Starbucks employees start a unionization drive

About 50 workers in at least 18 Buffalo, N.Y., stores say they've filed for a vote on representation by SEIU.
Photo courtesy of Starbucks

A group of employees from at least 18 Starbucks cafes in Buffalo, N.Y., have taken steps to form a union affiliated with Service Employees International Union (SEIU), one of labor’s largest representatives of restaurant workers.

The group calls itself the Organizing Committee of Starbucks Workers United and indicated it represents at least 49 Starbucks employees in the city. Representatives have stated in media interviews that the group has the support of a majority of employees in at least five of the 20 Starbucks units in the area. Under federal regulations, a vote on unionizing can be scheduled for a workplace if at least 30% of employees indicate they’d welcome the representation.

The group said it filed a request with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) on Monday to hold an election.  If permission is granted and a majority of workers opt for union representation, the workers would form a chapter of Workers United, an upstate New York affiliate of SEIU.

The formation of the chapter would also mark a major step forward in organized labor’s decades-long effort to organize the restaurant industry, the nation’s second-largest private employer, behind healthcare. Chains in particular have been a major target because of their size, high percentage of entry-level workers, and public visibility.

Despite those efforts, few establishments outside of hotels and casinos have been organized. But union proponents have enjoyed recent success, including NLRB approval for employees of the 20-unit Colectivo Coffee café chain to be represented by two affiliates of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. Including its roasting operations, Colectivo employs 440 workers in Milwaukee and Madison, Wisc., and Chicago, making it one of the largest restaurant operations to be unionized.

The Starbucks group aired its organizing plan last week in a public letter directed at chain CEO Kevin Johnson. The communication, amicable in nature, argued that the formation of a union would make employees true partners in running the business and greatly help the chain realize its mission of serving communities.  

It did not raise any complaints about wages or working conditions, though it contended that a Starbucks union would raise the living standards of the whole restaurant industry.

“When we are heard, we have equal power to affect (sic) change and get things done,” the letter reads. “We are forming a union to bring out the best in all of us…We believe that the best way to truly inspire and nourish the human spirit is to organize for greater justice, greater equality and a greater vision of what life can be.”

It implores Starbucks’ management to pledge its support for what the workers set as Fair Election Principles or eight guidelines for organizing process. Included are a pledge from Starbucks that it would not retaliate against union supporters.

"We respect our partners’ right to organize but believe that they would not find it necessary given our pro-partner environment," said Jory Mendes, Starbucks' senior manager of corporate communications. 

"While Starbucks respects the free choice of our partners, we firmly believe that our work environment, coupled with our competitive compensation and benefits, makes unions unnecessary at Starbucks'" Mendes said.  

The unit-level benefits include what Starbucks calls bean stock--restricted stock units (RSUs) awarded to employees as part of their compensation packages. The grants are intended part to make employees actual partners by giving them a shot at equity. RSUs held by an employee who stays for an additional two years are turned into Starbucks stock.

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