At 4 a.m. on Friday, before the sun painted the Prudential Center orange and Green Line trains lurched past the Amory Street station, Kveten Nerudova settled into a folding chair on Commonwealth Avenue. She tousled her curly hair and straightened a shirt that read “Capitalism Broke My Heart.”
For the next eight hours or so, Nerudova repeated a well-worn spiel to passersby: “We are here on behalf of Starbucks workers,” she said. “They’re on strike. Would you like to learn more?”
It’s a telling glimpse into a now-historic union effort on this stretch of sidewalk near Boston University, where 20 Starbucks employees have been on strike, 24/7, for nearly a month, the longest documented action ever against the coffeehouse chain. Flocks of everyday people — teachers, truck drivers, and white-collar workers — have helped staff the picket line, too. Together, they’ve kept the store shuttered for 29 days.
The Starbucks workers, who voted to unionize in June, say they’re fighting for a fairer workplace and the termination of their interim store manager, Tomi Chorlian. In just a month on the job, workers say, she engaged in union-busting efforts and discriminated against LGBTQ and minority employees.
A Starbucks representative directed the Globe to a July 23 statement, where company said it “respect the rights of workers to participate in a legally protected strike.” (Chorlian did not respond to requests for comment.)
The action comes as part of a national wave of efforts to organize Starbucks. Since last December, workers at more than 200 locations have unionized, with several going on strike in short bursts. In early August, workers at five other Massachusetts Starbucks locations walked out for a week in solidarity of Commonwealth Avenue workers and to protest new company benefits that exclude unionized employees.
But only at the Boston University location does the strike still go on. And baristas say they will remain out until Chorlian is removed and management implements a system to assess the cafe’s labor needs regularly and ensure adequate staffing.
The picket line itself is organized chaos. Volunteers and striking Starbucks employees are now loosely assigned to two-hour stints using submissions from a Google Forms survey and a Signal group chat with over 100 members. Picketers wait patiently for their replacements and drift in and out at will. The only instructions are scrawled on a flimsy piece of cardboard: “Do not leave the line empty!” Doing so would clear the way for deliveries — handled by drivers who are members of Teamsters Local 25 and have been honoring the picket line — and allow Starbucks to potentially re-open the cafe.
“This is the definition of team effort,” said Kylah Clay, an Allston barista at the helm of the Boston unionization movement. “It takes every person we can get.”
Normally, there is no shortage of labor. Until 6:30 a.m., Nerudova sat with Juniper Sadowski, a Duxbury cannabis dispensary worker who is hunting for a Starbucks job in the hopes of helping unionize another Massachusetts location. By 7 a.m., they’d been joined by a retired Quincy teacher, a Clover Food Lab worker, an unemployed software engineer, and a data researcher who recently moved from Guatemala.
As the minutes ticked by, the conversation veered from Dunkin’ to the housing shortage, from veganism to mutual aid. Picketers varied in age and temperament, united only in their political beliefs (“a bunch of lefties,” volunteer Peggy Wang said) and the perception that Starbucks workers are being wronged, beholden to a system that minimizes employees’ value while feeding corporate powers.
“Growing up, I thought unions were something [for] people in factories in the ‘40s. I never understood how you can work for someone and fight them at the same time,” said Vanessa Phipps, the engineer and a member of the Party for Socialism and Liberation. “But union struggles are the most fundamental way to say, ‘I don’t like this.’ ”
The picket line relies on the good will of the community — not just for people, but for supplies. Volunteers arrive with sliced watermelon, crackers, and Goldfish that are piled onto a plastic table holding communal food. There are bins of donated water bottles, bug spray, D batteries, and extra umbrellas. Employees from the Target down the street bring ice, and early picketers distribute black tea from thermoses.
The heartbeat of the effort is the employees themselves.
Enter Topaz Leo. On Friday, the barista sauntered in at 11 a.m., much as she reported to work in the mornings before the strike. Taking collective action was necessary, Leo said, because of Chorlian. On her first day, in June, Chorlian allegedly pulled down the cafe’s Pride flag, then she enforced the dress code in ways that discriminated against Black employees and denied a worker bereavement leave. And, workers say, she threatened to slash schedules so dramatically that many employees would lose their health insurance, a devastating possibility for transgender employees like Leo who use their benefits for gender-affirming care.
But organizing feels like full-time work, and it’s tough to make rent on intermittent strike pay. Then there’s the emotional burden.
“Holding the line isn’t easy,” Leo said. “I’m exhausted. We are all exhausted.”
Spirits rise during weekend “megapickets” with water balloons and music or when Senator Elizabeth Warren makes an appearance. Other times, customers unaware that the cafe is closed ignore the picket line and pull on the locked door — or worse, scoff and swear upon hearing about the strike. Once, a teenager wandered by at 1 a.m., yelling at picketers to “get another job.” Last week, Boston police officers began making daily appearances, not long after Starbucks employees from other locations came, removed furniture from the patio, and deep-cleaned the cafe.
Upon workers’ request, the National Lawyers Guild often stations a legal observer at the line, but employees said city officials, including Mayor Michelle Wu, have dismissed requests to keep BPD away. (The mayor’s office did not immediately respond to questions, though Wu made an appearance on the picket line herself in July.)
Enthusiasm still has not slowed. By noon, a letter carrier and lapsed theater technician had joined the ranks to chat about the student loan crisis and former president Ronald Reagan’s history with the Professional Air Traffic Controllers union. An hour later, they were replaced by Kira Ribas, the girlfriend of Starbucks shift manager Spencer Costigan.
“Whenever [Spencer’s] home, it’s Zoom after Zoom after interview and interview about the union,” she said. “But it’s essential, because if Starbucks meets their demands, it shows every other unionized store they have power.”
Starbucks is unlikely to give up soon. Chief executive Howard Schultz has widely delayed contract negotiations and closed unionized locations in Seattle and Los Angeles, while fending off hundreds of legal complaints and asking the National Labor Relations Board to stop union votes altogether. There are rumblings, employees said, that Starbucks intends to reopen the Commonwealth Avenue cafe soon with the help of baristas and delivery drivers willing to cross the picket line.
In July, Starbucks said: “The law gives employers the right to hire permanent replacements for striking workers under certain circumstances (such as an indefinite strike). We are hopeful that will not become necessary in this case.”
What’s worse, said barista Isabel Beaudry at 3 p.m. on the picket line, is the uncertainty. She graduated from Berklee College of Music this month and hopes to teach in the future. But right now she can’t even afford an apartment; the $246 she received in strike pay wasn’t enough to pay her security deposit. So she sleeps on friends’ couches at night and pickets during the day.
“In the store, there’s nothing you can’t handle. All the instructions to make the drink are on the sticker,” she said. “Here, it’s unexpected and scary. Every day is a new challenge.”
As the afternoon wore on, a few more people meandered in to take their places on the picket line: a racial justice activist, a 1369 Coffee House employee, and a Boston University computer sciences professor with a “democracy, equality, and solidarity” tattoo.
And right at 4 p.m., a man walked in with a smile.
“I brought warm food,” he said, “for the folks fighting the good fight.”