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Starbucks workers’ union victory could lead to more coffee shops organizing

Starbucks employees at a Buffalo shop voted to unionize last week, a first for the 50-year-old coffee retailer in the United States.Joshua Bessex/Associated Press

Something new is brewing at coffee shops around the country: organized labor.

In recent months, a number of local coffeehouse workers have formed unions — at Pavement, Darwin’s, and three sister Somerville shops — and now the country’s largest coffee chain has joined the mix, with Starbucks workers at a Buffalo store voting to unionize and campaigns launched at two Boston-area shops.

Suddenly, it seems, the door to organizing baristas is wide open.

The momentum behind the sudden burst of caffeine-fueled activity is driven by a number of converging factors, labor analysts said. Working on the front lines during the pandemic has emboldened workers to push for higher wages and better working conditions. They’re less afraid to confront their employers than in the past because they know companies are desperate to hold on to employees — and there are a vast array of open jobs to fall back on. Coffee shops in particular are often staffed by young people, many of whom are drowning in student-loan debt and dedicated to the rising social justice movement, leading some to advocate for themselves and their co-workers in ways previous generations haven’t.

In 2020, the union membership rate rose half a percentage point to 10.8percent of the workforce, the largest gain since the early 1980s (some of it attributable to the many nonunion workers who lost their jobs). And the biggest increase was among workers age 25 to 34. More than three-quarters of young adults support unions, according to a September Gallup poll.

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Many of those young people are food and beverage workers, an industry where wages are low and health insurance and other benefits are often nonexistent. Less than 2 percent of those employees are unionized, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In other words, these workers — committed to making change, worried they’ll never be able to afford a house, not constrained by family responsibilities, and galvanized by the pandemic — are in the labor movement’s sweet spot.

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“This generation of service-sector workers are going to do what the industrial workers in the ‘30s and ‘40s did and . . . rise up against these big corporations,” said Richard Bensinger, a veteran organizer who is leading the Starbucks campaign for Workers United, an affiliate of the Service Employees International Union. “These workers are going to energize and rebuild the labor movement.”

The high-profile effort in Buffalo — the only union Starbucks store out of nearly 9,000company-owned locations in the United States — has already inspired other coffeehouse workers to reach out, union organizers say, and is sure to inspire more, especially after the forceful anti-union campaign the company ran there. Union drives were already underway at a Starbucks in Mesa, Ariz., and at three additional Buffalo stores. (Of the two other Buffalo shops that held elections last week, one voted down the union and one is being challenged.)

“I have a feeling it’s going to start happening all over the country,” said Kate Bronfenbrenner, director of labor education research at Cornell University’s IRL School. “Starbucks is one of these invincible employers that has declared that it’s union-free. It’s like Walmart and Amazon and Sprint . . . a very wealthy employer that can afford to spend millions and millions of dollars to keep the union out. So when a seemingly invincible employer is organized, that sends a message that anybody can organize.”

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Starbucks is also highly vulnerable to pressure from consumers, whether it’s a boycott or negative social media, which gives the workers leverage, said Robert Kuttner, cofounder and coeditor of The American Prospect, a Brandeis University professor, and an occasional Globe contributor.

“Because of Starbucks’ very carefully cultivated reputation as kind of a hip, good guy, socially aware company, they’re more vulnerable if they look like they’re just another union-busting corporation,” he said. “It’s out of sync with their image.”

The company’s refusal to share more of its growing wealth — it had record revenues of $8.1 billion in the most recent quarter — with employees who have been putting their health at risk during the pandemic is also not a good look, labor advocates note.

Starbucks referred questions about the union to a largely unrelated “holiday message” chief executive Kevin Johnson wrote to employees shortly before the Buffalo vote in which he said “we respect the process that is underway.”

For local coffee shop owners, all of whom have agreed to voluntarily recognize the unions, the challenges are even greater.

Larry Margulies, who owns eight Pavement stores in Boston and Cambridge, said that until September, his business had been losing money throughout the pandemic. He offers health insurance to full-timers on his staff of 160 employees, who make $13.50 an hour to start but take home around $21.50 including tips, he said.

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“I’m a good boss,” he said. “It would have been nice if they unionized at any other time besides when this company was absolutely on its knees begging for survival.”

Margulies said his employees — 90 percent of whom are Gen Z — are being driven less by working conditions than by larger social issues. They’re bringing up criminal justice reform and LGBTQ rights in contract negotiations, he said: “Those things are usually not written into a union contract,” he said. And as much as he understands where his employees are coming from and wants to do right by them, he said, he’s not sure organizing will help.

“Crazy student loans, lack of affordable housing, climate change, an insurrection, COVID — they’re screwed,” he said. “They’re trying to grab power where they can. And kudos to them. But the things that I feel are causing them distress are not going to be solved by unionizing a small local coffee shop.”

“I don’t think that businesses are the stewards of society,” he added. “I think that’s the government’s job.”

The New England Joint Board, Unite Here, which represents Pavement employees (and the other local coffee house workers), said its top priorities are fair wages, safety, and a respectful, compassionate workplace.

“We are proud to demand real solutions ensuring that workers of all backgrounds are treated fairly by their employer,” the union said in a statement to the Globe, “and we are not sure why anyone would take issue with that.”

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Workers have been empowered to act since “the veil was lifted” during the pandemic and they realized how vital their labor is for society to function, said Jasper Torres, a barista at the Starbucks organizing in Coolidge Corner. And that includes protecting people of color and those at risk of injustice in whatever way they can, said Torres, who uses they/them pronouns.

“There’s definitely more of an active effort on my generation’s part to be more aware of those kinds of problems,” they said. “The labor movement is part of that.”

Some Starbucks employees are college graduates who can’t find jobs in their fields, Torres said, including one with a master’s degree who had to move in with her parents during the pandemic. Organizing isn’t necessarily about “negativity” toward the company, they said: “A lot of it is about improving and lifting up everybody so that we have a standard of living that’s acceptable.”


Katie Johnston can be reached at katie.johnston@globe.com. Follow her @ktkjohnston.