SEIU drops its front in unionizing Starbucks

One of the nation's most powerful labor forces is no longer hiding its role in organizing the chain.
Photograph: Shutterstock

The unionization of Starbucks is starting to look a lot more like a traditional organization drive.

Proponents had insisted that the movement, which now extends to 103 stores, was a homespun phenomenon arising spontaneously throughout the chain’s domestic arm. The narrative held that the baristas-turned-organizers were union neophytes who discovered they shared a desire to have more say on the brand’s direction and store operations, without any choreography from an outside labor force. Few reports even mentioned that the activist employees were receiving advice or financial support from Service Employees International Union (SEIU) through its Workers United affiliate.

But on Tuesday, Workers United stepped from behind the curtain to underscore its role and note its success in organizing the chain. “Make no mistake, we have momentum,” Workers United President Lynne Fox said in a statement.

She called on Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson to acknowledge the union’s inroads by meeting with her for a conversation.

The SEIU is the nation's second largest union, with about 2 million members.

The press release from the group says the number of Starbucks stores looking to form a Workers United collective-bargaining unit has more than doubled in the last three weeks. It also implores baristas of units still on the sidelines to join the movement, using the words of workers who’ve made the commitment.

We’re super excited to join the movement and hope to help inspire more partners around the nation to join us in solidarity!” Devin Martin, a partner at the Willow Lawn Starbucks in Richmond, Va., was quoted as saying. His store is one of the latest to ask the National Labor Relations Board for clearance to hold a vote on becoming a union shop.

(Martin contacted Restaurant Business after this story initially appeared to deny its accuracy and that he had spoken with Workers United.)

Employees of stores in Buffalo, N.Y., where the movement began last August, have revealed that Workers United is paying the legal expenses for petitioning the regulatory board.

The acknowledgment of Workers United’s role in organizing Starbucks comes as the chain itself is settling into a more conventional defensive stance against unionization. Last week the coffee giant aired a new section on its website to highlight its aversion to being organized and point out some of the negative implications that pro-union employees may have missed, like having dues withdrawn from their paychecks and having their compensation negotiated by someone else.

The move was quickly blasted by the pro-union forces within the chain as part of Starbucks’ efforts to bust the union.

Despite the new tone both parties are taking in their public disclosures, only two of Starbucks’ nearly 10,000 corporately run stores in North America have actually unionized. Both are in Buffalo.

Several units in Mesa, Ariz., completed their union balloting last week, but the announcement of the results was postponed because of a challenge by Starbucks of several votes’ legitimacy. The NLRB has seized the ballots and begun an inquiry.

About 7,000 Starbucks in North America are operated by licensees, including colleges, transportation centers and concessionaires. At least some of those stores are operated by union employees.

Correction: In an earlier version of this story, the name of Devin Martin was stated incorrectly. His identity is correct in this version. 


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