Months after getting a job at a Starbucks in Buffalo, 24-year-old Jaz Brisack started asking other baristas how they felt about unionizing. (Libby March for The Washington Post)
Months after getting a job at a Starbucks in Buffalo, 24-year-old Jaz Brisack started asking other baristas how they felt about unionizing. (Libby March for The Washington Post)

A Rhodes scholar barista and the fight to unionize Starbucks

BUFFALO — The omicron variant was racing through the Starbucks on Elmwood Avenue so fast that by early January one-third of the store’s 30-person workforce was sick or isolating at home.

The worried, angry and exhausted workers who remained had asked Starbucks for KN95 masks, better protocols to inform them when co-workers tested positive for the coronavirus, and the right to deny service to customers who refused to comply with their county’s mask mandate.

Their concerns were no different from those of many of the other 383,000 Starbucks employees stuck laboring through the latest wave of the pandemic. The Elmwood baristas, though, believed that they had leverage that others lacked.

Three weeks earlier, they had voted to become the first unionized Starbucks in the country, an improbable victory that overcame stiff resistance from the coffee giant and caught the attention of baristas in Boston, Chicago, Knoxville, Seattle and Baltimore, who were requesting their own votes, just like the one in Buffalo. Congratulations were pouring in from the likes of Sen. Bernie Sanders, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and former labor secretary Robert Reich, who called their win “a watershed for the biggest coffee seller in the world” and “a small step on the long trail toward rebalancing such power in America.”

With the virus tearing through their workforce, the baristas were ready to make their demands. Michelle Eisen, an 11-year veteran of the company, called their requests the “bare minimum” Starbucks could do to keep them safe. Starbucks executives countered that the measures in place at their store and all of the others in the massive chain exceeded the recommendations of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. They weren’t going to treat Elmwood differently.

So on a Wednesday morning in early January, just hours after another worker from the store fell ill, the Elmwood baristas decided to go on strike. There were a few whispered conversations as the baristas checked to make sure everyone was on board. A 24-year-old barista named Jaz Brisack, who had been off that morning, rushed in to pick up a shift so that she could walk out with her co-workers.

A little before 8:30 a.m., they strode quietly past the store’s glass pastry case, boxes of vanilla bean powder and an industrial-size ice machine to the storage room where an unsuspecting manager was working.

“Are you all okay?” she asked.

“We’re really not,” Eisen replied.

The baristas were taking off their green aprons. Eisen was listing the names of the workers from the store who had recently fallen ill and laying out the reasoning behind the walkout.

“Is there anything I can do?” the manager asked.

“It’s really not on you,” Eisen replied. “We had a conversation with corporate yesterday. These things could’ve been resolved, and they said that this was ‘adequate,’ and it’s not.” She turned to leave, and the other workers, who were putting on their hats, coats, scarves and backpacks, followed her. A pop song was playing on the coffee shop’s sound system.

“Please clock out!” the manager called out to them as if it were just another day at work.

“No, let’s go! Don’t clock out,” Eisen told the baristas who didn’t break stride as they stepped onto the sidewalk, where they would eventually start a picket line and learn just how much they would be able to shift the balance of power inside one of America’s largest corporations.

***

A big reason baristas were standing outside on that frigid Buffalo morning was because a year earlier, Brisack, fresh off a Rhodes scholarship, had walked into the Elmwood Starbucks and applied for a job.

For the next eight months, she learned to froth lattes and blend Frappuccinos. She rose before sunrise to help open her store and picked up shifts at other Buffalo Starbucks where she met other baristas who told her about their lives, frustrations and concerns with the company. And she waited.

Brisack had been working toward this moment since she was a home-schooled teenager in Alcoa, Tenn., and read a speech delivered by the legendary American socialist Eugene Debs that hit her with the power of a revelation.

“While there is a lower class, I am in it, and while there is a criminal element, I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free,” Debs told a jury that was about to convict him of inciting resistance to the draft during World War I.

“It was so radical,” Brisack said. “So in your face.”

Debs’s words sparked an obsession with the great labor battles of the early 1900s — violent tales of avarice, betrayal and sacrifice — and propelled her to a full scholarship at the University of Mississippi, a part-time job on a failed campaign to unionize a Nissan plant and, finally, a Rhodes scholarship. She was the first woman in University of Mississippi history to win the coveted prize.

The summer before Brisack left for Britain, Richard Bensinger, a lead organizer on the Nissan campaign, invited her to come to Buffalo, where he was working on several campaigns, including one to organize a small, locally owned coffee chain.

Brisack raced unhappily through her Rhodes in a year — instead of the normal two — and returned to Buffalo, where she landed the Starbucks job.

“Just because you’re working there doesn’t mean I’m going to try to organize it,” Bensinger recalled telling her. Taking on Starbucks was a massive project that could quickly consume the resources of the tiny Upstate New York union office where the 71-year-old organizer was working.

By late July, Brisack felt she had proved herself a reliable worker. A labor shortage was putting pressure on baristas across Buffalo. “It’s now or never,” she recalled thinking. She invited a friend from her store over to crochet. A bag of yarn sat on the table. Brisack mixed some Old-Fashioneds.

Before they started, she told her friend, Cassie Fleischer, 25, that she had a question that she had been wanting to ask her: one that could put their jobs at risk and, for the moment, had to remain secret. Brisack tapped her finger nervously against her glass. She could feel her heart beating in her chest.

“How do you feel about organizing a union at Starbucks?” she asked. She had picked Fleischer for this first conversation because she knew she could trust her and because she had noticed that her friend had shared messages on Facebook about the impossibility of surviving on the minimum wage.

“Is that even possible?” Fleischer replied. “Starbucks is so huge.”

Brisack began speaking of the need for better pay, more generous benefits, more consistent scheduling and a fairer promotion system. Fleischer, who had been with Starbucks for almost five years, felt a bit ambushed and confused.

“So, do you want to learn how to crochet?” she finally interrupted.

Fleischer had barely made it home that evening when her phone pinged with a 500-word text message.

“Thank you so much for the crochet lesson and your patience with me!” Brisack wrote. “I think unionizing will mean that we will have our own voice and real power. … Right now, Starbucks has all the power and ultimately is supposed to hold themselves accountable. If we had a union, we would be able to hold them accountable and they would have to recognize us as equals.”

In the days that followed, Brisack began contacting other baristas at her store and the 19 other Buffalo Starbucks. Secrecy was paramount. In 2019, Starbucks had fired two Philadelphia baristas who were trying to unionize their stores, killing the effort before it had even started and drawing a rebuke from a National Labor Relations Board judge who ruled the company had violated the workers’ rights.

Brisack focused her initial search on baristas who had championed liberal causes on a group chat that Starbucks’s Buffalo employees used to promote events or find fill-ins when they couldn’t work their normal shifts.

“Just wanted to see if you’re available to meet up soon to talk about activism in Buffalo,” she wrote to a barista who earlier in the year had organized a demonstration against sexual assault at a local college. One of the five protesters there was Brisack.

A few days later, Brisack and another early union supporter raced out to a nightclub to track down two baristas who moonlighted as drag queen performers. She finally caught up with them around 3 a.m., pitched them on the union and then dashed home to grab some food before starting her 5 a.m. shift.

Often one pro-union barista led Brisack to others. Most of the people with whom she met were in their mid-20s; many were the first in their families to attend college and were saddled with five- and six-figure student loan debts. Some had parents who had struggled with addiction or had served time in prison.

Brisack introduced as many as she could to Bensinger. She wanted to show the baristas that she had a real union backing her, and she wanted to convince Bensinger that they could win.

Among the last people Brisack contacted was Eisen, the 11-year Starbucks veteran from her Elmwood store. Brisack didn’t know Eisen well; they typically worked different days. And Eisen’s long history with the company suggested that she might not support the big changes that a union could bring.

But the pandemic had changed Eisen’s view of Starbucks, which had thrived by selling normalcy. Even if the world was upside down, Eisen’s regulars could still count on their caramel macchiato.

Eisen’s life, though, felt anything but normal. She also worked as a stage manager for a local theater and depended on Starbucks for health insurance. When the pandemic struck, her theater shut down and Starbucks became her full-time job. She was making a little less than $16 an hour, $1 an hour more than the minimum wage for New York state fast-food workers and barely enough to pay her bills. The stress of it all had taken a toll on her mental health.

Brisack took her to meet Bensinger. At 38, Eisen was older than most of the other baristas, even-keeled and smart. Younger workers often turned to her for career and life advice. Bensinger quickly pegged her as just the sort of person the union needed to take a high-profile leadership role once the campaign launched.

“How public are you willing to be?” he asked Eisen.

“As public as you need me to be,” she replied.

In late August, 49 baristas from across Buffalo sent a letter to Starbucks’s chief executive in Seattle informing him that they were seeking to form a union. To petition the NLRB for a vote, a store needed at least 30 percent of the workers to sign union cards. The union decided to start by requesting votes at three Buffalo-area Starbucks where a large majority of baristas had signed cards, knowing that a strong anti-union campaign from Starbucks would persuade some of the early signers to change sides.

Among the most pro-union stores was Elmwood.

***

After her initial awkward conversation with Brisack, Fleischer had tried to forget about the union drive. She waited four days before she responded to Brisack’s long text, writing back that making demands of the company felt disloyal and “wrong.” Three weeks later when the campaign went public, she declined to sign a union card.

To Fleischer, it seemed as if everyone had a hidden agenda. She had trained Brisack to be a barista and recalled her during those early days as earnest, eager to learn and prone to apologizing far too much. Fleischer hadn’t been able to find her new friend on Facebook, so she had googled her and discovered that Brisack had won a prestigious scholarship in Britain. Fleischer had never heard of the Rhodes scholarship, but her mother was familiar with it. “Oh, my God, your friend is smart as s---,” Fleischer’s mother had said.

Fleischer had initially assumed that Brisack was working as a barista because she needed a break. Now she wondered whether Brisack had been part of some “secret plot” to unionize the coffee giant.

Starbucks also seemed to be less than truthful. It flooded the Buffalo market — and Fleischer’s Elmwood store — with “support managers” from around the country who worked alongside the baristas. The company said the multimillion-dollar campaign was designed to fix a market in crisis: stores that were understaffed, dirty and struggling with insect infestations. But it seemed to Fleischer that the “support managers” were also there to intimidate and spy on union supporters.

Every few weeks, the company summoned Fleischer and the other Buffalo baristas to mandatory meetings designed to undermine support for the union. The presentations warned that Workers United — the larger union with which the baristas were hoping to affiliate — was losing members and raising its dues, which the company said could cost baristas as much as $600 a year. “I need that $600,” Fleischer said she thought. “That’s a month’s rent.”

Sometimes she surprised herself with her long-suppressed grievances and her assertiveness. In one meeting she told Rossann Williams, who oversees all of Starbucks’s North American stores, that the company’s approach to taking time off for mental health, which required baristas to find someone to cover missed shifts, was “unacceptable.”

“I can’t believe I said that,” she told Brisack after the meeting.

“But it is unacceptable,” Brisack replied. “And that’s why you need to be on our store’s bargaining committee when we win.”

In November, just days before the ballots were mailed to the baristas, Fleischer filed into a hotel ballroom in downtown Buffalo for an hour-long address from Howard Schultz, the company’s founder. Schultz agreed to go to Buffalo after learning that Kevin Johnson, the company’s chief executive, hadn’t visited the city. Schultz’s trip was a sign of how badly some top executives and board members inside Starbucks wanted to stop the union drive. They worried that a successful organizing campaign could depress Starbucks’s stock price, that the union would make it harder to fire malingering employees or hurt relations between workers and their managers.

Schultz seemed to view the union campaign as a personal affront. He had stepped down as chief executive in 2018, but Starbucks was still very much the company that he had built over 30 years.

Clad in a gray cardigan and khakis, Schultz gazed out at hundreds of 20-somethings arrayed around him in the hotel ballroom. “I don’t want to give a speech. I don’t have any notes,” he told them. “I just want to speak from the heart about what I believe this company is about and what we’ve tried to do over these many years in building a different kind of company.”

Soon Schultz was speaking about his father who returned home from World War II and worked a series of “really tough, blue-collar jobs” in Brooklyn before he suffered an injury at work that left him “bitter and angry” and his family dependent on charity to survive. “I experienced at the age of seven the imprinting shame, the vulnerability, the embarrassment of a family that was really destitute,” Schultz said.

His goal at Starbucks, he continued, had been to “build the kind of company my father never got a chance to work for.”

As he was speaking, Fleischer was remembering her own struggles. She thought about her single mother, who had worked a $7.25-an-hour job at Wegmans and depended on federal aid to feed Fleischer and her brother. She thought about the Christmas when she was 8 and overheard her mother saying that they were on the verge of losing their house. She thought about how hard she worked to earn a bachelor’s degree in social work and how, despite all that hard work, she still carried $25,000 in student loan debt and qualified for Medicaid.

She had been poor her entire life, and it had never been a source of “shame” or embarrassment for her.

A few yards away, Schultz was talking about the “expensive” benefits he had provided to even his part-time baristas: a company health plan, a stock option program, free online college through Arizona State University, online mental health counseling. “Who forced us to do it? Who pushed us to do it? No one,” he repeated again and again and again.

Fleischer felt as if she was being “scolded by a parent” for her ingratitude. She started googling Schultz and found an article that said that he was worth more than $4 billion and no longer felt grateful at all. Now she was annoyed.

“If you have $4 billion, you should absolutely be providing these benefits to us,” she recalled thinking.

As soon as Schultz had finished speaking, a woman in a black leather jacket jumped up from her seat and strode toward him. “I am an organizing member of Starbucks Workers United, and I am a barista,” she shouted as she held aloft a copy of the union’s “fair elections principles,” which asked the coffee giant to give union backers equal time to make their case, and which the company had declined to endorse.

A Starbucks executive in a $500 down vest stepped in front of the young woman, blocking her path to the company founder. “Howard Schultz, please, if you care!” she yelled.

But Schultz had already slipped out the ballroom’s back door.

Four days later, Fleischer asked Eisen to meet to discuss the union. Her biggest worry was the extra $600 a year in union dues. Eisen assured her that any new contract would have to boost pay to cover the extra dues expense or it would be rejected by the union.

Fleischer said she hoped that she might someday be able to sit on her store’s bargaining committee, where she could press Starbucks executives to improve barista training and change the sick leave policy that she had complained was “unacceptable.” Later that afternoon, she texted Eisen that she was going to vote for the union.

“I AM really passionate about this job and company, and I want my voice to be heard,” she wrote. “I don’t know how else to make that happen. But if/WHEN we unionize, I want to be part of the change that comes from it.”

***

Brisack, Eisen and Fleischer locked arms, their eyes fixed on a live video of a NLRB lawyer who was counting the votes to determine whether their Starbucks on Elmwood Avenue would become the company’s first unionized U.S. store.

More than four months had passed since Brisack and Fleischer’s first conversation about the possibility of organizing a union. The lawyer slit open the first envelope. To win, the union needed at least 14 of the 27 employees on the store’s rolls to vote yes. Surrounding the three Elmwood baristas were several dozen Starbucks employees from across Buffalo.

The first seven votes were all “yeses.”

“Landslide!” one barista called out.

“Where’s Rossann?” yelled another, a reference to the head of Starbucks’s North America operations who had spent long stretches of the campaign in their Buffalo stores and had repeatedly urged the baristas to oppose the union.

Five consecutive no votes followed. “What’s happening?” Brisack whispered to Eisen who shut her eyes and squeezed Brisack’s left hand tight. Soon they were up to 13 “yes” votes. They needed just one more to go their way, and they would officially be a union. The NLRB lawyer opened the next ballot.

“Yes,” he read.

Brisack, Fleischer and Eisen clutched each other in a group hug, and Eisen started to cry. “Elmwood! Elmwood! Elmwood!” the baristas around them chanted.

The NLRB lawyer counted the votes at two more Buffalo Starbucks. One voted narrowly against joining the union, and a third store’s results remained inconclusive because of objections to some ballots that several weeks later were decided in the union’s favor.

“We’re incredibly excited to announce that we have won the first unionized Starbucks in U.S. history,” Eisen told a dozen reporters who had gathered at the union’s office in a converted factory where Buffalo laborers once manufactured World War II-era warplanes.

The reporters asked essentially the same question: What exactly did the baristas want from Starbucks? More affordable health insurance? More predictable hours? Better pay? “A new employee who starts today makes 63 cents less an hour than I do after 11 years,” Eisen said. “So, is that an issue? Sure.”

The reality, though, was that Eisen, Brisack and Fleischer wanted something bigger. In the first hours following the union’s victory, Eisen didn’t feel joy or relief. Rather, she felt “resentment and anger” at how hard Starbucks had fought to prevent their store and others from unionizing. The company had postponed the balloting for months with unsuccessful legal challenges and targeted pro-union baristas for the smallest slip-ups, such as minor dress-code infractions or accidental swearing. In the case of the store where votes were still in dispute, the union charged that Starbucks had attempted to dilute support by more than doubling the staff.

Eisen told the reporters that she wanted the company to stop fighting, sit down with them and “negotiate the best contract that the service industry has ever seen.”

Brisack stepped forward. “We’ve said from Day One that all we had to do was win one store,” she added. And now that they had won it, the Elmwood baristas expected Starbucks to recognize their new power.

***

Three weeks later, the Elmwood baristas went on strike. The day before they walked out, Brisack, Eisen and Fleischer took part in an emergency meeting with three Starbucks executives and a company lawyer to discuss the omicron outbreak that had sidelined 10 Elmwood staffers.

The sides talked in circles for nearly three hours. The baristas asked Starbucks to close their store for five days to stem the outbreak and give people time to return from isolation. When that request was rejected, they pushed for more robust protective equipment, such as KN95 masks. The Starbucks executives responded that they were “very confident” in their safety protocols and that there were enough healthy baristas at Elmwood to “meet the needs of the business.”

The next morning, around 5:45, a worker, who had gone to the emergency room just days earlier for a non-covid illness, told Eisen that he was too weak to finish his shift. He had come in, he said, only because he didn’t want to let down his co-workers when they were already missing so many people. Eisen drove him home and returned to the store.

“I’m about to walk out of this place,” one of the baristas complained to her.

“Let’s do it,” Eisen replied. “This is ridiculous.”

She quickly got assurances from the union that it would cover their lost pay and that Starbucks couldn’t fire them for striking. Then she quietly consulted with the other baristas — starting with Fleischer.

“Are you sure this is the move?” Fleischer asked nervously. “Is now the time?

“If we’re not going to walk out over our health and well-being, then there’s not anything worth walking out for,” Eisen said. Brisack woke to a series of texts about the walkout from Fleischer and raced down to the store to join them.

Soon they were all standing on the sidewalk and Eisen was texting the rest of the workers to let them know what had happened. The store, staffed by a manager and a shift supervisor, remained open for about 45 more minutes until the overwhelmed shift supervisor uttered an agreed-upon safe word — “Oklahoma” — and the manager locked the doors. The store stayed closed for two days before Starbucks reopened it with a mix of Elmwood workers who chose not to strike and other Starbucks personnel.

Brisack, Fleischer and Eisen spent the five days after the walkout on the sidewalk picketing alongside their co-workers.

Inside the store, a few of their overworked and frustrated colleagues struggled to serve the store’s customers. Fleischer tried not to make eye contact with them through the windows. To Fleischer, it was “kind of baffling” that the company hadn’t given them anything. Even their relatively small request that Starbucks pay their out-of-pocket costs on coronavirus tests was denied. “I was expecting them to do or say something,” she said.

She didn’t regret backing the union, which had given her a sense of mission and purpose. But she was starting to doubt that they would even be able to negotiate a pay raise big enough to offset their union dues. And she worried that it would be awkward when she and her fellow strikers eventually returned to work.

On Day 4 of their frigid, five-day protest, Fleischer worked up the courage to ask Brisack a question that had been weighing on her for months.

“Did you plan on all this happening when you started at Starbucks, or was it just a coincidence?” she asked.

Brisack replied that she hadn’t known whether it would be possible to unionize the coffee giant when she took the job at the Elmwood store. “I’d try to organize any place I worked, but this wasn’t a grand scheme,” she said. Without the union and, even more important, the support of other Buffalo baristas, there would have been no union drive.

Another barista standing nearby weighed in: “Are you like a union vigilante? Are you just going to leave and go to some other coffee shop now?”

Brisack believed that the labor movement was the only vehicle in the country for building power, outside of politics and big business. She had long ago given up on politics. Even though union membership had been in a death spiral for decades, she still believed that unions could serve as a liberating force that could address the country’s most dire problems: poverty, racism, inequality.

Her four months fighting Starbucks had given her a visceral sense of how hard the battle was going to be. “How are we ever going to overthrow capitalism when it’s this hard to unionize a single store in Buffalo?” she had said, half-jokingly, after Elmwood’s victory.

To succeed, she knew that the union couldn’t afford to negotiate a “good enough” contract with Starbucks. “It has to be a great one,” she said. And she realized that a single unionized store was never going to compel the company to negotiate in good faith.

Every day, new Starbucks stores were petitioning the NLRB for union elections. The grass-roots movement was spreading via Instagram and Twitter and had grown by mid-February to 78 stores from all over the country: Rochester, N.Y.; Kansas City, Mo.; Santa Cruz, Calif.; Eugene, Ore.; Tallahassee; Everett, Wash.

Starbucks was still fighting the unionization push, but now it was waging a much tougher and potentially more expensive multi-front war. Brisack also knew that the company, which espoused liberal values and even sold a Starbucks-themed Black Lives Matter T-shirt, was vulnerable to allegations of union busting. In February, Starbucks fired seven employees in Memphis who were seeking to unionize their store. The company said the workers violated security rules, but the union claimed the firings were retaliation for labor activity. “This might be a turning point,” Brisack said of the Memphis firings. “They can’t do this and be the company they say they are.”

The bigger the baristas’ movement, the greater the chances that Starbucks’s resistance would provoke a backlash that might damage its bottom line. Sixty stores out of 8,947 probably wasn’t enough. The union might need 600 or even 6,000. It would need help from activists, politicians and possibly celebrities.

When she thought about her own future, Brisack’s thoughts turned to her childhood hero Eugene Debs, who set her on her journey to Buffalo. Debs famously had said: “When I rise, it will be with the ranks [of the working class], and not from the ranks.”

Brisack wanted to do the same. Her plan was to stay in Buffalo in the apartment she had decorated with furniture from Goodwill, continue as a barista and build a movement that she believed could change Starbucks, and shift the balance of power in America back to people like Eisen, Fleischer and her.

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