Union drive at Manhattan roastery shows spirit of Starbucks workers

Since the first winning drive in Buffalo, 18 US locations have unionized – including at the chichi New York ‘reserve’

When Starbucks opened it flagship reserve roastery in the Meatpacking District of Manhattan in late 2018, the “sleek, inspiring, coffee extravaganza” was supposed to show the world a new, more sophisticated side of the coffee chain.

A 10ft, 2,000lb copper sculpture of the Starbucks siren logo presides over the space, which includes a coffee roasting manufacturing plant, a terrarium based on Starbucks’ coffee farm in Costa Rica, a mixology bar that offers cocktails, an on-site bakery, a coffee roastery scoop bar, and full dine-in service.

Now the site is also emblematic of another big trend at Starbucks – unionization. The roastery is the site of the first unionized Starbucks location in New York City, and the first Starbucks reserve roastery to unionize, after workers voted in favor of a union on 1 April, with 46 votes in favor and 36 against.

Sam LaGow, who has worked at Starbucks for about six years and at the reserve roastery in Manhattan since 2019, said the union organizing effort developed from conversations between workers in the wake of the first Starbucks’ union victory in Buffalo in December.

“There was plenty of impetus for it, both in terms of frustrations about working conditions and thoughts about why we like the idea of a democratized workplace,” said LaGow.

He said workers at the reserve roastery face constant problems with staffing and day-to-day operations that accommodate customers far more than Starbucks employees, adding that working conditions worsened throughout the pandemic.

“Since Covid, we’ve seen an almost exponential increase in our responsibilities at the roastery, and with this has come no commensurate compensation for it,” said LaGow.

“Life in New York and the world at large has grown more expensive in the last year or two. Tt has everyone wondering what they the hell they’re still doing here if it’s going to get more demanding, being asked to do more for customers and management, and really only seeing often decent, but sometimes inadequate annual pay increases.”

LaGow also said even some of Starbucks’ benefits, such as healthcare, are too expensive and inaccessible for workers to afford.

Now that LaGow and his co-workers have won their union election, they face the daunting task of negotiating their first union agreement with the company. Organizers are circulating a bargaining survey to establish the priorities and issues workers would like to focus on in in negotiating a first collective bargaining agreement with Starbucks.

“We understand just what a monumental task we have before us. But we’ve sort of come this far, and I don’t feel any less encouraged to do what I’m doing,” said LaGow. “When you put so much of your life and energy into a company, you expect something commensurate to come out of that, and not for many years has that been the case in any part of the service sector in America. That is what we’re looking to change.”

Since the first union election victory in the US at a Starbucks corporate store location in Buffalo in December, workers at more than 200 Starbucks chains around the US have filed for union election petitions with the National Labor Relations Board, and 18 stores have officially won their union elections, as of 13 April.

As the wave of Starbucks workers continues to expand their union organizing efforts, Starbucks senior management has remained steadfast in their aggressive opposition to unions. Starbucks’ chief executive, the billionaire Howard Schultz, who recently returned to the helm of the company, claimed the company is being “assaulted” by the threat of unionization.

“Going forward, it will be important for all of you to recognize that outside labor unions are attempting to sell a very different view of what Starbucks should be,” said Schultz in a letter dated 10 April.

Workers have filed dozens of unfair labor practice charges against Starbucks since the union organizing campaign took off in Buffalo, and workers in New York, Tennessee, North Carolina, Kansas and Arizona have alleged they were fired in retaliation for union organizing. Workers at stores in Washington, New York, Kansas, North Carolina, Arizona, Tennessee and Pennsylvania, have gone on strike over working conditions or held protest rallies in support of fired workers.

A spokesperson for Starbucks said all allegations of retaliation are “categorically false”.

The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has issued two complaints against Starbucks for retaliation against workers in Arizona, and prosecutors with the board plan to declare the firing of seven workers in Memphis illegal unless the company settles the case.

Miguel Perez Glassner, a Starbucks employee at the reserve roastery since October, said he had always been supportive of labor unions, but the idea began to take hold after the first Starbucks union win in Buffalo, when workers at the reserve roastery in New York City were working during a surge of Omicron cases.

Several of his co-workers became ill during that surge, and Perez Glassner said it was stressful waiting for management to react and make decisions. They initially planned to switch to a to-go model, but at the last minute opted to shut down the store for three days.

“There was this horrible suspense of waiting for them to decide our fate,” said Perez Glassner. “That was the moment where I realized there needs to be some kind of better system that can address our concerns for our health and our ability to staff well.”

In mid-February, workers went public with their union organizing campaign at the reserve roastery in filing for a union election petition. At that point, management began pushing for workers to vote no. The company tried to use the manufacturing workers at the roastery – who pulled their union election petition before the election was held – to try to entice other workers to reject the union, claiming the union had abandoned those workers, though the workers themselves had made that decision.

“Our management on the retail side of the roastery put up this letter about how Starbucks Workers United has abandoned the roasting team,” said Perez Glassner.

“It’s funny to me how management had been demanding that we be respectful, but it didn’t seem very respectful in misrepresenting what was going on there. It was very misleading.”

A spokesperson for Starbucks said stores throughout the company have adjusted hours and levels of operations through Covid-19 surges, including Omicron surges this winter.

“We took a great deal of pride in not only communicating clearly with our partners, for making those adjustments based off the staffing levels,” they said.


Michael Sainato

The GuardianTramp

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