On December 13, 2021, Kylah Clay walked out of a Suffolk University Law School exam to a barrage of text messages and tweets. Employees at the Starbucks cafe where she works in Allston had just filed to unionize. Online, congratulations abounded.
Clay, a 24-year-old barista with blue eyes and straight bangs, had helped lead the union effort and emphatically encouraged her colleagues to organize. With representation comes strength, she told them, and a voice. But when the union vote went through, Clay had no idea what would happen in the weeks and months ahead.
“I didn’t think about the next year,” she says. “To be honest, I didn’t even expect what happened in the next 24 hours. I had no idea the gravity of the work we were starting.”
Thus began a movement that has transformed the balance of power between Boston baristas and Starbucks, the Seattle-based coffeehouse chain that employs them. Workers at two cafes, in Allston and Brookline, followed in the footsteps of those in Buffalo, New York, last December and became two of the first locations nationwide to join the Workers United Labor Union. Scores more signed on later. In the months since, local baristas have emerged as symbols of workers’ resilience in Massachusetts — a tangible representation of the new-wave push to unionize more workplaces: coffee shops, reproductive clinics, psychiatric hospitals, and even college residence halls.
In their time off, the people who brew cappuccinos drafted demands for better pay, health care, and job security. They tweeted in defiance of Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz and garnered praise from politicians including Boston Mayor Michelle Wu and Senator Elizabeth Warren. Workers at the Brookline shop at 874 Commonwealth Avenue made history by staging the longest strike the company has ever seen — 64 days. It was staffed 24/7 by a cadre of volunteers who parked themselves on camping chairs. “We are here on behalf of Starbucks workers,” one volunteer said again and again to passersby on the picket line in August. “They’re on strike. Would you like to learn more?”
Throngs of people responded to the union in clamorous support, shared food at the picket line, and donated to strike funds. Spencer Costigan, a shift manager at the Commonwealth Avenue cafe, says that customers sometimes come in not to order coffee, but to congratulate unionized baristas. Others buy cold brews under names like “Union Strong” and leave lavish tips. But workers rarely view themselves the way the public does.
“We’re not particularly special,” Costigan says. “Our material conditions were just so that we had to fight. But these moments happen all the time, and across the country. I would love to see somebody do better, because nothing is going to change unless what we did becomes unremarkable.”
Their actions — “unremarkable” or not — have swept workers into a whirlwind of responsibility many never imagined. Commonwealth Avenue shift manager Nora Rossi says the minutiae of coordinating actions and compiling complaints is all-consuming. Costigan, too, works behind the counter full time and then serves on two bargaining committees after hours. Clay finds herself doing four jobs: part-time ukulele teacher, legal assistant, barista, and now union organizer. She passed the bar exam this summer, but turned down a position at a public defender’s office to see the union contract through instead.
“I may not be rewarded with cash,” Clay says, “but sometimes the most important work is the kind that you get nothing for.”
All the while, Starbucks executives tout the union as an “outside force” invading cafes and poisoning partners, Starbucks’ moniker for workers. Eight local baristas voiced fears of union busting in April and said that higher-ups were unfairly cutting hours and disciplining employees. One worker alleged that a manager looked them in the eye and said, “If I were in your position, I would be scared.” (Starbucks called these claims “categorically false.”)
Regardless, baristas have continued to stage sporadic protests, such as a one-day walkout across the country that included seven Massachusetts stores on “Red Cup Day,” a promotion that is one of the chain’s busiest sales days of the year.
Success, workers say, feels attainable and distant at the same time. The rate of non-unionized Starbucks locations voting to organize has slowed from its peak; election filings dropped from about 70 in March to fewer than 10 in August. Schultz, the CEO, threatened in May to pull certain benefits from unionized stores, but later reversed course. The manager whose leadership prompted the strike at 874 Commonwealth Avenue has been reinstated, even though the company promised — in writing and verbally — that she would be removed. Contract negotiations move forward slowly. Communication with managers, Clay says, “has been rife with disrespect.”
The obstacles are demoralizing, though not enough to quell the movement. And it was never going to be easy: Incremental steps are part of the journey to mold a better workplace, Rossi says.
“Getting what you’re fighting for is important. But the fight itself is also extremely important. In fact, it’s historic.”