Starbucks Fired Workers for Unionizing, But Workers Are Fighting Back
When many young people today think of unions, they think of construction workers, teachers, or nurses. Words like minimum wage or strike may come to mind. The word barista typically doesn’t. Yet, a union is simply a group of workers who come together and use their collective strength in the workplace. With a union, workers have the power to collectively bargain with their employer and negotiate a contract that sets working conditions, pay, benefits, and more. With a union, workers have the ability to build power and fight for their interests in the workplace.
It is no secret that union membership in the United States has been on the decline. While only 10.3% of wage and salary workers in the U.S. were in a union in 2021, almost 35% of wage and salary workers were in unions in 1954, at the peak of union membership. There are many reasons for the decline in organized labor, including automation, a shift away from manufacturing, and, of course, increased employer opposition to unions. Regardless of the cause, the effects were devastating: The boss had all the power. As union membership started to decline steadily in 1979, income inequality rose and wage growth for working-class Americans stagnated.
Fast forward to the COVID-19 pandemic. Food and restaurant workers were called “essential workers,” and expected to continue showing up for work in person, despite significant risks to their health. Since Starbucks stores sell a variety of food products, baristas were deemed essential, too.
In January 2021, we were both working at Starbucks part-time while also being full-time students. From Memphis to Pittsburgh, our struggles were similar. We faced issues with management and felt overworked and underpaid. The company took our COVID benefits away without consulting workers, stopped requiring customers to wear masks (and our ability to enforce mask-wearing), and acted like things were back to normal when clearly they were not.
By that summer, Starbucks, a multibillion-dollar company, was reporting record-breaking sales, while many of us couldn’t afford to pay rent and buy groceries in the same week. It was at this point we realized we needed to take things into our own hands if we wanted anything to change.
Starbucks calls its employees “partners.” The company uses this term because workers are given stock options after a certain amount of time, therefore claiming that hourly workers are shareholders in the company. However, for many Starbucks workers, the word “partner” feels hollow. If we were true “partners,” we would have a say in our working conditions. Unionizing is a way for us to have a real voice in our workplace, where we can demand everything from increased wages and seniority pay to increased safety at work. A union allows us to create a democratic workplace where we can hold management accountable.
To organize a union in the United States, a majority of workers must sign union cards to authorize the union and be voluntarily recognized by their employer, or at least 30% of workers need to sign union cards to petition the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) for an election to affirm workers’ majority support for a union. In the case of Starbucks, the company has refused to voluntarily recognize the union, resulting in more than 318 individual stores filing union petitions in 36 states.
Our experiences organizing our stores in Pittsburgh and Memphis were similar; we secretly created organizing committees, started talking to our coworkers about the benefits of unionizing and how Starbucks would likely respond, and began discreetly handing out union cards. In Memphis, the Starbucks store at the corner of Poplar Avenue and Highland went public with our union campaign on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Dr. King was assassinated while in Memphis to stand with striking sanitation workers and we decided to honor his legacy by announcing our campaign and calling on Starbucks to work with us, instead of fighting us.
The energy in our stores when we filed our union campaigns was electric. We had watched baristas at the Elmwood store in Buffalo, New York, win the first unionized Starbucks in the U.S. in December 2021. Seeing our fellow workers win in New York had shown us what was possible and that we could do it, too. We’d both learned about the labor movement sitting in our middle school history classes. We knew that the labor movement was responsible for the eight-hour workday, child labor laws, helping to introduce a federal minimum wage, and more. What we hadn’t realized was that the labor movement was still alive and well and now we were helping to lead it.
When preparing to go public with our campaigns, we were told by fellow organizing baristas what to expect with Starbucks’s response to our campaigns. Starbucks didn’t hide that they wanted workers to vote no to the union. The company launched a website touting Starbucks’s benefits, spreading what we believe is misleading information about organizing and demonizing the labor movement. In listening sessions across the country, managers told us that we could lose our benefits if we unionized and tried to convince us that a union was just a business looking to take our money in the guise of dues. We were prepared for the onslaught of anti-union propaganda that the company spread. What we weren’t prepared for was to lose our jobs.
On February 8, 2022, Starbucks fired seven union leaders at the Poplar Highland store in Memphis, and on July 13, 2022, Starbucks fired two union leaders at the Market Square store in Pittsburgh. These are just two of the ever-increasing stories of union supporters losing their jobs in the face of Starbucks’s anti-union campaign.
Under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), it is illegal to fire workers for organizing a union. In response to losing our jobs, we filed unfair labor practice charges with the NLRB, alleging that we were fired in response to our union activity. To date, the NLRB has issued an official complaint against Starbucks on behalf of the seven of us who were fired in Memphis, and a Federal District Court Judge recently ruled that Starbucks must reinstate us.
We are fighting to get our jobs back and fighting for the right to organize. We love our job at Starbucks and find joy in making our customers’ days. Starbucks claims to be a different kind of company – one that does everything “through the lens of humanity.” Starbucks’s mission and values include “challenging the status quo” and treating each other with “dignity and respect.” We do not believe that Starbucks has been living up to its mission and values and we are working to change that. In fact, since the return of interim CEO Howard Schultz, we’ve felt Starbucks has doubled down on efforts to stamp out unionization across the country.
Service workers nationwide are standing up and fighting back. Young workers at Chipotle, Apple, Amazon, and more are organizing unions in the face of crippling income inequality, rising inflation, and student debt. The minimum wage has not been raised in more than a decade and for the first time in decades, workers feel like they have the power to quit their jobs and find something better.
Unions are not a relic of the past. They are the best tool we have as workers to build power for ourselves and our communities, and our generation of workers is paving the way. We may be called Gen-Z, but we think a more accurate name would be Gen-Union. Starbucks may have fired us, but we’d unionize again in a heartbeat. And we’re not done fighting. We will get all the wrongfully fired workers’ jobs back and win our union.
Co-published with Teen Vogue.