Photo By: Val Dunne Photography/Shutterstock.com

In early December of last year, employees of a Starbucks located in Buffalo, New York voted to join a union, spurring many other workers of the coffeehouse chain across the United States to take organising action in the following weeks. 

The Elmwood Avenue Starbucks in Buffalo is the first of over 9,000 corporate Starbucks locations to successfully form a union in the US. This came to fruition after organising efforts began in August 2021. Two other Starbucks stores in Buffalo voted to join a union as well following the Elmwood Avenue location’s victory, in which one voted in favour and the other against.

Ever since, Starbucks workers have joined up with United Workers, an American/Canadian union representing roughly 85,000 workers across multiple industries, in their efforts to organise.

We [Starbucks Workers United (SWU)] have received a lot of support for Buffalo Starbucks from partners across the country who were inspired by our victory.  We will need their support as we begin our negotiations for a union contract. Starbucks is still campaigning against the union intensely here in Buffalo and across the US where other Starbucks locations have petitioned the Labor Board to conduct union votes,” said a representative of SWU who wished to remain anonymous. 

Many new issues have emerged, and longstanding issues exacerbated, for workers since the onset of the pandemic, from the global supply chain struggling to keep up with demand, to worker shortages due to stressful work environments and inadequate pay. In service jobs, such as being a barista at Starbucks, workers deal with customers face-to-face constantly, making them more likely to contract COVID-19 which may account for the sudden spark of labour organising across the US as of late.

“The experience of the pandemic revealed to us ‘essential workers’ that we did not have sufficient tools to stand up for our own health and safety, and that we needed to unionise to have a say in our working conditions. Throughout the industry, companies made arbitrary decisions based on corporate interests, and put the safety of their workers at a distant second. This trauma seared into us the essential role that unions play in giving workers power, which in extreme circumstances can mean the difference between life and death,” said the anonymous SWU representative. 

Recently, employees from the Buffalo location walked out, citing concerns of unsafe working conditions. SWU has been asking the coffee chain for N95 masks, hazard pay, and testing kits for workers in the ongoing negotiations. 

Starbucks has had a history of unionisation attempts since the 1980s, all of which failed as a result of fierce corporate opposition. In terms of this recent push, the National Labour Relations Board (NLRB) accepted the three aforementioned Buffalo locations’ unionisation attempts in spite of Starbucks wanting to pool twenty locations in one vote, which critics saw as an attempt to dilute the vote. Still, despite the successful vote at the Elmwood Avenue location, opposition is still at play according to the SWU.

“The company used an overwhelming force to try to squash the Buffalo uprising. The scorched earth policy consisted of an invasion of more than 100 executives and managers from around the country to Buffalo for the duration of the campaign, the temporary closing of pro-union stores, constant surveillance, the ‘captive audience’ meetings where Starbucks made it clear that workers would be worse off if we dared to unionise, implying that we would lose benefits,” said the anonymous SWU representative. “They have falsely claimed that the union is some ‘outside third party,’ when in fact our union is simply us, the workers. Corporate Starbucks refers to the workers as ‘partners,’ but as soon as we decided to join together for a true partnership and seat at the table, they pulled out their vicious anti-union campaign.”

With the Omicron variant surging across North America, worker shortages and layoffs have been on the rise, naturally leading to tensions between workers, employers and government in trying to sort out safety measures while not losing business. The workers organisation at Starbucks has taken the main stage in representing the struggles of the pandemic on the work environment.

“We are excited for the start of negotiations with Starbucks, and we look forward to winning a contract that embodies justice, sustainability and equity,” said the anonymous SWU representative. 

The future results of the Elmwood Avenue location unionisation efforts will shed light on the truth behind the term ‘essential workers,’ proving whether it has actually been used in good faith or simply as a smokescreen to obscure the role employers have played in making workplaces less safe during the pandemic. Only time will tell.