In January, Kylah Clay started as a barista at an Allston Starbucks just steps from her home. She had recently moved from San Diego to attend Suffolk Law School. And after languishing in isolation “for so long,” Clay said, she needed an escape — and income.
Little did Clay know that just months later, she would be part of a growing coalition of Starbucks employees looking to unionize the country’s largest coffeehouse chain.
Workers at two Massachusetts locations requested votes Monday to join Workers United, an affiliate of the Service Employees International Union. The moves came shortly after a landmark success for workers at a Buffalo location, who voted to unionize last week. (Another Buffalo Starbucks store is waiting for the results of its union election, while a third store voted against unionizing.)
Workers United has also filed for votes at three additional New York sites and another in Arizona.
“Starbucks is a great company to work at, but we think it could be even better,” said Clay, a 23-year-old member of the Allston organizing committee. “Our stores could be even stronger if the baristas on the ground — the people on the floor — had more say. We see this as an opportunity for us to empower one another and get treated as partners by the company.”
Members of the Boston-area organizing committees — for stores at 1304 Commonwealth Ave. in Allston and 277 Harvard St. in Brookline — also sent a letter to Starbucks President and CEO Kevin Johnson on Monday.
“Starbucks’ mission is improving communities one coffee at a time,” it read. “Respecting partners’ rights to organize will help us help the company accomplish this mission, by improving our lives and raising standards across the industry.”
A message from our Boston partners, who just filed for two union elections today: “We are proud to stand in solidarity with our partners in Buffalo and throughout Boston, who have inspired us in the fight for equal bargaining power and a democratic work place!” pic.twitter.com/FT6ES429NO— SBWorkersUnited (@SBWorkersUnited) December 14, 2021
Johnson put out a letter on Dec. 7 referencing the unionization effort. “We respect the process that is underway and, independent of any outcome in these elections, we will continue to stay true to our Mission and Values,” it read.
A Starbucks representative declined to comment further.
Clay and fellow Allston barista Ash O’Neil first reached out to Workers United on behalf of her café in late October after hearing news of efforts around the country. The pair began amassing resources and “slowly and discreetly” strategizing with coworkers, Clay said. The organizing committee grew to eight people.
On Dec. 10, spurred by the action in Buffalo, they distributed union cards to workers at their store. Eighteen of the 27 staff members signed on the first day. Now, 85 percent of Commonwealth Avenue employees have agreed to unionize.
A similar effort was underway on Harvard Street in Brookline.
Barista Jasper Torres garnered support for unionization with a five-member organizing committee starting in September. The store also handed out union cards on Dec. 10, and a dozen employees, out of 20 total, have signed.
Torres, who uses they/them pronouns, was hired in August 2019 and enjoys the camaraderie and environment. But unionization is still vital, they said. They want Starbucks to increase pay for baristas and shift managers in expensive cities like Boston, and do away with at-will employment, which allows companies to terminate employees without probable cause.
“A common misconception, and a narrative that’s being pushed by Starbucks right now, is that unions only form when there’s a bad work environment, which isn’t the case,” said Torres, 23. “I like my store. I really like my co-workers, and I like the environment. But I still want to unionize because I want a democratic environment for everyone to work in.”
Organizing committee members told the Globe that Starbucks representatives have not contacted either location about the union efforts, as of Tuesday afternoon.
But Starbucks district manager Phil Mann visited the store on Monday afternoon, hours before employees announced their intention to unionize, for a “strange conversation” about how great the store is, Torres said. “It felt unnatural to me.”
And in a listening session with Starbucks executives recently with employees at Buffalo locations, Torres said higher-ups emphasized that they do not want a third party to “come between” the executives and employees.
“But the union is the workers,” Torres said. “It’s not some third party.”
The local Starbucks effort took heed from several coffee shops where employees have unionized this year, including Pavement Coffeehouse, Darwin’s, and three Somerville cafes. In Somerville, the cafes’ shared management voluntarily recognized DBF United — comprised of employees from Diesel Cafe, Bloc Cafe, and Forge Baking Company — on Dec. 9.
Clay said additional Boston-area stores are in contact with Workers United, though she would not disclose which ones. Starbucks operates more than 40 locations within city limits, according to its website.
The hope among organizers is that the desire to unionize will spread through the city’s baristas, and then through the country.
“But we know there are a lot of other people out there who are watching us,” Clay added. “It’s a difficult decision that each store has to make.”
Update: An earlier version of this story did not clarify that the listening session was between Starbucks executives and employees at Buffalo locations.