NYC Starbucks employees push for union vote

Caryl Anne Francia, Business Editor

Workers at three Starbucks Corp. locations in New York City are joining a nationwide movement to form unions.

The New York City locations — which include a branch in Astor Place, a branch inside Brooklyn’s Ceasar’s Bay Shopping Center and the Starbucks Reserve Roastery in Chelsea — are among 72 locations that have filed a petition to hold a vote to unionize. Starbucks has over 15,000 locations in the United States, 9,000 of them operated by the company.

Two locations in Buffalo, New York were the first to vote to unionize in December 2021. A location in Mesa, Arizona became the third in February. Three additional locations in Buffalo voted to unionize on March 9.

The New York City branches asked for a vote on March 3, but it has yet to happen.

Starbucks Workers United, the union organized by the Buffalo locations, seeks for the company to share the success it has had in the coffee industry with employees, rather than just large shareholders.

Starbucks has discouraged unionization in the past, with anti-union meetings dubbed by the company as “listening sessions.” Buffalo locations even closed when former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz showed up in an attempt to discourage unionization but drew backlash after making an analogy with Holocaust prisoners.

The company tried to appease workers’ demands by increasing its minimum wage to $15 per hour in December 2021. The wage is slated to increase to $23 per hour this summer, among other incentives. Current Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson announced that 30% of retail employees were already paid the former when the wage increase took place.

After seven employees were fired from a location in Memphis, Tennessee, for violating company policies by trying to unionize, 10 employees at the Chelsea location became more compelled to vote on unionizing.

“That just makes me feel that this is the right way to do it, the right way forward,” Marc Mao, who works at the Chelsea Roastery, told The New York Times. “Having a union represent our interests, having us collectively bargain for better working conditions and wages, is more important since this happened.”

Weeks after voting to form a union, the branch in Buffalo’s Elmwood neighborhood organized a walkout, raising awareness of inadequate working conditions during the surge of the omicron variant of COVID-19.

A nationwide pro-unionization movement — not just within Starbucks, but with Amazon Inc. warehouse workers and Apple Inc. retail employees — is said to be led by young people. Professor Ruth Milkman of CUNY’s Graduate Center and School of Labor and Urban Studies spoke with Gothamist.

“Young college educated workers have kind of gotten the union bug,” Milkman said. “This was already beginning before the pandemic, but like so many other trends, the pandemic has kind of amplified it and made it stronger.”

Those pushing for unionization emphasized that they aren’t trying to attack Starbucks. They just want to be respected by their employer, and the New Yorkers working toward that can only hope their chances to vote aren’t squashed in the coming weeks.

“We want to be able to be our best selves, and we cannot reach our full potential if we are understaffed, overextended, exhausted and burned-out,” Starbucks Workers United wrote on its website. “We are organizing because we know that Starbucks partners have the ability to improve this company, transform this industry and form a collaborative, creative, forward-thinking, justice seeking, independent organization that will allow us to advocate for ourselves.”