Unionizing Workers at Starbucks are Showing the Way

Image credit: Sharon Cantillon / Buffalo News

The coronavirus has overwhelmingly impacted workplaces, meaning worse conditions for many workers. The service sector, and Starbucks in particular, has been especially hit hard. Staffing issues, insufficient measures to protect workers from the spreading virus, and management’s arrogance, greed, and disregard for human life have made the coffee chain’s exploitation difficult to ignore.

Starbucks made $4 billion in profits last year, owns 9,000 stores in the U.S., and has a workforce of 235,000. It prides itself on a supposedly generous starting wage of $17 per hour, some healthcare benefits, and subsidies for workers seeking to go to school. But the true reality of working there is being made public, and is in many ways nothing short of inhumane.

However, when an effort to unionize at a Buffalo, New York Starbucks led to success in December, the idea spread like wildfire. Now more than 100 locations are filing or have filed to have a union in over 20 states.

The workers at three locations in Buffalo have built the group Starbucks Workers United, which is supported by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). They are receiving many requests for assistance in unionizing more locations almost every week.

The company has responded with a brutal union-busting campaign, flying in managers to intimidate workers, hiring double the number of workers overnight to get the vote to turn against unionizing, firing organizers, and terrorizing workers. One such worker, Brittany Harrison, was forced to come into work sick, denied sick leave, and had her health insurance canceled, even though she had cancer. She was also fired after exposing Starbucks’ union-busting.

The Buffalo organizers have been busy helping other workers resist these pressures, and pressing forward with their demands, despite the obstacles Starbucks is throwing in their way. It would be a good thing for Starbucks workers to find their voice, organize, and build a democratic union at every one of the company’s 9,000 stores. It would be a breath of fresh air for the working class, who has suffered many defeats in recent years. And while it’s true that simply unionizing will not be enough to put an end to the crippling debts many workers face, or end the constant fights needed for basic dignity and respect, it’s certainly a start. Workers finding their voices, organizing, and demanding better, anywhere, provides an example for us all!