Unionizing Starbucks

Just a few years ago, if someone had said that more than 200 Starbucks outlets in North America would be unionized, the response would have been something like this.  Yet here we are, just after Labour Day, and….more than 200 Starbucks outlets are unionized, including several in Canada. These unionizations are remarkable not just because they’re happening, but also because the successful unionization campaigns look nothing like what unionizing efforts are supposed to look like.

Starbucks is a huge and very wealthy international corporation, so it has lots of resources to oppose unionization in its “stores”. With many of its locations in the US, it benefits from US labour laws that are generally less union-friendly than in Canada – for example, captive audience meetings are banned in Canada but permitted in the US – so US employers tend to be more successful at resisting unionization. And because of how Canadian and US labour laws are structured, unionizing a company like Starbucks, with multiple locations, generally means the union has to run an organizing campaign at each individual location, rather than being able to unionize all of them at once. (In 2021 Starbucks had over 1300 locations in Canada and nearly 9000 locations in the US, in addition to licensed outlets operated in partnership with other retailers.)

Most traditional union organizers would look at this situation and say that it would be just too difficult and too expensive to organize unions at Starbucks, and that any attempt to do so would probably fail. To have any chance at success, a union would have to be very experienced, and have skilled organizers and major resources, to combat the extensive anti-unionization campaign and anti-union tactics that Starbucks would undoubtedly roll out. Also, because the food service sector tends to have high rates of employee turnover, most large unions have avoided organizing workplaces in that sector, because of the very real possibility that workers supporting the union might leave or be fired before the union is formally recognized.

So it’s incredible not only that there are now so many unionized Starbucks locations, but that the unionization campaigns succeeded by completely overturning those traditional norms of organizing. The union that most Starbucks workers are voting to join is an independent union, Starbucks Workers United (SWU). The SWU is partly supported by a union affiliated with the Service Employees International Union, but it operates on a decentralized model, with workers at each location deciding what issues are most important to them and collectively deciding how best to address those issues. Rather than having an external organizer come in and direct the organizing campaign, the workers at each location run their own campaign.

An independent, decentralized union with limited resources should theoretically have zero chance of successfully unionizing workers at a large wealthy multinational company that is explicitly opposed to unions. (Starbucks officially says that it “respects [employees’] free choice” and “[employees’] right to organize, but its actions speak louder than its words.) So why are these unionization campaigns succeeding, when established wisdom says they should fail?

I see several factors that are important in answering that question.

–> The unionization campaigns at Starbucks are unconventional, but Starbucks is responding in a very conventional way. It hired a notable anti-union law firm to give it advice, and its messages to its employees are very conventional anti-union messages: for example, that a union would interfere with the “direct employment relationship” between Starbucks and its employees. When the union doing the organizing is formed and run by the employees themselves, portraying the union as a sinister third party interloper just doesn’t work – because the employees (i.e. the union) can see that it isn’t true.

–> Starbucks’ response to the unionization campaigns is incredibly tone-deaf in so many ways. One small example is what a US friend of mine experienced at the Starbucks where she works – a Starbucks which, incidentally, doesn’t even have a unionization campaign going on. My friend and her co-workers were ordered to come in on their days off, on their own time, to watch a video of Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz telling them how much Starbucks values them as employees and how a union would upset that special relationship.

To put this order in context, most of these workers are juggling school, family, and other work commitments, and their schedules are regularly disrupted by Starbucks’ unexpected shift changes and requests for them to work overtime. It truly astounds me that when workers are being treated that disrespectfully, Starbucks thinks it will scare them to imply that a union would make things worse. How much worse can it get? Especially when employees are ordered to view that message, and forced to view it during what’s supposed to be their time off.

Starbucks Workers United members outside a Starbucks location in Tallahassee, Florida. (credit: Ethan B/Wikimedia Commons)

–> Social media has made a very big difference in these unionization campaigns. Although the campaigns are being conducted individually at individual outlets, the unions and their supporters communicate privately and publicly over social media – celebrating victories, mourning losses, sharing information. In the past, individual groups of employees might have felt isolated, but now, instant communication with other campaigners and being able to track the progress of other campaigns seems to be a major source of support and motivation.

–> Social media also plays a very important function as a fact-checker, especially when Starbucks is being selective with the truth or circulating completely incorrect information. Here’s an example of how that can work. Earlier this year, Starbucks sent a bulletin to several of its US locations, claiming that when it implemented a wage increase at its Canadian outlets, the workers at the unionized outlet in Victoria, BC, did not receive those wage increases because the collective agreement could not be changed. (The workers in Victoria are represented by a local of the United Steelworkers union.)  The bulletin was posted on the staff information boards at the Starbucks outlets that received it.

A worker at one of the US locations took a picture of the bulletin and posted it on social media, and the Victoria Starbucks union responded via Twitter that yes, its members did not receive the wage increase – but their collective agreement has a “re-opener” clause that would have allowed bargaining for the new wage rate. The collective agreement was not the reason for Starbucks denying those workers the same pay increase as workers at other locations. (The Victoria union has since filed an unfair labour practice complaint with the BC Labour Relations Board alleging that Starbucks withheld the wage increase from the workers to “compel them to cease being members of the union”.)

–> With the change of federal government in the US, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has also undergone some changes to its membership and staff. Now it’s definitely more supportive of unions and unionization than it was while Donald Trump was president. President Joe Biden has regularly expressed his support for organized labour, and while he may not have moved as quickly on legislative changes as some would like, the new NLRB leadership has actively responded to workers’ and unions’ complaints about Starbucks’ conduct during organizing campaigns at its locations. Organizing workers is still an uphill battle for US unions, but a more supportive NLRB is definitely an improvement.

–> And all of this is taking place in a labour market where workers currently have something of an advantage. The unemployment rate is low in both the US and Canada, and many employers are struggling with being short-staffed. The traditional anti-union message of “if you form a union, you’ll lose your jobs” may not be that powerful right now, if workers know they can easily find a job somewhere else.

The saga of unionization at Starbucks is far from over. There are still thousands of Starbucks outlets that aren’t unionized, and despite engaging in activities that the NRLB has declared as anti-union, Starbucks shows no signs of backing down. The chair of Starbucks’ board of directors has declared that the company “will not stay neutral” in organizing campaigns. It’s also important to remember that while unionizing a workplace can be extremely hard, a successful campaign means that the union and the employer then have to negotiate a collective agreement. That too can be a long and challenging process, especially if the employer is reluctant or resistant.

Still, while being realistic that more is ahead and much of it will be difficult, the Starbucks organizing campaigns are making a difference. The success of the campaigns shows that many of the traditional assumptions about how unions should or can organize workplaces are no longer valid. Seth Harris, who served as US Acting Secretary of Labor in the Obama administration, summarizes the lessons from the successful Starbucks campaigns as these:

  • Young workers will organize in large numbers
  • Fast food workers will organize
  • Local worker-led campaigns can win nationally
  • Workers can win elections
  • Workers can win despite corporate lawbreaking

Those are important lessons. Let’s watch what happens now.

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