The Starbucks unionization vote could mark a shift for the broader food industry

Something could be brewing at the coffee giant.
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Francis Scialabba

· 4 min read

Something could be brewing at Starbucks.

Starbucks workers from three Buffalo, New York, stores are set to begin voting on unionization, and if successful, it could mark a major shift for the broader food industry, labor professors told Retail Brew.

  • No corporate-owned US Starbucks cafes are unionized.
  • Union supporters are looking to be represented by Workers United, an affiliate of the Service Employees International Union.

Drive dive: Union supporters scored a victory last month when the National Labor Relations Board okayed three separate votes for the Buffalo stores, as opposed to what Starbucks was hoping for: a single vote for the block of ~20 Buffalo–area stores.

  • The coffee giant appealed the ruling last week, but ballots were still expected to be sent out to workers while NLRB conducts its review. Roughly 111 workers are eligible, and the votes are expected to be counted by December 9.

Benjamin Sachs, a professor of labor and industry at Harvard Law School, told Retail Brew that splitting the vote does increase the odds in favor of the union supporters. “That seems like a small detail, but that’s probably going to be the difference between victory and loss [for the pro-union workers],” he said.

Add on: Three more Buffalo–area Starbucks locations filed petitions to vote on unionization last week.

“We believe all of our partners in this Buffalo market deserve the right to vote,” Reggie Borges, a Starbucks spokesman, told the New York Times. “Today’s announcement that partners in three additional Buffalo stores are filing to vote underscores our position that partners throughout the market should have a voice in this important decision.” (The company did not respond to Retail Brew for a request for comment.)

Unionizing even one store—given that Starbucks is one of the largest and most visible restaurant chains in the world—could spur a broader labor movement in the food-service sector, Sachs said: “This is a moment where workers are feeling relatively more secure.”

While unions have intensified during the pandemic, he noted, they are far less common in food service.

  • In the last few years, a handful of restaurants made efforts to unionize. Portland’s Burgerville only became the first federally recognized fast-food union in 2018.

In the works

In the case of Starbucks, union supporters point to complaints of understaffing and not enough training; they also want to weigh in on matters of pay. (Starbucks has brought in managers and executives to address issues at those Buffalo stores; Workers United has claimed Starbucks violated labor law.)

“We believe ultimately the most essential issue is having a voice in the workplace, having a democratic workplace where we are able to represent ourselves together collectively,” Brian Murray, a barista, told Intelligencer.

  • Starbucks, for its part, announced last month that it would increase its starting wage to $15 by next summer—as well as its average hourly rate to $17, a bump from $14.
  • It also touts a 401(k) program, paid parental leave, and free college tuition for bachelor’s degrees at Arizona State University’s online program.
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But Lee Howard Adler, a labor and unions professor at Cornell, said it’s important to understand that wages, while important, often aren’t the only factor at play when it comes to unionization efforts.

Broadly speaking, he noted that issues surrounding health and safety amid the pandemic are a major focus across industries, as are inconsistent hours, particularly for workers with children. “That is becoming a very important thing in the initial organizing drives in many of the service industries or in the moderate-income areas,” Adler told us.

In fact, workers across industries are showing signs of unrest.

“What’s new perhaps is the worker’s willingness to stand up and fight for something better. That connects to the broader trends we’re seeing across the economy where workers are refusing to work in conditions that they find increasingly unacceptable or quitting jobs to find something better,” Sachs explained.

  • In September, a record 4.4 million people left their jobs, according to the Labor Department.

With additional reporting by Jeena Sharma.

Retail news that keeps industry pros in the know

Retail Brew delivers the latest retail industry news and insights surrounding marketing, DTC, and e-commerce to keep leaders and decision-makers up to date.