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Inside the battle for the first union contract at Starbucks

One of the most high-profile union campaigns in decades unveiled proposals Wednesday that could raise standards for low-wage workers around the country, but it’s not clear whether a contract is within reach

Members of different labor unions join Starbucks unionized employees for a labor protest outside Starbucks Corporate Headquarters on Wednesday in Seattle. (Ken Lambert/The Seattle Times via AP)
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Scores of union Starbucks baristas from across the Pacific Northwest descended on a hotel in Seattle on Wednesday to unveil to Starbucks lawyers a set of proposals that they had been researching and debating for more than six months.

A $20 an hour starting wage nationwide. A 32-hour week guarantee for full-time employees. A 100 percent employer-covered health-care plan for full- and part-time workers. Credit card tipping at all stores.

The session lasted close to four hours — much longer than any of the roughly 90 previous bargaining sessions held since last October — though workers did not get a chance to share all of their demands with management before Starbucks’ lawyers packed up to leave.

The demands from Starbucks Workers United come at a moment of heightened attention to working conditions at the coffee mega-chain. Starbucks held its annual shareholder meeting Thursday, where investors voted on whether to order a third-party assessment of the company’s commitment to international labor standards. (The results will be released in the coming days.) Workers at about 100 stores in 40 cities nationwide went on strike on Wednesday to make a point to the company’s new chief executive, Laxman Narasimhan, who started this week. Founder Howard Schultz stepped down as leader of the company on Monday, two weeks earlier than expected, though he still plans to testify before Congress next week about its labor practices.

Many organizers believe winning major concessions from Starbucks would not only transform thousands of Starbucks workers’ lives, but also raise standards for fast food and other low-wage workers around the country. But as the union and Starbucks continue to quarrel over the terms for negotiations, and the company fights unionization at its stores, it’s not clear whether a contract is within reach.

“We know that the entire world is watching,” said Jasmine Leli, 38, a Starbucks barista in Buffalo, and a member of the national bargaining committee. “It’s bigger than, ‘Oh, we want a contract.’ This could change the game for the entire labor movement.”

Andrew Trull, a spokesman for the company, said Starbucks has not attempted to delay bargaining and that the company has come to the table as legally obligated at stores that have voted to unionize.

“Rather than publicizing rallies and protests, we encourage [the union] to live up to their obligations by responding to our proposed sessions and meeting us in-person to move the good faith bargaining process forward,” Trull said in response to the strikes on Wednesday.

Historic union victories at high-profile companies such as Starbucks, Amazon and Apple have won attention since the height of the pandemic. (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.) Over the past 16 months, Starbucks baristas have voted to unionize at 288 of the company’s 9,000 corporate-owned stores, making for one of the most high-profile labor battles in decades, despite a full-blown effort by the company to stamp out the campaign.

The union says Starbucks has insisted on bargaining store-by-store rather than with the union as a single unit. Starbucks says the union requested store-by-store organizing at the start of its campaign.

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Winning a union election is often only just the first step for workers trying to secure the wage increases and benefits that can come with organizing. Research from Cornell University found that roughly a third of all unions reach a contract within a year of winning an election. But some never do — and Starbucks workers have yet to come close to signing a single collective-bargaining agreement. Several judges have ordered Starbucks to bargain immediately with multiple stores, but litigation is pending.

“The contract is what can demonstrate to workers everywhere the real, tangible wins that unionized workers can achieve,” said Rebecca Givan, a labor studies professor at Rutgers University. “If there is a strong first contract in even one [Starbucks] store, that will likely inspire a new burst of organizing, and that is why the company is fighting so hard not to have to agree to a contract.”

The demands workers presented to Starbucks management in Seattle on Wednesday will be the same ones Starbucks workers present in cafes across the United States in the coming months.

To arrive at the proposals, union organizers debated how much to ask Starbucks to raise their wages, studying federal statistics on the cost of living and inflation. They decided to ask for $20 an hour as a minimum nationwide. In the most expensive regions, the union is asking for a starting hourly wage of $25.

Low-wage workers have rallied behind $15 an hour for more than a decade, but Starbucks organizers say that’s not enough to make ends meet with inflation. The company raised its minimum wage to $15 an hour in 2022, with its average worker now making $17.50 an hour.

“Fifteen dollars an hour would have been good maybe 10 or 15 years ago, but it’s not anymore,” said Jacob Welsh, 31, a shift supervisor at a Starbucks in Pittsburgh who has worked for the company for seven years and is a member of the union’s national bargaining committee. “Everyone wants more money.”

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But the main priority for the union is guaranteed hours and predictable schedules. Workers want a guarantee of 32 hours a week for full-time staff and 20 hours for part-timers, plus the right to have the same schedule every week or for a month at a time.

Starbucks workers often assume the company is offering a full-time job, only to be scheduled as little as one shift a week, union leaders said. Some workers who aren’t scheduled at least 20 hours a week on average have lost access to company health insurance and full tuition reimbursement for an online undergraduate degree from Arizona State University, benefits that have long attracted people to the company.

Scheduling, which is at the discretion of store managers, can vary widely, which disrupts baristas’ sleep schedules, personal lives and ability to hold additional jobs, union leaders said. Trull, the Starbucks spokesperson, said the company publishes schedules every three weeks based on worker availability and the operational needs of each store. He said the company adjusts hours based on seasonal demand.

Organizers on Wednesday also requested benefits that have been withheld from unionized stores since last year, including credit card tips, additional training, a wider range of apron sizes and more flexibility on tattoos and piercings in the dress code.

Trull said federal labor law prevented Starbucks from raising wages and expanding benefits to unionized workers without a bargaining agreement. But federal labor officials said in August that Starbucks broke the law by not extending these benefits to workers who had joined the union.

After the first two Starbucks locations in Buffalo voted to unionize in December 2021, the company agreed to bargain. But between June and October last year, not a single bargaining session was held. Finally, in late October, the parties returned to the bargaining table. The union and company have since met for roughly 85 bargaining sessions. Still, the meetings have often stalled over a disagreement about whether to allow union members who cannot attend for covid safety or logistical reasons to observe remotely by Zoom, which the company opposes. The union relented on Wednesday, agreeing to turn off Zoom cameras.

“Starbucks has made repeated efforts to schedule single-store bargaining sessions for more than 200 represented locations and are hopeful that yesterday’s development means that [the union] is ready to meet in-person and in good faith to move the single-store contract bargaining process forward, as required by law,” Trull said.

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In November, baristas at more than 100 stores went on strike in protest of the company’s approach. So far, only the first two stores to unionize, both in Buffalo, have received responses from Starbucks to their contract proposals, the union said.

Ruth Milkman, a sociologist of labor at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, said delaying bargaining sessions and setting strict terms for negotiations are tactics commonly used by employers trying to fend off unions. Under federal labor law, companies can often begin campaigns to decertify unions with a separate election a year after workers vote to unionize, though Starbucks cannot yet do so because of pending federal investigations. Companies with high turnover, such as Starbucks, can prolong the bargaining process and wait for union supporters to leave the company and other workers to lose faith in the union, Milkman said: “If it just drags on and on and ends without any results, that may discourage people.”

The National Labor Relations Board and federal courts have repeatedly found that Starbucks has violated its workers’ union rights, including by firing 22 union activists, closing unionizing stores and withholding pay increases and benefits from union members. This month a federal administrative law judge accused Starbucks of committing “egregious and widespread” labor violations in Buffalo.

Next week, Schultz will testify before the Senate’s Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, led by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), an outspoken union advocate. Union members are giddy to watch.

I want [Schultz] to take responsibility for all of the things that have happened to people that just want a union at their workplace,” Leli, the barista from Buffalo, said. “A lot of partners have lost their jobs when they didn’t have to. And I want him to tell us why. Why? Why don’t you want the union?”