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Opinion How the Great Resignation is bringing efforts to unionize Starbucks to a boil

Starbucks employees and supporters react as votes are read during a union-election watch party on Dec. 9, 2021, in Buffalo. (Joshua Bessex/AP)

The restaurant and food service industry, long known for low pay and less than optimal working conditions, is one of the hot spots of the labor movement that has come to be known as the Great Resignation.

But things are playing out slightly differently at Starbucks. A creative union-organizing campaign is making inroads at a company long thought by many activists to be all but impossible to organize. And it’s doing so in a way that calls out corporations on their progressive rhetoric while, at the same time, pointing to a possible path forward for America’s perennially under-siege labor movement.

Since August, employees at more than 50 Starbucks locations have filed signed authorization cards with the National Labor Relations Board saying they want to vote on a union. And the number is rising — several filed two weeks ago, including in Boston, Richmond and Santa Cruz, Calif. Workers at a Starbucks in Denver and at four locations in Michigan joined the list last week. Monday morning, Workers United, the affiliate of the Service Employees International Union spearheading the effort, announced more than a dozen others, including one in the Kansas City suburb of Overland Park. There have been three such elections in the Buffalo area in recent months — and the union won two. The company is challenging one in Mesa, Ariz., and there are three more in New York coming up.

That is still a small fraction of the chain’s stores, but organizers say momentum is coming to a boil as workers at many other locations are asking how they, too, can start the unionization process. “It’s like a chain reaction,” says Richard Bensinger, head of the organizing push at Starbucks for Workers United. “It’s the most worker interest I’ve seen in my career, no question.”

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And it’s particularly remarkable in light of the state of the American labor movement. On the surface, it can seem as if things are going great guns. Last year saw a number of highly publicized strikes, including one at breakfast cereal manufacturer Kellogg’s. Popular support for unions has reached a more than 50-year high. But that action and sentiment can’t make up for a more dire reality: Last month, the Labor Department reported union membership continued its decades-long falloff in 2021.

It’s notable for another reason, too. Several years ago, while reporting on the Fight for $15, I was told that many Starbucks workers were not particularly receptive to organizing efforts. The reason: Starbucks, then as now, paid higher wages than fast-food joints and offered health insurance to employees who worked an average of 20 or more hours a week. Few baristas wanted to rock the corporate boat.

So what changed? First, shortly before the beginning of the pandemic, union organizers decided to make another attempt to gain a foothold at the coffee colossus. But they turned the Fight for $15 playbook on its head. They decided to start small. The theory, so far borne out, was that as word got out, one store would inspire the next.

But Starbucks’s own corporate rhetoric plays a role, as well. Starbucks has long branded itself with progressive values. From supporting gay rights to proudly announcing it purchases coffee from farms that meet stringent environmental and sustainable standards, the company has long boasted of its left-leaning bona fides. When then-President Donald Trump moved to stop people from seven predominantly Muslim countries from entering the United States, the java giant’s chief executive at the time, Howard Schultz, pledged that Starbucks would hire 10,000 refugees over the next five years — a goal the company vowed last year to “continue to pursue.” Starbucks’s messaging to its workers sounds progressive, too — it calls them “partners” and says its corporate mission is to “inspire and nurture the human spirit.”

These sentiments, over time, attracted a young, left-leaning workforce — one where employees are sometimes disappointed and angry when they discover that Starbucks can be, well, just another employer. “Starbucks, as a company, seems very progressive to their audience,” says Russ Lingle, 22, a senior at Rowan University who works as a shift supervisor at the Hopewell, N.J., location. “But then they do the opposite.”

Unionizing baristas have complained about everything from understaffing — an issue at most service establishments in these pandemic-ravaged times — to inadequate covid protections (“throughout the pandemic we have met and exceeded all CDC and expert guidelines for safety,” Starbucks noted in a statement) and a desire for higher pay.

This workforce, it seems, was primed for action when the record job-quits of the Great Resignation gave workers a leverage they haven’t enjoyed in decades. A corporate announcement that by the summer of 2022, all baristas would earn a minimum of $15 an hour, with most receiving around $17, isn’t dousing union activity at Starbucks. Neither, it seems, is anti-union outreach. Management is holding meetings with staff at the organizing locations, asking them what they can do to make things better. Starbucks has also tried — though so far without success — to stop the momentum by claiming to the National Labor Relations Board that union authorization votes should be regional and not proceed store by store.

When I reached out to Starbucks for this piece, a spokesman for the company pointed me to a statement recently released by Rossann Williams, the company’s executive vice president, saying Starbucks would honor the votes of store employees, but that “we do not want a union between us as partners.” That kind of having-it-both-ways messaging isn’t likely to reverse the union’s so-far-successful push.

But is this organizing model specific only to the special — dare I say overtly liberal — circumstances of Starbucks? Perhaps not. The language of racial and economic justice is increasingly common in corporate settings. More and more companies want to be seen as acting with a view toward not just shareholders but all their stakeholders — including employees. It’s not hard to see, especially if labor shortages continue, a future where increasingly empowered workers at other companies also demand that their employers put their money where their mouths are.