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Starbucks workers form their 1st union in the U.S. in a big win for labor

Starbucks workers at three stores around Buffalo, N.Y., have voted on whether to join a union.
Charles Krupa
/
AP
Starbucks workers at three stores around Buffalo, N.Y., have voted on whether to join a union.

Updated December 9, 2021 at 3:28 PM ET

Starbucks workers have voted to form their first U.S. union.

Workers from one store in Buffalo, N.Y., voted to unionize, in a watershed moment for Starbucks, which operates 8,953 stores in the United States.

Three Buffalo-area stores held separate union elections. Baristas and shift supervisors from one store voted to unionize 19-8, while workers from the second store rejected unionization 12-8.

The third store failed to reach a verdict and faces a legal battle. There, 15 votes were cast for unionization and 9 against, while 7 votes were challenged. Most of the challenges came from the union, which argued that some workers who voted weren't regular employees at the location.

The election marks one of the highest-profile union wins for U.S. restaurant workers, which are among the least unionized in the country.

Starbucks workers who voted to unionize will join Workers United, affiliated with the massive Service Employees International Union.

3 more Buffalo stores and 1 in Arizona are also trying to unionize

Starbucks has promoted its reputation as a progressive employer with generous benefits, arguing that a union is not necessary.

In fact, Starbucks has fought off organizing attempts in New York City and Philadelphia. Decades earlier, in the 1980s, the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union for a while represented some Starbucks staff. That union still represents workers at some locations run by grocery stores and not directly by Starbucks.

Then, last year, workers at a corporate-run Starbucks store in Canada unionized. And now, three additional locations in the Buffalo area and one in Arizona are pursuing a union.

"I think a unionized Starbucks restaurant will demonstrate to workers ... that it's not easy, but they can do it," said Rebecca Givan, a labor studies professor at Rutgers University. "We will likely see many, many more organizing drives."

In a Thursday letter to staff shared with NPR, Starbucks North America President Rossann Williams said for now, the union results entail "no immediate changes."

"The vote outcomes will not change our shared purpose or how we will show up for each other," she wrote. "We want to protect partner flexibility, transferability and benefits across all stores in a market or a district because we know that's important to partners."

Buffalo workers get nationwide attention

The Buffalo vote garnered nationwide attention and support from key labor figures such as Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. Starbucks headquarters also responded to the drive by flying a wave of corporate executives into Buffalo, including the Williams and also legendary former CEO Howard Schultz.

The pro-union Starbucks workers advocated for better staffing, training and pay, including steady wage increases for workers who stay with the company for years only to discover their pay is not much more than that of new hires.

Hours before federal officials set the union vote for Buffalo stores, Starbucks announced it would raise its starting pay to $15 an hour and boost wages for staff employed longer than two and five years, plus make changes to its training and scheduling.

Buffalo workers later accused Starbucks of breaking the law by interfering with their labor organizing. They filed a federal labor charge, saying the chain was "engaging in a campaign of threats, intimidation, surveillance" and other illegal activity in response to their efforts to unionize.

Starbucks denied those allegations and said it complies with all labor-organizing laws and guidelines.

Starbucks had also argued that all 20 stores in the Buffalo area should vote in the union election, rather than three individual stores, noting that workers can pick up shifts at different stores. Federal labor officials repeatedly disagreed, finding each store to be fairly autonomous and declining to delay the election or the vote count over the matter.

Editor's note: Starbucks is among NPR's recent financial supporters.

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