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Starbucks workers in Buffalo, N.Y., vote to join a union

Employees at one store agree to unionize in a historic vote that gives organized labor a foothold in one of the largest restaurant chains in the country.
Photo courtesy of Starbucks

Employees of a Starbucks location in Buffalo, N.Y., voted to join a union, a historic vote that represents a major victory for organized labor in its years-long effort to unite restaurant industry workers.

Employees at one of three locations voted in favor of joining Starbucks Workers Union. The move gives labor activists a foothold inside one of the largest restaurant chains in the country.

But workers rejected the unionization bid at a second store. A third store remains uncertain due to challenged ballots.

Nevertheless, a union victory at one store could energize their activists at other locations around the country. Already, workers at a Starbucks location in Mesa, Ariz., have started organizing to potentially join the union.

The vote could also energize union activists at other restaurant chains. Labor organizers have long viewed the restaurant industry as a potentially fertile ground for membership given its large number of low-paid workers employed in an often stressful environment.

Unions have been pushing for years to organize at companies like McDonald’s and many other chains. Thus far, their victories have been limited to small chains and independent concepts.

“The goal would be to get them to the bargaining table as soon as possible to negotiate a new contract,” Michelle Eisen, an employee at one of the three stores whose staff members are voting, said last week. “We’re hoping that when we win next Thursday that they’re going to do an about face and recognize that this is where we are, that this is the future of our industry.”

It’s also a sign that workers have gained momentum in pushing for changes at restaurants during a brutal labor shortage. Restaurants desperate for more workers and facing limited hours or reduced services have raised pay and benefits and searched for ways to make employees’ jobs easier.

The campaign itself has received considerable attention and brought some of Starbucks’ top executives to Buffalo in a bid to convince workers to vote against the union.

“Macro challenges have created even more pressure for our stores, and all of you,” CEO Kevin Johnson wrote in a letter to employees earlier this week. “We have heard you, and we are making progress on the toughest obstacles – increasing recruiting staff across the U.S., hiring 5,000 new partners each week, investing an unprecedented $1 billion in wages, training, and hours, deploying new equipment and technology and continuing to support leaders in markets across the country.”

Longtime former CEO Howard Schultz himself traveled to Buffalo and wrote a letter on behalf of the company.

“What the leadership team has done in Buffalo is what we have always done,” he wrote in a message called “From Buffalo with love.”

“We listen. We learn. We get better together. No partner has ever needed to have a representative seek to obtain things we all have as partners at Starbucks. And I am saddened and concerned to hear anyone thinks that is needed now.”

But voters opted to reject those overtures. The Starbucks Workers Union also filed complaints against the company, arguing that it engaged in a campaign to intimidate employees and vote against the union.

UPDATE: This story has been updated to include additional information. 

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