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Starbucks and workers’ union agree to talks

Starbucks Workers United announced last week that it has reached a “significant” agreement with the company to take steps toward negotiating first contracts for unionized stores after the coffee shop chain has worked to obstruct and delay contract negotiations for over two years. The breakthrough is the cumulative effect of actions by workers, including winning union elections, marching on the boss, petitioning, store pickets, walkouts due unsafe conditions or inadequate staffing, nationwide strikes, and relentless bad press for its mistreatment of workers.


Almost 400 stores have voted to join Starbucks Workers United, a division of Workers United, part of the Service Employees (SEIU). They now represent 10,000 Starbucks workers. The company employs around 250,000 baristas in U.S. stores.


The coffee shop chain has agreed to negotiate a “foundational framework” with all its union stores. Details of the framework are currently scant, though Bloomberg and The American Prospect have reported that it includes an agreement by Starbucks to bargain a universal contract that would apply to all unionized locations. This is something that the company has previously opposed in seeming attempts to further stall contract negotiations and expend union time and resources despite locations across the country having sought unionization for similar reasons, like cuts in hours, understaffing and low pay. Presumably this means there would be a national contract and local supplements.


Union workers will eventually get back pay making up for the raises they missed; in some cases for longtime workers it will be “life-changing” amounts, one noted. Starbucks also agreed to a “a fair process for organizing.” The phrase usually means that management will recognize the union if a majority of workers in a store sign a petition, rather than forcing workers into a bruising election period where managers threaten and cajole workers into rescinding their support. However, “fair process” may instead mean that the company will tone down its anti-union tactics, many of which have been illegal.


Surprise turnaround

Up until the February 27 breakthrough, there had been little sign of movement from Starbucks. On December 29, the company proudly proclaimed that an internal investigation had found that it was not using an “anti-union playbook.” But workers have reported a drumbeat of threats, retaliations, and firings throughout the campaign. The company racked up a record number of Labor Board charges for a variety of illegal tactics, most egregiously for more than 100 firings in retaliation for union activity. Starbucks was ordered by courts to hire back these workers, including the ‘Memphis 7’ who were the first workers the company fired, in February 2022. They won back their jobs seven months later, but their case is going to the Supreme Court. In addition to federal violations, Starbucks ran afoul of local fair hours and just firing laws.


Starbucks closed all three of its union stores in Ithaca, New York. In response to this union-busting in their town, students at Cornell pushed the university to cut ties with the company. Following their lead, student groups have been campaigning to oust the company from 25 campuses, including UCLA, Georgetown, and NYU.


With public approval of unions reaching 70 percent, Starbucks’ reputation has taken a beating, while the union’s lively and appealing social media presence has made mincemeat of the brand’s claims to be progressive. The effort has been remarkable for making workers into leaders and involving members in building the union. This is partly because of the way the campaign developed. After the first stores won, the union was inundated with requests for help from baristas across the country. To cope, they developed a worker-to-worker model to build the union, teaching each other how to talk to co-workers and win elections.



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