United States: The union and the company wage a guerrilla war at Starbucks

Starbucks workers and their union, Workers United, are engaged in a kind of guerrilla war against the multibillion-dollar company: they take small actions, attacking one store at a time.

Faced with a growing movement to gain union recognition, with occasional strikes, Starbucks management responded by closing stores and laying off employees. Union guerrillas are gaining ground, but they are not in a position to wage class war on a regional or national scale.

The union won 88% of the elections

Starbucks’ current organizing campaign began about a year ago, in the spring of 2021, and in December of that year, a store in Buffalo, New York, won the most votes for a union. , becoming the first to unionize. Since then, there have been dozens more and the momentum is building. So far, 100 Starbucks coffee shops – most with between 10 and 20 employees – have voted to join Workers United, while just 14 have voted against; that is, the union won 88% of the elections. About 120 other cafes are in the process of holding elections or waiting to vote. While the total number of workers is low, this represents a significant recovery in union membership, particularly in the restaurant sector where only 1.2% of workers are unionised.

Union organization is spreading across the country and even in areas where there are few unions. For example, the union recently won recognition votes in the South: in New Orleans (Louisiana), Tallahassee (Florida) and Columbia (South Carolina). Organizing a union in South Carolina, the state with the lowest unionization rate in the United States, with only 1.7% of workers represented by unions, represents a significant achievement.

Faced with the advance of the United Worker, the company is fighting back. In recent months, Starbucks has laid off twenty employees involved in union organizing activities. They are still officially fired for something else, of course, like breaking company rules. Starbucks recently announced that it was closing one of the newly organized stores in Ithaca, New York, where workers went on strike. Workers United filed nearly 175 complaints of unfair labor practices by management with the National Labor Relations Board.

However, the workers and the union are not discouraged. The Service Employees Union, one of the largest unions in the United States with two million members, to which Workers United is affiliated, created a million-dollar strike fund to compensate the strikers for lost wages.

a long fight

Starbucks’ labor movement is a reflection of the company’s employees; it is a movement composed mainly of youth, women and men from all communities. Women make up 70% of Starbucks workers; whites are 50%, Latinos 27% and blacks 8%; and most workers are between 20 and 30 years old.

Starbucks workers organize themselves because the work is too intense, the pay too low, the working conditions aren’t always safe, and they feel the company doesn’t always respect them. A Starbucks barista earns an average of $13.50 an hour, or $26,325 a year, which is less than minimum wage. Starbucks workers have sought union recognition through votes overseen by the NLRB (Federal Labor Relations Board), but they have also engaged in work stoppages and short strikes, important actions to strengthen worker confidence and increase union combativeness. Both the election and the strike have raised the union’s visibility, so other Starbucks workers also see an opportunity to organize.

Starbucks’ organizing campaign was a considerable success. We can only admire this success. They have organized 100 cafes, but there are 15,400 in the country. Workers are still not present enough to organize at a regional level, much less at a national level, and a regional or even national strike will likely be needed – as has happened in other industries such as auto and steel, transport and public sector workers – for all Starbucks workers to be unionized.

Translation Henri Wilno

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