fb-pixel Skip to main content

In a first for Starbucks, workers agree to form union

Starbucks employees and supporters reacted as votes were read during a viewing of their union election on Thursday in Buffalo.Joshua Bessex/Associated Press

BUFFALO — Starbucks workers at a store in Buffalo voted to unionize on Thursday, a first for the 50-year-old coffee retailer in the United States and the latest sign that the labor movement is stirring after decades of decline.

The National Labor Relations Board said Thursday that workers voted 19-8 in favor of a union at one of three locations in Buffalo. A second store rejected the union in a vote of 12-8. The results of a third store could not be determined because of several challenged votes.

If the labor board certifies the results — a process expected to take about a week — it would be the first for any Starbucks-owned store in the United States to unionize. Starbucks has actively fought unionization at its stores for decades, saying its stores function best when it works directly with employees.

Advertisement



The union votes come at a time of heightened labor unrest in the United States. Striking cereal workers at Kellogg Co. rejected a new contract offer earlier this week. Thousands of workers were on strike at Deere & Co. earlier this fall. And the US labor board recently approved a redo of a union vote at an Amazon warehouse in Alabama after finding the company pressured workers to vote against the union.

Labor shortages are giving workers a rare upper hand in wage negotiations. And Dan Graff, director of the Higgins Labor Program at the University of Notre Dame, said the pandemic gave many workers the time and space to rethink what they want from their jobs.

Starbucks workers watching the vote count on Thursday over Zoom on a big screen at a union office in Buffalo erupted into cheers and chants of “Elmwood, Elmwood, Elmwood!’’ when the results of that location were announced, jumping up and down and hugging each other.

Advertisement



“We still made history,” barista and union organizer Casey Moore told the others watching as it became clear the second store had voted down the union effort.

Workers at all three stores began voting by mail last month on whether they wanted to be represented by Workers United, an affiliate of the Service Employees International Union.

The NLRB began counting ballots Thursday from union elections held at the stores. Around 111 Starbucks workers were eligible to vote by mail starting last month.

“Yes” votes could accelerate unionization efforts at other US Starbucks stores. Already, three more stores in Buffalo and a store in Mesa, Ariz., have filed petitions with the labor board for their own union elections. Those cases are pending.

Kent Wong, the director of the UCLA Labor Center, says that it’s a big deal for even one Starbucks location to vote for a union, calling it “a symbolic victory for the labor movement.’’

Wong noted that it could not only galvanize workers at other Starbucks locations but also at fast food chains.

“People are looking at what is happening in Buffalo,” Wong said.

Union backers at the first three Buffalo stores filed petitions with the labor board in August seeking representation by Workers United, an affiliate of the Service Employees International Union. Those workers say Starbucks’ stores had chronic problems like understaffing and faulty equipment even before the pandemic. They want more input on pay and store operations.

“We have no accountability right now. We have no say,” said Moore, who has been working at a Buffalo-area Starbucks for around six months. “With a union we will actually be able to sit down at the table and say, ‘This is what we want.’”

Advertisement



Starbucks insists its 8,000 company-owned US stores function best when it works directly with its employees, which it calls “partners.” Many employees in the Buffalo area work at more than one store depending on demand, Starbucks says, and it wants to have the flexibility to move them between stores.

Starbucks asked the labor board to hold one vote with all 20 of its Buffalo-area stores, but the board rejected that request, saying store-by-store votes were appropriate under labor law.

In a letter to Starbucks’ US employees this week, Starbucks president and CEO Kevin Johnson reiterated the company’s wish to include all Buffalo-area stores in the union vote.

“While we recognize this creates some level of uncertainty, we respect the process that is underway, and independent of the outcome in these elections, we will continue to stay true to our mission and values,” Johnson wrote.

Johnson also reminded employees of the company’s generous benefits, including paid parental and sick leave and free college tuition through Arizona State University. Late last month, the company also announced pay increases, saying all its US workers will earn at least $15 — and up to $23 — per hour by next summer.