Photo: Pacharah Aroonsongsook/Getty Images/EyeEm

The Unavoidable Fight to Unionize Starbucks in New York

“It’s tiring to be called a ‘partner’ and not be heard.”

Photo: Pacharah Aroonsongsook/Getty Images/EyeEm

On December 9, Starbucks workers at two stores in Buffalo took an enormous step toward organizing the coffee chain’s labor force when they voted to form a union with Workers United. In the two and a half months since then, the drive has spread around the country: Right now, the number of stores petitioning to unionize has grown to more than 100, including half a dozen in New York City and Long Island.

I spoke with the employees who are leading the movement here to ask about the unique set of challenges that organizing in such a huge market might present, and to learn more about the Starbucks union push more broadly. Here are the big takeaways from my conversations:

Right now, this area’s union push includes three New York City stores, two Long Island stores, and a manufacturing team.

The full list of locations where workers have declared their intention to unionize is a Starbucks Roastery in the Meatpacking District; cafés in Bath Beach, Brooklyn, and Astor Place; and additional cafés in Great Neck and Massapequa in Nassau County. The Meatpacking District roastery is a 23,000-square-foot, three-story facility that serves as something of a flagship location for the chain, which runs somewhere around 300 locations within New York City alone. (At the Meatpacking location, the Reserve Roastery café and Manufacturing team are organizing as distinct entities.)

This union push is being seen as a bellwether of change for labor organizing more broadly.

Last month, the Hill posed the question, “Will the Starbucks union victories ignite organizing across the country?” This isn’t just some empty rhetorical exercise, either: Some early promise seen by organizers has already been fulfilled. In January, labor-studies professor John Logan told the New York Times, “In terms of creating a moment for unions, if you organized 100 stores, it would be the biggest thing that happened in 50 years.” Nationwide, broad support for labor unions is currently at 68 percent, according to one Gallup poll, which Recode notes is the highest it’s been since 1965.

The Starbucks workers I spoke with say that unionization has been a relatively easy sell. “We didn’t have a huge amount to deal with to get things rolling, largely because our co-workers were already very amicable to the idea of a union,” says Revna Charasz, an employee at the Great Neck store. (That location employs about 15 workers, they say.)

Cynthia Villafane, a member of her Bath Beach store’s organizing committee, says she also identified a need to organize: “My second year, I was already having the mentality, like a union just seems right.” Growing up in Manhattan, Villafane’s mother worked a union job for the post office, which she says made her aware of the benefits even as overall union membership had plummeted. “I think it was just about everyone finally feeling like they wanted their own voice. It’s tiring to be called a ‘partner’” — the internal designation Starbucks uses for its employees — “and not be heard.”

Organizing workers are concerned about the potential for replacement workers, but also say stores have struggled to hire for their available roles.

“Probably the most obvious challenge in New York is just the sheer number of people,” says Mark Mao, who works at the Roastery, when asked about any challenges that might be unique to organizing in the city. “Obviously it’s not legal, but if they try to decide who the right people are, or fire people, they can technically get more workers to come in as replacements.”

But the potential labor pool is viewed as less of a threat right now, since workers say stores are dealing with the same hiring problems that have plagued the hospitality industry in recent months. At the Roastery, Mao says they’ve been trying unsuccessfully to hire a maintenance mechanic for a couple months, and that they don’t have enough staff to perform some strenuous jobs properly.

As the pandemic has slowed, Mao explains, many employees opted not to return to work. It wasn’t a problem in the early days of reopening when business was slower, but as things have picked up, Mao says they discovered that the number of staff is, in his words, “inadequate,” an issue exacerbated by the number of new employees who needed to be trained. The Roastery became “a revolving door,” as he puts it. “It just feels like, Okay, my job is getting harder. I’ve worked through this pandemic with you, but it just seems like the staff is not being acknowledged or recognized for the work that they’ve done,” Mao adds.

Charasz, from the Great Neck store, says they have the same problems at their location. “COVID was definitely a big catalyst in this particular mass movement of baristas and shift supervisors at Starbucks wanting their rights at this particular time.”

Starbucks is pushing back.

While the corporate wing of Starbucks says it will respect the legal process, unionizing employees say the company has been obstructing their efforts. After finding out workers were trying to unionize, Starbucks parachuted in management to address concerns at all 20 locations in the area, which prompted unionizing workers to file charges with the National Labor Review Board accusing Starbucks of surveillance and intimidation. The entire organizing committee of a Memphis store was fired earlier this month. More recently, Starbucks fired one of the Buffalo employees, Cassie Fleischer, who helped start the unionization effort after she informed management of her intention to work part-time. In Mesa, Arizona, the counting of votes was delayed after Starbucks challenged a ruling by the regional NLRB director. ​​Meanwhile, in a recent weekly update for employees, the company linked to a website called “We Are One Starbucks” that Charasz characterizes as “anti-union propaganda.”

The New York workers say they won’t be intimidated.

The Memphis firings were a catalyst for organizing in the New York area. “A few of my co-workers and I got together and did a little sort of showing support,” Charasz says. “Just holding up the sign saying that we stand with Memphis.”

In Bath Beach, Villafane, who is part of her own store’s organizing committee, says that the incident led to some conversations. “They were fired and it sounds scary, but if they’re being fired wrongfully — that’s just proof that we’re doing the right thing.”

Staff at the unionizing stores are talking about what the next few weeks and beyond will look like.

At the moment, Mao says his co-workers are focused on getting things at his store in order so a vote can happen, and to prepare for “whatever tactics” the company may employ leading up to the vote. The downstate New York locations are hoping to vote on March 3, but Mao says he’s anticipating Starbucks while trying to delay the vote, like it did in Arizona. In the meantime, staff members are trying to figure out how they’ll navigate work after the vote. According to Mao, one big talking point has been about picking up shifts at non-unionized stores. “If you talk to anybody who wants to do that, it’s just because they don’t have enough hours at the current store,” Mao says. “They were being under-scheduled while other stores are still understaffed.”

The Unavoidable Fight to Unionize Starbucks in New York