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Starbucks unbowed as union movement spreads, some see 'head in the sand'

·Reporter
·5 min read

Starbucks (SBUX) has found itself at the center of a budding movement, one that it has taken great pains to fend off.

In the face of the coffee giant's vocal opposition and best efforts to placate restive workers, a unionization drive that began in Upstate New York last year is spreading rapidly. The movement has engulfed about 1200 employees at 60 locations across 19 states — including Oregon, Michigan and Arizona — and is playing a role in the company's firing of several workers in Memphis who were union organizing.

Fifteen of those stores joined the union drive in recent days, petitioning the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to set a vote. The filing of the petition coincides as newly unionized stores in Buffalo start negotiations, and three more locations in that city will have their votes counted on February 23.

“We don't have any say in any decision the company makes at all and we think that unless we are able to unionize that we will never get any sort of seat at the table,” Ky Fireside, a barista in Eugene, Oregon and a lead organizer of the union campaign in that city, told Yahoo Finance last week.

CEO Kevin Johnson gave a nod to workers pushing to unionize, telling Yahoo Finance in a phone interview last week that: “there’s roughly 50 [stores]…that have filed petitions to the NLRB… [but] those have not occurred yet and I think that’s an important thing to point out.”

He acknowledged that the company will follow the protocols needed to have the transitions run smoothly for their workers, while they continue to follow the NLRB’s process.

Union organizers from different stores have called on the CEO to sign a fair election pledge that agrees to a set of principles the union argues is necessary to ensure a transparent vote. In essence, it asked the company to not “waste a bunch of time..fighting us on unionizing” — but Johnson has yet to sign on.

“Each store that's filed has written a letter to Kevin Johnson, whether he's read them or not. I don't know because he’s never replied to us,” said Fireside.

A spokesperson for Starbucks told Yahoo Finance that as a document created by labor activist Richard Bensinger and the union, it is not a legally binding agreement. The spokesperson added that the company will continue to follow the NLRB’s rules and guidelines for the process.

'Putting their head in the sand'

LISBON, PORTUGAL - AUGUST 30: Mask-clad travelers walk by a crowded Starbucks Coffee at the arrivals hall in Terminal 1 in Lisbon Humberto Delgado International Airport on the next to last day of August, coinciding with the end of Summer vacation period in Europe, during the COVID-19 Coronavirus pandemic on August 30, 2021 in Lisbon, Portugal. The busy airport reflects that local and foreign tourism has picked up and life is returning to normal in Portugal as more of the 72% of the population has been already vaccinated against COVID-19.  (Photo by Horacio Villalobos#Corbis/Corbis via Getty Images)
LISBON, PORTUGAL - AUGUST 30: Mask-clad travelers walk by a crowded Starbucks Coffee at the arrivals hall in Terminal 1 in Lisbon Humberto Delgado International Airport on the next to last day of August, coinciding with the end of Summer vacation period in Europe, during the COVID-19 Coronavirus pandemic on August 30, 2021 in Lisbon, Portugal. The busy airport reflects that local and foreign tourism has picked up and life is returning to normal in Portugal as more of the 72% of the population has been already vaccinated against COVID-19. (Photo by Horacio Villalobos#Corbis/Corbis via Getty Images)

Meanwhile, baristas in Arizona have reported confrontational interactions with the corporate office, as as they push to become the third Starbucks store in the country to unionize. The vote count for them is scheduled for February 16th.

Starbucks insists the number of stores considering unionizing is only a fraction of the almost 9,000 stores nationwide, something Johnson reiterated to Yahoo Finance last week. He signaled the labor push would not make a difference in how his business operates.

“It's like they're putting their head in the sand and they're not acknowledging what their workers are telling them,” Cathy Creighton, the director of Cornell University's Industrial and Labor Relations Buffalo Co-Lab, told Yahoo Finance in a phone interview.

Regional Starbucks managers have visited stores that have expressed union interest, in order to address workers concerns. Managers have also held listening sessions, informing employees about why the company opposes unions.

Although the coffee giant boosted its average U.S. employee pay last year, some workers say more can be done.

“If they just had a way to listen to us, to ask us about making these decisions. I know they say that they're raising wages, but I'm still making less than the hazard pay that they took away two years ago,” Fireside said.

More recently, Starbucks got pushback from customers and workers alike after reversing its plan to require its U.S. workers to be vaccinated against COVID-19, or submit to weekly testing.

“They really don't consult us regarding COVID safety or any other matters of safety in the stores," Fireside told Yahoo Finance. "We just kind of wanna be able to be there and have those conversations with them and right now there's just no avenue for us to have those conversations with anyone at the company."

Ex-Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz and Rossann Williams, the current North America president, traveled last year to meet with workers. However, stores that filed in August are just now starting to have “their contract talks,” according to Fireside, who said her "ultimate goal" is to sit down with company representatives.

The barista added: “The two issues that I hear the most from people are wages and COVID safety.”

The swift movement toward unionizing comes at a time when American workers' approval for unions is near its highest in decades. In a September 2021 Gallup poll, 68% of Americans approve of labor unions – the highest reading since a 71% approval in 1965. The survey polled over 1,000 adults.

And approval has increased among nearly all major demographic subgroups since 2016, Gallup said. Currently 86% of union members approve of unions, down from the recent high of 93% in 2019.

However, challenges remain ahead even for Starbucks workers who successfully voted in favor for the measure.

“In America, the employer can just jerk you around for a long time and then there's no guarantee of reaching an agreement,” Creighton said.

“There's no requirement that they reach an agreement with you. They just have to continue bargaining with you until you give up essentially. These people are in for heartache, frustration, exasperation, and they're gonna start feeling like the system is rigged against them.. because it is actually rigged against them,” she added.

Dani Romero is a reporter for Yahoo Finance. Follow her on Twitter: @daniromerotv

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