NISKAYUNA — The organization drive mounted by Starbucks baristas passed a minor milestone last week, as the 300th petition was submitted for a union vote at an individual shop.
That’s still just a tiny portion of the roughly 17,000 locations across the United States. But more petitions are being filed with the National Labor Relations Board each day, and most of the resulting votes have been in favor of unionizing.
On July 5th, the staff at the Starbucks on Clifton Center Road in Clifton Park submitted what may have been the 300th petition nationwide, but it’s hard to say exactly amid the flurry of filings. By one count, the total was up to 311 just two days later.
Staff at seven Capital Region shops have now sought to unionize.
Since a shop in Buffalo’s Elmwood Village neighborhood became the first Starbucks in the nation to unionize seven months ago, staff at 186 shops in 30 states have voted to unionize and 32 have voted against it, according to a running tally maintained online by More Perfect Union.
The record is 2-0 in the Capital Region: The staff at the Latham Starbucks voted 8-6 in favor in a tally completed in May, and the staff at the Stuyvesant Plaza shop in Guilderland voted 15-0 in June.
Ballots have gone out to 29 employees at the Malta Starbucks and are scheduled to be tallied Aug. 1.
The staff at the Niskayuna and East Greenbush Starbucks locations submitted petitions separately on June 22 and are awaiting an election notice from the NLRB.
And on Friday, the union announced employees at the Crossgates Mall Starbucks had submitted petitions.
Three employees at the Niskayuna Starbucks told The Daily Gazette their decision to seek representation by Starbucks Workers United came down to job security and workplace atmosphere: Rules and expectations kept changing and people began getting fired in a seemingly arbitrary if not unfair manner.
Jordan Perez, a supervisor at the Niskayuna shop, said working at Starbucks is harder than any of the other jobs he’s had, and he’s only worked in the food service industry.
But it pays better than most of the others, including his current second job, and at its core, he likes the work. So after nearly three years, he hasn’t bailed in favor of any of the many other service industry jobs available in the Schenectady area, where he lives.
“I haven’t given up because I genuinely like what I do,” Perez said. “I like the people I work with. At some point [customers] you see every day, they become like acquaintances, friends.”
Starbucks says its employees are better off without a union, though it respects their right to form one.
“We are listening and learning from the partners in these stores as we always do across the country,” a Starbucks spokeswoman said via email. “From the beginning, we’ve been clear in our belief that we are better together as partners, without a union between us, and that conviction has not changed. We respect our partners’ right to organize and are committed to following the NLRB process.”
New York is tied with Hawaii for the highest percentage of workforce represented by unions (24.1%), and a close second behind Hawaii for the percentage who are actually members of a union (22.2%).
The Starbucks shops where staff has petitioned for a union vote appear to be concentrated in just a few areas, however — Ithaca, New York City, Rochester, the Buffalo region, and the Albany area. Just a few others are dispersed elsewhere across the state.
Casey Moore, who works at a Starbucks in suburban Buffalo, has been helping with efforts to organize shops elsewhere in New York.
She had planned to visit the Capital Region this past week to shoot a video on union-busting but had to push that back to later in July because of COVID.
“Union busting” is not an exaggeration or a rhetorical buzzword, she added.
“Starbucks is definitely fighting an anti-union war across the country,” Moore said, firing union organizers, posting anti-union propaganda and making threats.
“They’ve fired people over minor dress code violations,” she said, adding that she was sent home recently because the jeans she’d worn dozens of times before were deemed a shade too light.
“So there’s definitely a target on my back.”
The Starbucks spokeswoman denied this type of retaliation is happening.
“Any claims of anti-union activity are categorically false,” she said.
On May 19, the NLRB’s Buffalo regional director, Linda Leslie, consolidated over 200 allegations of unfair labor practices by Starbucks into a single complaint scheduled for a hearing Monday before an administrative law judge.
And on June 21, Leslie petitioned a federal judge for injunctive relief for seven former Starbucks employees in Buffalo who she said were unfairly fired for seeking to unionize.
She said that “After learning about the organizing effort, Starbucks immediately set its vigorous anti-union campaign in motion, employing an expansive array of illegal tactics such as raising wages, promising benefits, bringing in a cadre of managers to monitor employees and discourage union activity, closing stores with active organizing drives, and threatening employees — culminating in the discharge of seven union activists at five different stores over the course of six weeks.”
Winning a vote for union representation is only part of the battle for organizers. The union must then negotiate a contract with Starbucks.
So far, that hasn’t happened. U.S. labor laws, Moore said, are toothless, so Starbucks has little incentive to bargain.
Here again, the company disagrees.
“Our position is that we will bargain in good faith with the union,” its spokeswoman said.
Starbucks has its good points, Moore said, including health care benefits for those working at least 20 hours a week. But it also tries to keep employees below that threshold, and the cost of coverage for those who do qualify is quite high, she said.
There’s also the pace and the pressure of the job itself.
“By far Starbucks is the hardest service job I’ve ever had,” she said.
Workers at multiple Buffalo-area shops have mounted one-day strikes this year, including one Friday at a Starbucks in Amherst.
At the Niskayuna shop, Perez said there’s a lot of pressure, both from the pace and volume of work and from constantly changing rules for doing the work.
“Everyone’s tired and feeling they’re overworked,” he said.
At 22, he’s relatively new to the workforce, but he’s found Starbucks to be the most consuming of all the jobs he’s had — the one weighing most heavily on his thoughts when he goes home.
Perez also feels like his support for organizing has cost him personally.
“It’s hard to say sometimes if it’s deliberate mistreatment,” he said. “I definitely feel like my job has been threatened. They harp on increased expectations and one thing could get you fired.”
His coworkers Amanda Johnson and Simon Rafael Medina say their motivation for unionizing is job protection and a more stable work environment.
“Our manager and Starbucks as a company can change policies with or without notifying us and I can be fired for it,” Johnson said.
Medina, who’s angling for a promotion, said he was told it wouldn’t happen if he backs unionization. “My promotion is contingent on me [not] supporting the petition, which is hugely problematic,” he said.
Johnson said things got worse after she filed a sexual harassment complaint. The offending co-worker was terminated, she said, as were two other co-workers who had nothing to do with the situation but became a sort of “collateral damage.”
Medina suspects the complaint reflected poorly on the manager, or the manager perceived it as such, so the manager is now overbearing in compensation.
Johnson thinks the union vote will pass in Niskayuna — 15 or 16 of the 20 employees eligible to vote are secure “yes” votes and only one is a firm “no,” she said.
The “maybes” aren’t enough to sway the final tally.
“We’re just waiting for the date,” Johnson said.
Starbucks calls its quarter-million U.S. employees “partners” and promotes its fair and equitable treatment of them in communications to the investors who own company stock valued at $91 billion.
So why is organized labor steadily gaining traction at Starbucks, and why now?
Emily Vick, Albany district director of Workers United, said the company cut employees’ hours, squeezed more work out of fewer people and treated them unfairly at a time of turmoil in the American economy.
“I think it had a lot to do with how working conditions deteriorated during COVID,” she said.
The union being formed, Starbucks Workers United, will be an affiliate of Workers United, which itself is an affiliate of SEIU.
Vick said there still are no contracts in place seven months after the first Starbucks unionization vote in Buffalo. There are negotiations underway in Buffalo and in Mesa, Arizona, but the company is dragging its feet with them, she said.
Starbucks Workers United is going to switch to a national bargaining strategy that should be much more effective, Vick said, because the company will be negotiating with more than 5,000 employees together instead of a few dozen at a time.
In its latest financial report May 3, Starbucks said its second-quarter revenue was up 17% from a year ago but its operating income was up only 4%, dropping the operating margin from 19.3% to 17.1%.
The company cited higher supply chain costs, inflation, higher employee wages, increased spending on training and other labor market costs.
The state Assembly district that includes the Latham and Niskayuna Starbucks shops is represented by Colonie Democrat Phil Steck, who’s also a labor attorney in private practice and a vocal advocate for policies favoring worker protections.
He views what’s happening piecemeal at these coffee shops as part of a larger trend.
“We live in a time period where people like Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk are making billions and generally speaking the rest of the country is not doing so well,” Steck said.
Starbucks is particularly fertile ground for organizing, he said.
“I think that a lot of the workers at Starbucks tend to be relatively younger and they tend to also be well-educated. They aren’t buying into the idea that these companies that are making billions of dollars are treating them fairly.”
Union membership is a fraction of what it once was in the United States, and recent data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics don’t show a turnaround. In 2021, 10.3% of American workers were organized, down from 20.1% in 1983, the first year when comparable statistics were compiled.
U.S. labor membership peaked at around 35%, in 1954.
New York state’s 22.2% union membership rate in 2021 includes a large number of employees in the public sector, which is heavily unionized. The unionization rate for factories, warehouses, coffee shops and other private-sector workplaces is lower.
Steck said the correlation between diminished union ranks and a stagnating middle class is clear and is driving efforts to organize at Starbucks and elsewhere.
“We had a time period where the American middle class was growing from the 1950s through I would say the 1970s, and then we started going backwards,” he said. “People have had it with these companies just making extreme amounts of money and not treating employees well.”