In December, a Buffalo location of Starbucks became the first among the 9,000 corporate-owned stores in the United States to vote to unionize. Now, Starbucks baristas are serving up union cards across the country: More than 100 locations have filed for union recognition in over 20 states since the campaign started in Buffalo last fall.
“It’s spread with remarkable speed,” said Joseph McCartin, a history professor and the executive director of the Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor at Georgetown University. “And a spreading fire is difficult to put out.”
It isn’t just the momentum that’s notable, experts say. Many leaders of the movement are in their early 20s; they’re leaning into the nickname “Generation U,” for union. Approval of unions is the highest it has been since 1965, with a 68 percent approval rating — which rises to 77 percent among Americans ages 18 to 34 — according to a recent Gallup poll.
“In times of union upsurge, things can crystallize along generational lines, where a younger set of workers has different expectations and different levels of fear,” said McCartin, who added that economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic, immense levels of student debt, and wages that haven’t kept up with the cost of living have politicized many young people.
Many of the Starbucks organizers are women and nonbinary people, according to Starbucks Workers United, the group helping stores unionize. In large part, this is because Starbucks’s workforce is more than 70 percent female. Labor experts say it’s also because women are playing an important leadership role in the kinds of social movements that often feed into labor drives, including fights for racial justice and climate change activism.
“Who are the major grass-roots organizers right now? They’re women, nonbinary people, queer women, and people of color, particularly women of color, if you look at the social movements spectrum,” said Eileen Boris, a professor studying feminism and labor at the University of California at Santa Barbara.
McCartin said it’s too early to say whether the push to unionize Starbucks signals a change in a long-declining labor movement, but it does suggest that the pandemic has been a breaking point for many low-wage American workers.
Many baristas say that working conditions at Starbucks are better than at many comparable workplaces. Reggie Borges, communications director for the global communications team at Starbucks, said that starting this summer, Starbucks baristas will make on average almost $17 an hour and that workers have access to benefits, which includes health-care plans for those who work more than 20 hours per week. The company will also cover full tuition for a college degree at Arizona State University’s online program.
“We don’t believe a union is necessary at Starbucks, and we don’t need a third party to get in between the relationship between us as partners,” Borges said. “But we respect the rights of our partners to organize.”
For many employees, the push to unionize is less of a sign of Starbucks’s merits than how dire conditions in the industry have become.
The Washington Post spoke with women and nonbinary people playing a leadership role in the drive to unionize Starbucks across the country. Here’s what they had to say.
Leo Hernandez, 25
Leo Hernandez works three jobs: They juggle an app-based, grocery-delivery service and babysitting gigs with work as a shift supervisor at Starbucks. Growing up with two working-class parents, Hernandez said that having multiple jobs and living paycheck to paycheck always seemed like an inevitable part of life — but more recently, they said, they’ve started to question why this has to be the case.
“With a pay raise that’s actually significant, that can actually ensure that people only need one job to survive — that would be incredible,” Hernandez said. “Financial security is everything.”
Hernandez added that spending so much of their waking life working and worrying about money is exhausting: “I don’t have time to hang out with people. Quite frankly: I work, I go home. And then I go work some more.”
In an age where so much of their lives exists online or at work, unionization, they said, is one of the only ways they’ve been able to foster a genuine connectedness.
“My generation is lacking in a feeling of community,” Hernandez said. “It’s a sense of community for us to organize in this way and then to watch all the other stores organize — we’re being connected to each other in a way we haven’t seen before.”
Noel Bennett, 22
Santa Cruz, Calif.
For Noel Bennett, “union” has generally meant one thing: It was a word that got you fired.
She said that colleagues have reiterated the warning since she started at Starbucks in 2019: Management wanted to avoid unionization, so they might fire workers who were involved in a unionization drive, she remembers her co-workers telling her.
That fear reverberated for many baristas last month when Starbucks fired seven Memphis workers pushing for unionization. Starbucks Workers United alleged the company was “union busting” and filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board.
Borges said that Starbucks doesn’t penalize employees for being involved in a union. He added that the workers in Memphis were fired for safety and security violations, including opening up the store after closing and allowing non-Starbucks employees inside the store, not for union activity.
As a first-generation college student who has been working since she was 15 to save for school, Bennett said she now sees unionization as one of the only ways to have control over her future.
“I feel like I can do something to help people my age see that we can do something about the cards that have been given to us,” she said.
The idea of having more control over sick days, hazard pay and her store’s mask policies feels empowering in a pandemic that has made her feel constantly unsafe, she added.
As Bennett put it: “I finally feel like, through this unionization idea, I can finally console my fears by taking action.”
Ash O’Neill, 21
Ash O’Neill says there are a lot of reasons their generation is fed up: O’Neill was born a year before 9/11, grew up in the shadow of a recession and have spent the bulk of their college life in a global pandemic.
“We’ve watched just horrible things happen for our entire life,” O’Neill said. “We’re realizing that we do have a say and a voice, and we can make people listen to us.”
When a Boston co-worker invited them to a meeting with some of the Buffalo organizers, O’Neill’s response was quick: “Absolutely.”
O’Neill didn’t expect that union organizing would occupy the bulk of their senior year of college and said it has been “a bit surreal.” They’re putting their film studies to use, they said, by helping with a documentary about the union push, as well as picking up communications skills assisting with the organization’s social media accounts.
O’Neill wants a seat at the negotiating table because it doesn’t seem fair, they said, that higher level management has a greater say in coronavirus safety protocols than the people brewing coffee in person every day.
As they put it: “I really just think that everyone deserves … to be treated equally and respectfully.”
Angel Krempa, 23
Unpredictable hours is something Angel Krempa would like to change with unionization. She said she was forced to send her co-workers a group chat recently, when she was scheduled to work 29 hours — fewer than the 35 she says she needs to cover rent and student loan payments. “If anybody can please give away hours, I can’t survive without it,” she texted to the chat.
Borges said that more reliable working hours is an example of how Starbucks has listened to employees, including the fact that Starbucks now gives workers their schedules three weeks in advance to give them time to plan.
Along with more predictable hours, Krempa said coronavirus safety protocols are something she would like to see improve. Krempa, who has a compromised immune system, said she was infected with the coronavirus at work. She has been frustrated by what she said is Starbucks’s constantly changing its policy. (Borges said that he’s not aware of another retailer who is as committed as Starbucks when it comes to health and safety protocols and cited the isolation pay it provided in the early stages of the pandemic and consistent safety protocols such as temperature checks and masking as examples.)
But Krempa is finding her voice with unionization. She said she isn’t surprised that women have emerged as leaders at this moment, and that their presence at the negotiation table will help keep issues such as parental leave front of mind.
“Women and the LGBT community have had their voices suppressed so many times, we’re the ones who are really standing up for everybody — not just ourselves, but everybody,” she said.
Still, Krempa said, she loves working at Starbucks, reflecting the attitude of many baristas driving unionization.
“None of this about taking down Starbucks or anything like that,” she said. “This is about the workers of Starbucks trying to uplift Starbucks and make sure that it’s accountable for itself.”
Rachel Ybarra, 22
Rachel Ybarra says their identity growing up — being poor, looking White but having a Mexican-Puerto Rican parent, having their family rocked by the economic recession — made them political from an early age.
“When your life is a political question, you don’t really have a choice about whether or not to participate,” Ybarra said.
The wave of racial justice protests in the summer of 2020 were inspiring, Ybarra said, but with so much time spent working, it felt impossible to participate. They see fighting for unionization as a way to participate in social change in their own workplace.
“If they provide a safe, nurturing work environment, where people can get their needs taken care of, and they can thrive as human beings instead of going to work and then becoming a vegetable at the end of the day because they’re so exhausted — that could genuinely change the world,” Ybarra said.