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Starbucks workers await results from first US union vote

Baristas at three Starbucks stores in Buffalo, New York, will soon find out whether their workplaces will become the coffee company’s first unionised outlets in the US, which would provide a rare foothold for organised labour in the service industry.

The closely watched unionisation drive will culminate on Thursday afternoon when federal labour authorities count workers’ votes on whether to organise under the Workers United Upstate New York union during a live-streamed video call.

Throughout the four-month campaign, Starbucks has pushed back against the prospective union. That came as a surprise to the workers leading the drive, given the company’s progressive image — Starbucks offers employees healthcare benefits, a relatively rare perk in the service industry, and pays for them to study online for degrees at Arizona State University at no cost.

“Looking back, I feel naive,” Jaz Brisack, who has worked at Starbucks’ Elmwood location in downtown Buffalo for a year and helped organise the union. “The fact that they’re doing everything in their power to try to bust the union seems very counter to what they say they believe.”

Organisers for SB Workers United say their union will push the company for higher levels of staffing at the stores, pay increases and better training on how to prepare the increasingly complex drink orders made possible by the chain’s growing reliance on orders placed through its mobile app.

Starbucks has said that it has already offered to raise pay for workers at the stores participating in the election and that a union would impede their ability to negotiate directly with their staff.

But workers say that after the negativity surrounding the election, they have their doubts.

According to SB Workers United, between when the union first filed for an election and the end of voting on Wednesday the company flew in its billionaire founder Howard Schultz to speak to employees in a hotel ballroom, activated their emergency contact system to text employees about the election, and replaced the managers at all the stores but one. “It’s been chaos,” Brisack said.

The resulting fight has been viewed by activists as a test of whether the Biden administration will fulfil its pledge to increase protections for workers.

Joe Biden has billed himself as the “strongest labour president you have ever had”, and steadily replaced employer-focused Trump appointees on the National Labor Relations Board, the federal agency that oversees collective bargaining in the private sector, with more pro-union members.

Under Biden, the board has already invalidated a high-profile loss for employees seeking to unionise at an Amazon plant in Bessemer, Alabama, in April. A regional labour official said the ecommerce group had “essentially hijacked” the process with illegal union-busting techniques.

Starbucks’ strategy in Buffalo has included holding so-called captive audience meetings where company representatives urge employees to reject the union during their work shifts, according to Kate Andrias, a professor at Columbia Law School who focuses on organised labour.

“The fact that the labour market is tighter, the fact that this administration is more pro-labour, should all work in favour of the workers’ efforts to unionise,” Andrias said. “But they still face fairly significant obstacles, just given the extent to which the laws are stacked against them.”

Starbucks had asked the NLRB to stop the vote count, but the board repeatedly ruled in favour of the workers. On Tuesday it shot down Starbucks’ request for a review of the NLRB regional director’s decision to allow each store to vote separately, instead of as one unit to represent the more than 20 stores in the Buffalo region, as the company wanted.

Forcing all the stores in the region to vote as a bloc would dilute the union’s support and make it significantly more difficult to win the election, organisers for SB Workers United said.

Starbucks responded to a request for comment by referring to an open letter to employees written by Kevin Johnson, chief executive, on Tuesday: “We feel strongly that all partners in Buffalo should have a voice in the elections, which may unfortunately not be the case,” he wrote.

“While we recognise this creates some level of uncertainty, we respect the process that is under way and, independent of any outcome in these elections, we will continue to stay true to our mission and values.”

Despite the change in the NLRB and the board’s recent decisions, workers still say they feel the deck is stacked against them.

“Corporations are still able to union bust with impunity,” Brisack said. “And there’s no real way for [the union] to counter that. They [the company] can pay us eight hours to go to a one-hour anti-union meeting, and say ‘don’t show up for your shift, just go to this conference room and go to the anti-union meeting’.”

But if the union wins in any one of the three stores on Thursday, they will lend momentum to unionisation efforts elsewhere. Already three other Starbucks locations in New York and Arizona have filed for union elections.

The significance of the Buffalo election to those efforts was front of mind for the roughly 100 workers who are eligible to vote, said barista Will Westlake.

“I think that this movement that we have here actually has a chance of changing things at Starbucks,” Westlake said, “and then in the service industry.”


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