A few months ago, two Starbucks managers pulled Beck Green aside for a “listening session.”
Green works at an Allston location of the giant coffee chain where workers petitioned to unionize in January — just as they have at 16 other Massachusetts locations and over 200 nationwide since last fall. Now, employees say higher-ups at cafes often lay out the drawbacks of unionizing in conversations.
Bargaining a contract can take years, Green was reminded, and in the meantime, benefits could be frozen.
One looked Green in the eye: “If I were in your position, I would be scared.”
The sessions touch on what eight Boston-area Starbucks employees involved in union efforts feel is a culture of intimidation, aimed at knocking down their campaign. Baristas and shift managers have attended mandatory group or one-on-one meetings where managers are required to roll out scripted antiunion talking points. And sometimes, they say, union-busting strategies extend beyond words.
A Starbucks spokesperson called any union-busting claims “categorically false.”
This spring, several employees experienced significant cuts in hours and increased disciplinary actions from management — a threat to their livelihood. Kylah Clay, an Allston barista, said the company has been telling employees that if the union prevails, they won’t be able to take shifts at other stores or receive scheduled raises.
“Starbucks will do everything in their power to gaslight you, to intimidate you, and to ultimately dissuade you from voting yes on the union,” Clay added.
Either way, the campaign is growing. What started as an underdog effort in Buffalo has found a foothold in Massachusetts. Earlier this month, employees at Starbucks locations in Allston and Brookline unanimously voted to unionize with Workers United, and four additional cafes will count union ballots on May 3.
The Boston City Council also passed a resolution Wednesday afternoon in support of baristas organizing for a union, which called on Starbucks “to immediately renounce its anti-union tactics, agree to fair election principles, [and] negotiate in good faith.”
In this week ALONE, we won 7 elections in Virginia, the first store in Colorado, AND the Seattle Roastery. The NLRB filed for injunctive relief for the reinstatement of fired union leaders in AZ, and now workers are celebrating at Unity Fest. Workers are rising up and WINNING!— SBWorkersUnited (@SBWorkersUnited) April 24, 2022
For many workers, the drop in hours has created an untenable financial situation. Green said they are now scheduled for 20 hours, rather than 28. Mo Chelan in Allston said she lost 10 hours per week and the luxury of “flexible income. All my money goes to rent.” Juniper Fitzgerald, a Cleveland Circle and Brighton Village barista, struggles to make ends meet after the slash in scheduling, too.
“I’m worried about affording housing in the future,” Fitzgerald said. “Boston is not a cheap place to live.”
These employees say that hour-cutting also exacerbated existing understaffing woes in the midst of the ongoing labor shortage. Across the country, a scarcity of front-line workers pushed Starbucks cafes to shorten the hours it is open and raise prices.
“When we’re understaffed, we’re overworked,” said Jeff Bravo, a Cleveland Circle employee for three years. “I’m doing the work of two or three people, especially during closing shifts.”
Store managers are responsible for crafting the schedule, but officials up the rungs of the corporate ladder decide how many hours of labor each cafe can distribute. The Starbucks spokesperson wrote in an e-mail that “to say we are cutting hours wouldn’t be accurate. . . . We schedule to what we believe the store needs based on customer behaviors.”
District managers also visit cafes more frequently now, employees say — which they take as a sign that managers are surveilling baristas’ behavior and discouraging chatter about unions at work. This sometimes translates into a tense relationship with store supervisors.
In Cleveland Circle, Bravo said the manager “seems like he’s feeling threatened by the union effort, ganged up on, and cornered. . . . There’s an ‘us versus them’ mentality and a tension that disappoints me on a personal level.”
A message left for the manager at Cleveland Circle was not returned Tuesday.
Some have also seen an uptick in write-ups for minor offenses — including dress code violations, late arrivals, and incomplete work — and more training on “corrective actions” for managers tasked with disciplining employees.
Starbucks said it enforces its policies consistently.
“A partner’s interest in a union does not exempt them from the standards we have always held,” the company said in a statement.
So far, these concerns have rarely translated into formal complaints. A few workers started second jobs to supplement their income and one employee quit, according to Clay, who is a prominent voice in the movement. Only Naomi Goldstein, a former Newtonville barista, put her allegations on paper with the National Labor Relations Board on March 31.
The 17-year-old planned to file for a leave of absence in March with the intent of returning to work in June — a move that would’ve allowed Goldstein to still vote in the upcoming union election. But the Newtonville store manager allegedly pushed Goldstein to quit instead, the complaint says.
“I felt coerced to put in my two weeks’ notice,” they said.
The NLRB makes decisions about the merits of a charge within 7 to 14 weeks, said spokesperson Kayla Blado.
There have been bigger flareups in other states, such as Arizona and New York, where dozens of Starbucks workers have filed NLRB complaints. Workers from Tennessee to Arizona hosted rallies in support of colleagues they say were unfairly fired for minor infractions or for unionizing at all.
Almost all corporations facing unionization adopt these sort of tactics, said Steve Striffler, director of the labor resource center at the University of Massachusetts Boston. Just look at Amazon, which is facing multiple charges of wrongful termination amid union efforts at its warehouses, he added. But at Starbucks, the employees are front and center. Often, they get to know customers.
“The production is happening in front of us,” Striffler said. “They’re not producing parts in a windowless factory. We can see the magic happen.”
As union efforts grow, Starbucks does not appear to be backing down. In a leaked video call, chief executive Howard Schultz called unions “a new outside force that’s trying desperately to disrupt our company” and last week, he said that new company benefits will likely not apply to unionized locations.
In November, the corporation also hired Littler Mendelson to handle litigation with the NLRB and later advertised a “partner relations manager” position to “help lead through union activity.”
At today's town hall in Seattle, Howard Schultz just said that "there is a group -- an organization -- trying to take our people." Newsflash: Our union isn't trying to take Starbucks' people -- our union *is* Starbucks' people!— SBWorkersUnited (@SBWorkersUnited) April 4, 2022
But that’s of little concern to nearby Starbucks cafes and the Boston coffeehouses — like Pavement, Darwin’s, and Phinista Cafe — on their own organizing path.
“What Starbucks had done and what Howard Schultz is saying — it’s petty,” said Chelan, one of the Allston baristas. “They’re trying to scare us because that’s the only thing he can really do to break up the movement we have started.”
Diti Kohli can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.Follow her on Twitter @ditikohli_.