Benefits and Compensation, HR Management & Compliance

Want a Union Card with Your Latte? Labor Activity Starts Percolating at Starbucks

For some people, loyalty to a particular coffee brand rivals their devotion to a favorite college football team. Kathleen, my spouse, would crawl three miles over broken glass for her Starbucks Americano decaf. I favor QuikTrip and McDonald’s coffee. Within the last three months, employees at several Starbucks locations voted to unionize. Seem like isolated events? Don’t underestimate their significance.

Starbucks Unionize

Campaigns to Unionize Starbucks

Last December, employees at a Starbucks store in Buffalo, New York, voted to recognize Workers United as their bargaining representative. The labor organization is affiliated with the Service Employees International Union. It was the first time one of Starbucks’ corporate-owned locations was unionized. The following month, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) certified a victory for a union at another Starbucks location in Buffalo.

Using social media and online meetings, Starbucks employees around the country began seeking advice from the Buffalo workers and filed petitions to unionize stores in Chicago, Boston, Cleveland, Seattle, and other cities. In February, employees in Mesa, Arizona, voted 25-to-3 to unionize their café. It was the third corporate-owned store voting in favor of union representation.

Starbucks is fighting back, trying to stay union-free. The employer has increased pay and promised better equipment and improved staffing. The employer is actively communicating with its workforce about the advantages of staying nonunion.

Why Is This Happening Now?

Three Starbucks cafés voting to unionize doesn’t make a landslide. But it is a wake-up call to all employers about what is happening in the workplace and what the future holds for union organizing. Here’s why:

First, the dynamics between employers and their workforces have substantially changed. Employees recognize the challenges businesses face in recruiting and retaining quality talent have tipped in workers’ favor. In some cases, employees have turned to unions with the hope that organized labor can translate their increased bargaining power into better pay, benefits, and working conditions.

Second, unions have become more effective when organizing employees. It’s all about communication, and organized labor now uses sophisticated social media and digital communication efforts as part of its campaigns.

Finally, the Biden administration is supportive of unions. It has expressed an intention to streamline the organization process and make it easier for employees to unionize.

Heads Up

Three Starbucks stores voting in favor of a union may not seem like the end of the world. The same factors that make unions attractive to baristas in Buffalo and Arizona, however, will come into play for employers around the country in a variety of industries.

Charlie Plumb is an attorney in the Tulsa, Oklahoma, office of McAfee & Taft. You can reach him at charlie.plumb@mcafeetaft.com.