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Starbucks workers at Buffalo store win union victory, the coffee giant's first

Starbucks workers from one of the three cafes in Buffalo, New York scored a victory on Thursday, voting to create the coffee giant's first ever union over the company's objections.

An effort fueled by staffing shortages and poor working conditions exacerbated during the pandemic culminated in a victory for organizing. The Regional Labor office counted the eligible votes from the Elmwood Avenue location in Elmwood Village, where 19 eligible workers voted yes compared to 8 who voted against the measure.

"This is a monumental victory for us. This is something that is a dream come true and the courage of all the partners standing here next to me," Alexis Rizzo, a Buffalo worker, said in a press conference following the vote count.

"I never would've believe that we would get to this point and it truly warms my heart that we won today. And I knew we were gonna win, but it's incredible," she added.

However, a separate location on Camp Road in Hamburg, narrowly rejected the union measure, with 12 workers voting against it versus 8 in favor. During the count, two ballots were challenged, one was deemed ineligible, while another was declared invalid.

Results at the Genesee Street store in Cheektowag, where there were 46 eligible workers to vote, were inconclusive. Fifteen of those workers voted in favor of unionizing, while 9 voted against it. But seven ballots were challenged, delaying the results. It was unclear if those ballots will count as valid votes.

"Every partner matters. It’s how we built the company. And how we will continue to run the company. We will continue to focus on the best Starbucks experience we can deliver for every partner and our customers," Starbucks spokesman Reggie Borges told Yahoo Finance.

Meanwhile, the attorney representing the SB Workers United, Ian Hayes, claims that there are ballots uncounted for from the Camp Road store.

Following the vote count, the ballots will need to be certified by the NLRB's regional director, which could take a week. As for the Genesee Street's results, the regional director will have to go through the objections and challenges, which could entail a hearing to resolve.

Employees at stores that voted against a union can petition for another election in a year.

'Protect partner flexibility'

Starbucks workers react as they speak to the media after union vote in Buffalo, New York, U.S., December 9, 2021.  REUTERS/Lindsay DeDario
Starbucks workers react as they speak to the media after union vote in Buffalo, New York, U.S., December 9, 2021. REUTERS/Lindsay DeDario (Lindsay DeDario / reuters)

The next challenge will be negotiating a contract with Starbucks, which strongly opposed the unionization efforts. In a letter sent to staff on Thursday, Starbucks North America President Rossann Williams said for now, the union results entail "no immediate changes."

Previously, Starbucks asked employees to vote down the measure, and in the midst of the union drive had announced plans to hike worker pay to $17 by 2022.

She wrote: "The vote outcomes will not change our shared purpose or how we will show up for each other. We want to protect partner flexibility, transferability and benefits across all stores in a market or a district because we know that's important to partners."

Amid widening support for strikes and collective bargaining spurred by COVID-19, some think the Starbucks vote may have wider implications. According to Johnnie Kallas, a PhD candidate at Cornell’s Industrial and Labor Relations school, “sometimes strikes and union organizing victories can be very contagious."

The vote "could inspire a lot of workers across the country in a low-unionized sector to fight for union rights," he added.

Mail-in voting ended on Wednesday, and the National Labor Relations Board continued vote counts Thursday afternoon. Roughly 100 baristas and shift supervisors from three Buffalo-area stores were eligible to vote, based on the voting list drawn up by Starbucks.

However, the win in Buffalo could lead to other organized labor efforts at other locations. Baristas have also complained about staffing concerns and little control over workplace conditions move toward unionization.

Since the Buffalo campaign, three other nearby stores and a store in Arizona have sought to follow its lead.

The NLRB ruled in favor of the Starbucks Workers United to count the ballots cast in the union election, dismissing a request from Starbucks to stop the ongoing vote.

The Starbucks Workers United hub in Buffalo on November 16, 2021. (Photo by Libby March for The Washington Post via Getty Images)
BUFFALO, NY - NOVEMBER 16: The Starbucks Workers United hub in Buffalo on November 16, 2021. (Photo by Libby March for The Washington Post via Getty Images) (The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Starbucks had attempted to impound the ballots already cast, and requested the NLRB stop the vote entirely, an effort dismissed by labor officials.

“This is exactly why we need a union – so our voices can be heard and we can work to make Starbucks the company we used to love,” Michelle Eisen, a barista at the Elmwood Starbucks, said in a statement in reaction to the NLRB's decision.

In a letter to Starbucks workers, CEO Kevin Johnson explained that he and his team have heard concerns and focused their efforts on recruiting 5,000 new employees weekly and will spend $1 billion in wages, training, hours, new equipment and technology.

He also emphasized the benefits the company provides its workers, including healthcare, company equity, parental and sick leave, and dress code evolution.

“We will work each day to exceed the expectations of our partners as you, in turn, create that great Starbucks Experience for our customers,” Johnson ended the letter. “Second, we will always be transparent and authentic – even when we need to have tough conversations.”

Starbucks' stock (SBUX) fell modestly on Thursday to trade near $115, but remained within view of a 52-week high. Analysts viewed the vote results as neutral to the coffee giant's bottom line, given its size and scale that allows it to absorb higher employee costs.

"At this point, these locations are among a small handful of locations engaging in this process," Brett Levy, executive director at MKM Partners, wrote in a research note on Thursday.

"As a point of reference, the Starbucks domestic footprint covers ~15,450 locations, of which less than 10,000 are operated by the company. Whether this decision remains limited to a handful of units, or a greater subset of the overall domestic landscape, it could serve to increase operational complexity or the pace of implementing initiatives across the system," he added.

The analyst added that if the union drive "creates a tailwind for other concepts to see their employees follow suit, we believe Starbucks could be among a handful of scaled concepts better able to absorb these higher costs."

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

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