Local

Starbucks showdown in Boston points to new phase of union campaign

A Starbucks spokesperson denied that the company had unlawfully forced out workers, saying any increase in disciplinary action against union supporters reflected an increase in violations.

Workers at a Starbucks in Boston were on strike for more than two months this summer. M. Scott Brauer / Bloomberg


BOSTON — For much of the summer, employees reliably turned up at a Starbucks near Boston University. But instead of going inside to serve coffee, they sat outside in lawn chairs — as part of a strike over what they said was retaliation for unionizing.

local news

When passersby inquired how long the strike would last, workers responded, “As long as it has to.” Ultimately, they shut the store for more than two months, until satisfied that Starbucks would not impose new scheduling requirements in union stores that they said would force some of them to quit. Starbucks said it had told union stores for weeks that there would be no such change and denied retaliating against union supporters.

Advertisement:

The walkout was one of dozens at unionized Starbucks locations in recent months, meant partly to reenergize a labor organizing effort whose momentum has stalled since the spring and has so far yielded no contract.

When workers at three Buffalo, New York-area locations filed for union elections in August 2021, it appeared to catch the company off guard. The campaign spread rapidly, unionizing roughly 250 stores.

But election filings dropped from about 70 in March to under 10 in August, ushering in a second phase of the campaign: an uneasy stalemate in which organizers struggled to sign up new stores even as the company was hard-pressed to reverse their gains.

“In the context of the size of the organization as a whole, it’s a drop in the bucket,” said David Pryzbylski, a partner at the management-side firm Barnes & Thornburg, alluding to the company’s 9,000 corporate-owned locations. But he added: “Anyone who thinks it’s going back anywhere close to zero is foolish. It’s safe to assume they’ll have at least hundreds of cafes unionized going forward.”

That has led to a third phase of the campaign, in which the union, Workers United, has stepped up efforts to win concessions from the company through collective bargaining, which is scheduled for the coming weeks.

Advertisement:

Some of the concessions sought by the union, such as a commitment by the company to stay neutral in future elections, could make it easier for workers to unionize. Others, like paid leave tied to a pandemic, which the company has discontinued, could encourage more workers to join the union by showing it can deliver concrete benefits.

But to win such concessions and greatly expand the union’s reach, labor experts say, supporters will almost certainly have to increase pressure on the company, through strikes or other means. And that has heightened the importance of a number of cities — in addition to Boston and Buffalo, places such as Eugene, Oregon; Albany, New York; and Ann Arbor, Michigan — where there are several unionized stores, dozens of workers willing to coordinate their actions and a community that is largely sympathetic.

“Massing forces in a particular geographic region and attempting to spread the conflagration there has the potential to work,” said Peter Olney, a former organizing director of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union. “I would focus on those metro areas.”

One architect of the union’s strategy in Boston is recent law school graduate Kylah Clay, who works as a barista at a unionized store.

Advertisement:

On a blistering afternoon in August, Clay, wearing a tank top and green Army pants, sat outside the Boston University store holding a stack of checks that workers came to collect, courtesy of the union’s Starbucks strike fund.

In between, she recalled how she and a colleague had recently ambushed their district manager at another store after he had become slow to respond to their calls and text messages. “We went up to the district manager and started making our demands,” Clay said.

As Clay tells it, she knew almost nothing about unions before last year, when company officials began pouring into Buffalo after the campaign had gone public. Among them was Howard Schultz, who was between tours as CEO. “When Buffalo filed, Howard should have kept his mouth shut,” she said. “I would have never gotten involved.”

Employees at her store, where she had first worked during law school, and another Boston-area store filed for union elections in December and won their votes in April. Since then, more than 15 stores in New England have also unionized, most of them with her help. Nationwide, the union has won about 250 out of just more than 300 votes.

But adding to the total has become more difficult. “Stores that are easy to organize, that had people in them who were natural leaders, who were excited about it — those have filed already,” said Brick Zurek, a former Starbucks employee in Chicago who helped organize workers there.

Adjustments in the way that Starbucks treats workers have also appeared to play a role. During the early phase of the union campaign, the company generally did not fire workers involved in organizing. But this year, Starbucks began to do so more regularly — like when it fired seven workers in Memphis, Tennessee who were recently reinstated by a federal judge.

Advertisement:

The National Labor Relations Board issued multiple complaints against Starbucks for firing union supporters, and the agency’s judges have ruled against the company in a few cases so far.

Reggie Borges, a Starbucks spokesperson, denied that the company had unlawfully forced out workers, saying any increase in disciplinary action against union supporters reflected an increase in violations.

In May, the company announced wage increases and new benefits, such as faster sick leave accrual, that would apply only to employees of nonunion stores or those not in the process of organizing.

Julie Langevin, a worker involved in organizing a Starbucks store near Boston that voted against the union, said several longtime employees in her store relied on Starbucks for health care and had become alarmed that unionized workers might miss out on benefits.

“They were extremely concerned that they would actually lose health insurance,” Langevin said.

The labor board has issued a complaint against the company for withholding new benefits and wage increases from unionized employees. Starbucks has said it is forbidden by federal law from adding certain benefits unilaterally in unionized stores.

The labor board has issued a complaint against the company for withholding new benefits and wage increases from unionized employees. Starbucks has said it is forbidden by federal law from adding certain benefits unilaterally in unionized stores.

Workers United is an established union with more than 70,000 members across the United States and Canada but has often relied on Starbucks workers to organize their own stores and plan their own labor actions.

Advertisement:

Clay leads a committee that helps New England stores organize, sending out union “starter kits” that include Starbucks Workers United T-shirts and union cards with envelopes addressed to the labor relations board. “I have one closet with 300 shirts in it,” she said in August.

She also leads the region’s collective action committee, which came about after workers at a Boston-area store staged a daylong strike over a leaky roof in late May. (Starbucks said the leak had been repaired within a business day.)

Six weeks later, as the committee was contemplating a series of daylong walkouts in response to the company’s withholding of new benefits from union stores, workers at the store near Boston University decided to strike. Spencer Costigan and Nora Rossi, two union leaders at the store, which is at 874 Commonwealth Ave., said workers were fed up with what they described as retaliation for unionizing and the company’s refusal to bargain.

“They texted me out of the blue and said, ‘I think we’re ready to do it,’” Clay said. “Not as many stores were interested at the time. But then they saw 874 and were like, ‘Ah, OK.’” Workers eventually waged strikes that closed five stores for one week; the strike at 874 Commonwealth sprawled across nine weeks.

The actions seemed to build support for their cause. The Boston City Council passed a resolution backing the strikers, and politicians, activists, students and other union members joined the picket line at all hours of the day and night.

Advertisement:

Workers at the Boston University store called off the strike in late September, a few days after Starbucks posted an announcement to baristas saying stores that had unionized by early July would not be subject to a requirement that workers be available to work at least 18 hours a week. (The requirement would take effect at nonunion stores.)

Rossi said that, before the workers went on strike in mid-July, their manager had pressured some union supporters to increase their availability under the new rule or leave their jobs. Other unionized workers in Massachusetts made similar complaints on a messaging app as recently as early September.

Borges said the rule had never applied to union stores, citing communications to managers in July and a tweet by the Starbucks union the same month. He emphasized that the company had not negotiated with the striking workers or offered them concessions.

A few days after the strike ended last month, Starbucks began sending letters to worker representatives at unionized stores proposing a window for bargaining in October. The union’s president, Lynne Fox, had sought to bargain on a regional or national scale as the union prepared proposals with input from thousands of workers, but the union has accepted the store-by-store approach preferred by the company. Starbucks has nonetheless continued to portray the union as resistant to store-level bargaining.

The outcome of the negotiations could reverberate beyond Starbucks. In an email that Geico sent to employees in August, after some workers there began union organizing, the company emphasized that Starbucks had recently offered wage and benefit increases only to nonunion stores. Other large employers are surely watching closely as well.

Advertisement:

Clay, for one, believes the stakes are high enough that she has altered her career plans, declining a job in the local public defender’s office so she can stay at Starbucks and push for a contract.

“There was some grieving to it — I spent the last five years trying to do that job,” she said. “But you have to go where the wind takes you.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

Conversation

This discussion has ended. Please join elsewhere on Boston.com