their co-workers in the process through struggle. This process must be extended and deepened going forward if the SWU is to survive and consolidate itself, putting itself on the best possible footing to negotiate a first contract. The entire labour movement must rally behind this cause, providing material resources, and mobilizing their members in solidarity action whenever called upon. A victory for one is a victory for all, after all, and the Starbucks workers through their inspiring fight have provided an example which can and should motivate others to follow in their footsteps.
Solidarity with Starbucks Workers United!
Escalate the fight to put an end to union busting!
Fight for a first contract with a living wage tied to inflation!