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Starbucks wants a union vote expanded to 20 locations

The coffee giant wants all 450 employees in its Buffalo, N.Y., market to have a say on whether they'll be represented by the Service Employees International Union. A yea vote would mark a milestone in organizing chain restaurants.
Photo courtesy of Starbucks

Facing a drive to unionize three units in Buffalo, N.Y., Starbucks has countered with a request to federal regulators that any vote on joining the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) be expanded to include all 20 stores and 450 employees in the market.

The coffee giant says the expanded balloting would be a truer indication of whether employees, including the workers in the three targeted stores, really want to be represented by a union. Starbucks’ staff members, known as partners, tend to float from store to store in the upstate city, maximizing their hours by working shifts at several units.

Limiting the vote to workers employed at the three stores during a particular point in time would disregard the preferences of partners who might cycle in and out of those cafes. The narrower scope might also hamper the easy movement of employees from store to store, to the detriment of the workers.

“We have borrowed partners, transfers and promotions happening regularly within and across districts, partners share similar job functions, pay and benefits across stores, and the whole Buffalo market is managed by the same set of leaders,” Allyson Peck, Starbucks’ VP heading the region, said in a letter sent to every employee in the area.“We believe this will make this process fair and respectful for every partner in Buffalo.”

A whole-market vote will also make the stores in question more difficult to organize. Instead of having to convince a few dozen partners to vote for collective bargaining, SEIU would need to win the assent of 226 workers, or one more than half Starbucks’ workforce in the area.

If the move should backfire and Starbucks’ whole Buffalo workforce opts to unionize, the vote would mark a milestone in labor’s decades-long effort to organize the chain restaurant business. At present, the biggest restaurant organization to be unionized is believed to be the 20-unit Colectivo Coffee chain, which employs 440 workers across its Midwestern operations. Employees of the brand’s roasting facilities are included in that total.

Starbucks filed its request for a broader vote with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) in response to a request from employees of the three stores that a union election be scheduled. The workers initially asked that the vote be put to the employees of five stores but dropped two units from the request a day later, according to Starbucks.

Organizers did not give a reason for expanding and then narrowing the scope.

Officials of the Seattle-based coffee chain have recently visited units in Buffalo for what they described as listen and learn sessions with employees. SEIU affiliates characterized the confabs as efforts to thwart the organizing effort and bust the union.

Employees who’ve indicated their support for organizing have not aired specific gripes about working at Starbucks. But Peck referred in her letter to operations slipping below the chain’s usual standards. She pledged “urgent action” to rectify the situation.

“We’ve heard and seen firsthand the challenges you’ve faced in your stores,” she wrote. “It’s not okay – and you deserve better.”

The SEIU spinoff formed to represent the Starbucks workers, an entity called Starbucks Workers United, did not respond to a request for comment on Starbucks’ NLRB filing.

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