[Editor’s Note: Dozens of recent union victories at Starbucks stores across the U.S. prompted us to ask Dr. John Logan, a leading labor studies professor and much sought-after expert on employers’ union opposition efforts, for his insights on this resurgence of effective labor organizing.]
In the six months since its first victories in Buffalo in December 2021, the organizing campaign of Starbucks Workers United (an affiliate of Workers United-SEIU) has spread from coast to coast. As of late June, workers at over 300 stores in 35 states had petitioned for National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) elections. The union had won 169 elections and lost only 26. The number of stores petitioning for elections and winning NLRB votes had increased by the week.
In recent decades, unions have rarely won at high-profile, wealthy corporations. Yet in the first few months of 2022, we have seen union victories at Starbucks, Amazon and REI, workers petitioning for NLRB elections at three different Apple retail stores (with three different unions), and at individual Trader Joe’s and Target stores. Some campaigns, like that at Starbucks, are affiliated with established labor unions, while others — most notably, the Amazon Labor Union, which won at an Amazon warehouse in Staten Island, New York, in April — are independent. However, all of the union drives in this recent wave of organizing have shared a rank-and-file dynamism that appears contagious and, in the case of Starbucks at least, replicable.
The Starbucks Workers United Campaign
Where has the union campaign spread and why? Since the campaign really started to take off, Starbucks store workers have often petitioned for NLRB elections, and held elections, in clusters, either sending cards to the NLRB on the same day or a few days apart. When it has spread this way, the union has typically won the elections by overwhelming margins.
With over 250 stores having petitioned for elections—from Hawaii and Maine, and Washington to Florida – the campaign has spread almost everywhere. However, it has been especially strong in college towns and cities with large concentrations of students, such as Eugene, Oregon, Ann Arbor, Michigan, Santa Cruz, California, Ithaca, New York, Knoxville, Tennessee, and Boston. Students frequently work in Starbucks stores and often transfer from store to store; at many locations, these students have played a prominent role in the campaign.
However, the union has also won victories – often by overwhelming margins — in several locations in which unions are unaccustomed to winning, in the South, Southwest, and Midwest: Richmond, Virginia, Jacksonville, Florida, Boone, North Carolina, Augusta, Georgia, Mesa, Arizona, and Overland Park, Kansas. By mid-May, stores in almost every state in the South had petitioned for NLRB elections, and activists believe the campaign would have spread even more widely in the region if not for the high-profile terminations of the “Memphis Seven” early in the campaign and the long delay in getting the NLRB to issue a charge against Starbucks and file for a federal court injunction to order the reinstatement of the workers.
With the exception of Boston—which has a high concentration of college students — the campaign has been slower to spread to large urban areas with a large number of Starbucks stores, such as New York City, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Houston, and San Diego.
Who are the pro-union workers? The activists and pro-union workers are, like most of the Starbucks workforce, young workers. It is the youthful activists who have provided the dynamism in recent union campaigns at Amazon, Apple, REI, and other stores. At a Starbucks store in Mill Valley, California, the two lead organizers are seventeen-year-old high school students, but most worker-organizers are in their 20s or early 30s. Many activists are also students, especially at stores in the college towns which have been at the forefront of the campaign; and many are women (almost 70% of Starbucks baristas are female). Many of the new activists have had no previous direct involvement with unions before becoming fully committed to the Starbucks Workers United campaign, but have been involved in other progressive political movements. And many pro-union “partners” are workers of color and LGBTQI+ workers. Starbucks has long been known as a “safe” employer for queer, trans, and non-binary employees, and the union campaign has consistently stressed issues of concern to these workers and has produced Pride-themed union t-shirts and buttons. In short, not only is this one of the most successful and inspirational high-profile union organizing campaigns in recent decades, but it is also almost certainly one of the youngest and most diverse campaigns.
How Has the Campaign Spread? The campaign started in Buffalo in the summer of 2021. A veteran labor organizer and several young Workers United activists had previously organized two smaller coffee chains in the city and (remotely) one in Boston, thus giving them confidence that it was possible to organize remotely during the pandemic. But the Starbucks union campaign has spread quickly because of the dynamism of its worker-organizers. By August 2021, workers were involved in organizing at multiple Starbucks stores in the city. In response, Starbucks HQ waged an all-out anti-union onslaught in an effort to make sure the campaign started and stopped in Buffalo.
Starbucks immediately hired the services of the country’s largest firm specializing in union avoidance, Littler Mendelson, and has paid the firm millions since the campaign started. It brought to Buffalo more corporate managers than there were workers voting in the NLRB elections and kept them there for months. It fired multiple pro-union workers. It closed stores with pro-union employees and temporarily turned them into “training centers.” It forced workers to attend scores of both group and individual “captive meetings.” It threatened that workers would, individually and collectively, suffer adverse consequences in the event of a union victory. It surveilled union activists. Because of Starbucks’ blistering union-busting tactics and the delaying tactics of its law firm, the Buffalo workers had to wait many months to get an NLRB election, and some stores had to withdraw their petitions and then re-petition for elections. However, despite going through what was arguably one of the most intensive anti-union campaigns in recent memory, Starbucks Workers United won two out of three elections in Buffalo, and in the process developed dozens of more committed worker-organizer activists.
Since last fall, the grassroots union campaign has developed a replicable model that has allowed it to spread rapidly across the entire country. Starbucks worker-organizers have used several different messaging apps and have extensively used Zoom meetings between more experienced activists and workers new to the campaign. At most stores outside of Buffalo, workers who want to organize their own stores have heard about the union’s success at other stores and then reached out to the campaign. Workers at the first stores outside of Buffalo to petition for elections – Mesa, Arizona, Brookline and Allston neighborhoods of Boston, and Knoxville, Tennessee—read about the Buffalo union campaign in the fall and then contacted organizers via the campaign’s Facebook or Twitter page or via its phone number.
These new activist workers would then be put in touch with one of the many Buffalo activists—or, subsequently, connected with activists from Boston, Mesa, Knoxville, or elsewhere, depending on which part of the country they were based – and would have a phone call or zoom meeting to determine if a majority in the store would likely support unionization. The follow-up zoom meeting would provide a step-by-step guide to the unionization process: how to reach out to undecided workers, respond to Starbucks’ anti-union propaganda, collect cards, and petition for an election. Workers from neighboring stores have often petitioned for elections in geographic clusters. When this happens, workers frequently exchange information with each other on what Starbucks has said at “captive audience meetings” or in its anti-union text messages, and have discussed how to best respond to those arguments.
Most stores have petitioned for elections with strong “organizing committees”—workers who sign the “Dear Howard” letter to the Starbucks CEO asking for union recognition. These workers take the lead in talking to uncommitted workers, pushing back on anti-union information at captive audience meetings, educating workers about the unionization and collective bargaining process, and otherwise building the campaign. For example, worker-organizers in the Boston area—who are also law students, which is unusual — have facilitated weekly zoom meetings on unlawful practices, informing workers what constitutes a ULP and how to document ULPs in their stores, so that the union will subsequently be able to file charges with the NLRB. In most locations, workers have had plenty of unlawful actions to document.
Starbucks’ Blistering Anti-Union Campaign
For a corporation that consistently and prominently associates itself with progressive values, Starbucks has engaged in one of the most brutal anti-union campaigns of recent decades. For many observers, the union’s remarkable success has likely obscured the intensity of the anti-union campaign. The two central themes in Starbucks’ campaign have been fear—fear of retaliation, fear of losing one’s job, fear of losing benefits, fear of losing the ability to transfer store, and so on—and a sense of futility, i.e., pro-union workers will never prevail because Starbucks is too wealthy and too powerful it will never give up fighting the union.
Starbucks’ anti-union campaign in Buffalo last fall was comparable in intensity and lawlessness to anything that Amazon or Walmart have ever done to crush unions. In May, the Buffalo regional NLRB office issued a complaint alleging that Starbucks committed over 200 violations of federal law, an extraordinary number probably not seen since the UAW’s campaign at Caterpillar over several years in the 1990s, which also generated hundreds of charges.
Starbucks is alleged to have committed hundreds of other unfair labor practices all across the country. The NLRB currently has open over 100 allegations of unlawful anti-union behavior. In addition to unlawful dismissals in Buffalo, Starbucks management has fired workers in Phoenix, Memphis, Kansas City, Raleigh, North Carolina, and at multiple other locations. In January, Starbucks fired 3 members out of four of the organizing committee in Phoenix, Arizona; and it fired seven pro-union workers at a store in Memphis in February, including six out of seven of the store’s “organizing committee.” There’s no doubt that high-profile unlawful terminations such as these have slowed and disrupted the momentum of the union campaign.
The anti-union threats have only intensified. In an increasingly desperate bid to stop workers from organizing, Starbucks HQ announced in early May that it would increase workers’ benefits—including access to tips and paid leave—but only to workers in stores that had not yet opted for unionization. Schultz and other members of Starbucks senior management have misleadingly claimed that their hands are tied because the law prevents them from unilaterally changing benefits for workers in stores engaged in bargaining or those in stores that have already voted to unionize. In reality, the organizing and bargaining committee immediately informed Starbucks HQ that they would not file objections and called on the firm to extend benefit increases to all workers. The only reason for Starbucks to continue to repeat the threat—which was quickly taken up and amplified by district and store managers—is to frighten workers at stores that are still non-union against supporting Starbucks Workers United. The union has filed charges with the NLRB over the benefit threat, but the Board may take several months to act, and, before that, the threat could determine the outcome of close elections.
The anti-union campaign intensifies under Schultz: Starbucks has done virtually everything it can to fight against unionization. Much of its anti-union campaign has happened under the direction of its old and new interim CEO, Howard Schultz, who has a long history of fighting unions. Even before he returned, Schultz was flown in to deliver an hour-long anti-union speech in Buffalo last November in a last-ditch effort to pressure workers in the city against supporting the union. After returning as interim CEO in April, Schultz has attacked pro-union workers for disloyalty and implored store managers to become more active in the anti-union campaign. Starbucks has consistently worried about the commitment of its store managers, many of whom are former baristas, and has had to rely instead more on district managers and regional human resource personnel to deliver the corporation’s anti-union message.
Schultz has called union activists “so-called workers” and has blamed the campaign on an “outside force.” In a public forum in Long Beach—which has one of the first four stores in California to vote for the union—he told pro-union workers, “Why don’t you go somewhere else?” Moreover, in a distortion of epic proportions, Schultz has stated that corporations nationwide are “under assault” by unions. Actually, Starbucks has effectively declared war on its pro-union baristas and spent millions of dollars trying to deny them a free and fair choice on unionization: it has sought to delay elections and vote counts, fired pro-union workers, forced workers to listen to fear-mongering anti-union propaganda, threatened to deny them benefit increases, and committed scores of unlawful anti-union actions across the country. Yet, to date, it has continued to lose election after election, often by overwhelming margins.
Reputational Damage: Starbucks has admitted in its SEC filings for investors that its anti-union campaign involves a significant degree of reputational risk and could ultimately hurt the company’s bottom line. Starbucks is not only a high-profile corporation with a public reputation for supporting progressive values, but also one with a largely liberal customer base that overwhelming supports the union campaign. But Schultz and Starbucks HQ have shown no sign of giving up this bitter war of attrition against pro-union workers, and may even decide to intensify their efforts if the current losing streak in elections and the rapid spread of the union campaign continue. This intensification would almost certainly produce even more allegations of unlawful anti-union activity – as well as more reputation damage to Starbucks’ brand — and thus the response of the Biden NLRB may yet prove decisive.
The Response of the Biden National Labor Relations Board
For several decades, the NLRB has been plagued by two main issues that have undermined its ability to protect pro-union workers, especially those at powerful corporations: delays in its processes and weak remedies for violations of the law. Both issues have been apparent at Starbucks, but the chronically under-funded and understaffed labor board now appears to be trying to act more quickly and more decisively against Starbucks’ anti-union lawlessness.
Delay can often be a killer for union campaigns: During the first half-year or so of the campaign, workers were forced to wait many months simply to vote in NLRB elections. Starbucks’ law firm, Littler Mendelson, is chock full of former NLRB attorneys and attorneys from large anti-union corporations who know how to exploit every weakness and every loophole in the Board’s processes. Moreover, it knows that delay is often a killer for union campaigns, especially one such as Starbucks, where the union is trying to organize at thousands of small bargaining units and depends on maintaining its momentum to spread.
Time is on your side: Union avoidance law firms have long counseled that time is on the side of anti-union corporations. Thus, Starbucks has done everything possible to delay elections. Starbucks attorneys argued that elections should take place on a multi-store basis – with bargaining units composed of dozens of stores in the same geographic region – even though single stores have always been the presumptive bargaining unit in food services. Starbucks knew that it would be far more difficult for pro-union workers to win at a larger unit at Buffalo because workers had been organizing at only about half a dozen stores. After the regional NLRB director in Buffalo rejected this argument, Starbucks appealed the decision to the full board, even though it would almost certainly lose. After losing its appeal, Starbucks’ lawyers continued to contest the single-store bargaining units at the next stores to petition for elections, even though it presented no new facts that would cause the NLRB to reverse its original decision. These appeals delayed votes and ballot counts for months at the first group of stores to organize. In recent weeks, NLRB elections have taken place more quickly, but delays are still an issue and delays in processing ULP complaints have seriously impeded the union campaign.
Starbucks’ unlawful dismissal of union activists creates a chilling atmosphere: Starbucks’ firing of activists has been particularly damaging to the campaign and has created a “chilling atmosphere,” not just at the stores at which the fired activists work, but also nationwide. The union has filed charges against Starbucks alleging unlawful dismissal in over 20 cases. After Starbucks fired workers during the initial campaign in Buffalo, the NLRB finally ordered reinstatements at Buffalo in May. Starbucks also fired three workers in Phoenix — out of a four-person organizing committee — and seven workers in Memphis, including six members of the seven-member organizing committee, in early February. The Board sought federal court 10(j) injunctions to order the reinstatement of the Phoenix workers in late April and the “Memphis Seven” in early May. In early May, the NLRB also found that Starbucks had unlawfully fired three activists at a store in Overton Park, Kansas City, the first in the Midwest to hold and win an NLRB election. After voting to unionize, workers at stores in Buffalo, Phoenix, and Kansas City have participated in strikes to protest against management’s unlawful anti-union activities.
In addition to speeding up its processes, the NLRB has been seeking escalating penalties against Starbucks. In its May complaint, the Buffalo regional NLRB director called for what one former board member described as “dream remedies”—namely, that CEO Schultz or Chief Executive Rosann Williams record a video message on the right to choose a union that could be played at every store (more effective than the usual “notice-posting” remedy of the NLRB); Starbucks reinstate unlawfully terminated workers and provide mandatory training to its store managers on workers’ rights; and that Starbucks provide the union a right to reply to compulsory captive audience anti-union meetings. The final proposed remedy followed an April memo from NLRB General Counsel Jennifer Abruzzo stating that compulsory captive meetings should be considered unlawful under the NLRA, thus separating corporations’ right to speak out against unions—established in law and Court decisions — from their right to force employees to listen.
However, it remains to be seen whether the NLRB can rein in Starbucks’ unlawful anti-union behavior enough to allow workers a fair choice, as the law demands. The Administrative Law Judge hearing on the Buffalo case is not until June. After that, Starbucks can appeal to the full NLRB and then the federal courts. Thus, the remedies send a strong message about the severity of Starbucks’ unlawful actions, but may not benefit the campaign anytime soon.
The Starbucks Workers United is one of the most successful, high-profile, and inspirational union campaigns in several decades. One of the country’s leading labor journalists, Lauren Gurley at Vice, wrote in April that the campaign appeared “unstoppable.” But Starbucks has both deep pockets and, it appears, a steadfast determination to block the will of its young, pro-union workers, no matter what it takes. It remains to be seen whether Starbucks’ blistering anti-union campaign will succeed in stopping the unstoppable organizing campaign.
About the Author
John Logan, Ph.D., is a Professor and Chair of the Labor and Employment Studies Department at San Francisco State University and a leading expert in the anti-union industry and anti-union legislation. For more about him, see his biographical profile.