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Starbucks workers in Baltimore area join movement to unionize workplace

·6 min read

Starbucks baristas in the Baltimore area have joined a fast-growing national movement to unionize the giant coffee chain shop by shop amid working conditions that they say have worsened during the coronavirus pandemic.

The retailer, meanwhile, has objected to petitions filed by individual stores around the United States and taken steps to convince workers they’ll be worse off with “a union between us.”

Workers at Starbucks on North Charles Street in Mount Vernon and in Linthicum in Anne Arundel County want to unionize, joining workers at more than 120 U.S. Starbucks that have filed to hold elections.

In the North Charles Street cafe, business has steadily picked up, and workers say they find themselves too often running out of supplies, short-staffed on shifts and feeling pressured to stay late or come in when sick. Worse, many say, is the perception that the company dismisses their concerns, seeming to spend money to fight organizing workers instead of fixing problems they encounter day to day.

“The people making the decisions don’t know what it’s like to work as a barista at a store,” said Kieren Levy, 21, a Bolton Hill resident who works both at Starbucks and as a tattoo artist. “It’s just difficult, and we deserve to have better working conditions and better pay.”

Starbucks touts its benefits, such as Bean Stock, shares of company stock employees can earn, and said it will raise wages to at least $15 per hour by this summer. Pay for hourly employees, called “partners,” will average $17 an hour.

“From the beginning, we’ve been clear in our belief that we are better together as partners, without a union between us, and that conviction has not changed,” a Starbucks spokesperson said in an email. “Starbucks success — past, present, and future — is built on how we partner together, always with our mission and values at our core.”

The friction between Starbucks and its workers is not out of the ordinary for such labor-management disputes. But workers in general are feeling they have more bargaining power given the labor shortages and wave of resignations that emerged during the pandemic, said Jeremy Schwartz, associate professor of economics at Loyola University Maryland.

“Workers feel empowered to take the step now,” especially as employers during the health crisis raised wages and boosted benefits to attract talent, he said. “If there is a time when workers had more bargaining power, it’s probably now.”

Still, it’s an uphill battle for workers. Labor unions have been weakening for decades — just under 11% of U.S. workers were represented by a union in 2020, down from about 20% in 1983, federal data shows. And bargaining might prove even more difficult once more people decide to return to the workforce.

“Unions in the U.S. have been completely decimated in the private sector,” Schwartz said. “It is hard to believe that’s going to reverse course.”

In the Baltimore area, baristas and shift supervisors said they were inspired by Starbucks workers in Buffalo, New York, where the unionization movement started last year. Since then, Starbucks has not voluntarily recognized a union at any store where workers made a request.

Workers United, an affiliate of SEIU, has consequently filed petitions on behalf of workers at various stores with the National Labor Relations Board to pave the way for votes on whether to create bargaining units.

Starbucks has objected, filing requests for review with the labor board, and arguing it’s inappropriate to place bargaining units at single stores rather than a collection of stores in a district. The NLRB generally has disagreed, allowing elections to proceed.

But so far, only three corporately owned stores have unionized, two in Buffalo in early December and one in Mesa, Arizona, on Feb. 25. That’s out of about 9,000 corporate stores in the U.S.

Baltimore-area employees carefully watched the outcome of the Arizona vote, which had been scheduled for earlier in February but was delayed after Starbucks requested a review. NLRB denied Starbucks’ request, allowing the workers to vote. The Mount Vernon store workers now are awaiting a decision on their own election after attending an NLRB hearing where Starbucks raised objections.

The vote outcomes “will not change our shared purpose or how we will show up for each other,” a Starbucks executive recently told its employees in a letter.

“We will keep listening, we will keep connecting, and we will keep being in service of one another because that’s what we’ve always done,” said Rossann Williams, president of Starbucks North America, after the Buffalo union vote.

Even the few victories for Starbucks workers have been enough to spur local employees to take action. The movement has spread organically, often through social media, and workers from numerous Maryland stores have sought guidance, said Stephanie Hernandez, a local organizer for Workers United.

Violet Sovine, a barista in the Mount Vernon store, said she sees union representation as an expression of democracy in the workplace.

“For me personally, it’s ideological,” rather than about specific issues, Sovine said. “It would allow us to hash out disagreements we have between ourselves then speak to Starbucks with one unified voice.”

Sovine believes unions are key to solving broader problems in the food service industry, such as “the fact that we aren’t paid enough to live comfortable lives.”

The coffee shop workplace environment is fast-paced, Levy said, much more so than in a previous retail job at Target. The barista whips up coffee drinks as well as working the register and washing dishes in a given shift.

“For the work that me and my co-workers do, we are underappreciated and underpaid and also understaffed, and it’s something that’s been frustrating to me since I started,” Levy said. “It’s high-stress. People need breaks, and people work through breaks to get things done.”

Levy and more than a dozen co-workers notified the company of plans to unionize in a letter sent to Starbucks President and CEO Kevin Johnson. It said the store’s majority LGBTQ staff is united on most fronts and works well with the store manager but that conditions during the past couple of years have taken a toll mentally and physically.

“We make Starbucks products for less than living wages and receive none of the profit, all the while being offered benefits that in no way equal our efforts,” the letter said. “We experience abuse from customers, malfunctioning equipment, unsafe working conditions, chronic understaffing and a complete lack of agency within our workplace.”

After the letter was sent, district managers held meetings to try to persuade workers to back down, saying that nothing they want will come from a union.

The company has been “terrorizing” workers who dare to organize, said Rebecca Hess, organizing director for the mid-Atlantic regional joint board of Workers United.

“The anti-union campaign has been really aggressive and frightening if people are not prepared for it,” she said.

Employees in the Linthicum store used their union notification letter to Starbucks to call on the CEO to end “the campaign of union busting.”

Workers said they have been disappointed with the company’s treatment of Buffalo employees as they sought to unionize. Since that vote, workers in Buffalo have reported being told they must increase schedule availability or risk losing their jobs.

“Resources have been used to stop the unionizing of our fellow partners, instead of shifting those resources to provide the relief we’ve been asking for,” said the letter signed by 18 of the Linthicum store workers.

It urged the company to “allow your partners to advocate for a better working environment without fear of retaliation.”