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Starbucks workers in Buffalo win watershed union vote

The Starbucks on Elmwood Avenue in Buffalo. (Libby March for The Washington Post)

Starbucks workers in Buffalo won a pathbreaking bid to form a union after votes were counted Thursday, part of a wave of labor activism sweeping the country in the midst of the pandemic.

The cafe in Elmwood Village will become the only unionized location among the coffee giant’s 9,000 corporate-owned stores in the United States.

Baristas at the store voted 19 to 8 to unionize despite months of opposition from the Seattle-based company. Senior executives and teams of managers spent weeks in Buffalo and held repeated meetings urging workers to reject the step.

The employees will join Workers United, an arm of the Service Employees International Union.

“We’re hoping it’s a transformative action for this industry,” said Michelle Eisen, a Starbucks barista who has worked for the company for 11 years. “It’s an industry that deserves good working conditions and a livable wage.”

Baristas at three stores in Buffalo cast votes in a mail-in election conducted by the National Labor Relations Board. A second store rejected the union drive, but union officials said they expect to challenge the result. The third store’s results remain inconclusive because of objections to some of the ballots.

Starbucks baristas are on the verge of forming a union. The company is pushing back.

The vote marks a victory for the labor movement at a time of increasing leverage for workers and growing support for unions. Nearly 70 percent of Americans now approve of unions, according to a Gallup survey conducted in August, the highest such figure in more than 50 years.

Recent months have witnessed a surge in unionization activities, by warehouse workers, museum staffers and university instructors. A landmark effort to unionize an Amazon facility in Alabama failed in April, but federal regulators ordered a fresh election after the union challenged the result. (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

A National Labor Relations Board official said on Nov. 29 that Amazon pressured its warehouse workers in Alabama to oppose unionizing in the first election. (Video: Reuters)

The newly formed union at Starbucks gives organized labor a small presence in one of the best-known companies in the United States and a rare foothold in the fast-food industry.

Starbucks employees in Buffalo say that working conditions in recent years, combined with the nationwide labor shortage, propelled them to act. Dozens of workers from across the city joined the union organizing committee in August, bonded by grievances about understaffing, raises for long-serving employees and safety measures during the pandemic.

Before Thursday’s vote count, a dozen Starbucks workers gathered at the union office. As the ballots were tallied one by one on a video call, the baristas linked arms and held hands. When they realized they had a majority of votes at the Elmwood store, the workers — mostly in their 20s — jumped into the air, screamed with relief and hugged. Several broke into tears. Five workers from the winning store collapsed into a group hug as their fellow baristas chanted “Elmwood! Elmwood! Elmwood!”

Although the number of employees involved in the Starbucks unionization vote is small, the trailblazing nature of the effort makes it “a pretty big deal,” said Wilma Liebman, a former chairwoman of the National Labor Relations Board. “Of course, winning is contagious.”

Three more Starbucks stores in Buffalo and a store in Arizona have petitioned to hold union elections, but a date has not been set. Unionizing employees say they have been contacted by fellow baristas throughout the country and hope their efforts will be replicated in other regions.

Other employees in the retail and service sectors are “definitely going to be taking a cue from these Starbucks workers in Buffalo,” said Lane Windham, a labor historian at Georgetown University. “It’s been a while since we’ve seen this kind of interest among young people in union organizing.”

Starbucks has told employees — called “partners” in the company’s terminology — that it does not think a union is necessary and that workers are better served by the current relationship with management.

Rossann Williams, the president for North America at Starbucks, sent a note to the company’s more than 200,000 U.S. employees following Thursday’s results. She acknowledged that one store “voted to be represented by a union” but said the vote outcomes “will not change our shared purpose.” The results for the Elmwood store will be certified by the labor board next week if Starbucks does not file any objections.

Some workers in Buffalo expressed the hope that Starbucks would quickly open negotiations with the union. But many think Thursday’s result is the first step in what could be a long struggle. Reaching a negotiated contract can be a protracted process that companies often seek to delay.

“I want to hope that they will negotiate with us in good faith but I am not confident,” said Alexis Rizzo, a shift supervisor who has worked for Starbucks for six years, since age 17. “We need government support and public support.”

While Starbucks embraces liberal causes as part of its corporate ethos, that stance does not extend to union organizing. The company fended off prior attempts to unionize stores in New York and Philadelphia. In July, an administrative judge found that Starbucks had violated labor law by retaliating against two baristas involved in the Philadelphia unionization effort.

In Buffalo, Starbucks flooded the 20 stores in the area with management personnel from other parts of the country. The company says such officials were dispatched to address employee concerns and fix operational problems. Unionizing workers filed a formal charge with the labor board accusing Starbucks of engaging in surveillance and intimidation, something the company denies.

Howard Schultz, the man who built Starbucks into a global giant, traveled to Buffalo last month for a meeting with company baristas. He told them that the company had given workers pioneering benefits — including health insurance, stock options and online college tuition — without being pushed to do so.

A union briefly represented Starbucks store workers in the United States in the 1980s but shut down shortly after Schultz bought the company in 1987, according to his autobiography. Before Thursday, the only unionized company-owned Starbucks in the world was in Victoria, B.C. It negotiated its first contract this year. There are also unionized workers at some of the 6,500 locations run by Starbucks licensees.

Thursday’s vote “changes everything,” said Gianna Reeve, a shift supervisor in Buffalo. But the “jumping up and down, screaming moment” will come when the union negotiates a contract, she said. “Once we have that, it sets a precedent for the rest of the country.”

Jaffe reported from Buffalo.