Striking Seattle-area workers have shut down workplaces throughout the region this summer in an attempt to win better wages, working conditions and other changes.
Just after 5 p.m. on Aug. 22, baristas at the Starbucks location on Holman Road in Northwest Seattle huddled around a cell phone for a Microsoft Teams meeting with senior management. They found out that their store would be closed in a few weeks and transferred to the adjacent QFC, which would subsequently operate it as a licensed store with brand new staff. Workers were given the option to transfer to another Starbucks store in their district.
“It was extremely abrupt,” said Eli Adams, who was working at the store that night. “We had just been given the news earlier that day that our profits had been up from last year and that we had just hit a milestone that they’ve been looking for, as well as being the top customer satisfaction score in the district.”
In response to the closure announcement, baristas at the Starbucks store on 42nd Avenue NE and University Way organized a one-and-a-half day strike.
“We decided that an injury to one is an injury to everyone and that we weren’t going to stand by and watch Holman Road shut down,” said Daisy Baier, a shift supervisor at the University District store.
Baier said that Starbucks’ union-busting tactics made her feel uncomfortable but that striking was a way to fight back against management.
“If you take away their profits, they’re gonna start to sweat a little bit,” she said.
In a statement, a Starbucks spokesperson denied that the store closing had anything to do with the store’s union vote.
“This decision will continue the long-term growth of this store and better align with the unique relationship this store has with customers and QFC,” they wrote.
The Holman Road store is the third Starbucks location in Seattle to vote to unionize and then be closed by the company this summer. In total, 12 Starbucks stores in the city have filed to unionize, nine of which were successful. One shop rejected the union. According to the labor news site More Perfect Union, more than 300 stores across the country have filed to unionize, and 220 have won their votes.
Workers United, the union that is spearheading the organizing drive, denounced the decision by Starbucks to close unionized stores, many for alleged safety concerns. In a press release, the union said that the closures were for “no reason” and that eight of the 19 U.S. stores that closed over the past few months voted or were trying to unionize. Those stores constituted only 0.2 percent of Starbucks’ nearly 9,000 corporate-owned stores.
So far, Starbucks has yet to sign a contract with Workers United despite some stores being unionized for more than eight months. Starbucks blamed the union for a failure to bargain, writing “[o]ur hope is that union representatives also come to the table with mutual good faith, respect, and positive intent.”
Meanwhile, Workers United said that it was Starbucks that failed to come to the bargaining table, writing that only three unionized stores have had their first bargaining sessions and that “Starbucks is responding slowly to emails, refusing to engage in zoom sessions for bargaining, cancelling bargaining sessions last minute, and using other delay tactics.”
In June, Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz said he could never see himself “embracing the union.”
Starbucks workers aren’t alone. Workers at Homegrown — an artisanal sandwich shop chain — are also flexing their muscles in an attempt to win better working conditions and higher wages. The workers’ actions come amid a resurgence in labor militancy locally and around the world.
Workers at Homegrown say that working conditions are miserable even though the company has crafted an eco-friendly reputation and charges top dollar. In June, Unite Here Local 8 announced that workers at the company would be requesting voluntary recognition of their union.
Homegrown employs about 250 people across nine locations in King County. It also operates a wholesale division, selling ready-made food products to other businesses.
On Aug. 17, delivery drivers for the company went on a one-day strike to protest the recent installation of cameras that record them while they work. Following the action, the company backpedaled and allowed workers to cover the surveillance cameras.
A week later, workers at the Queen Anne and Redmond locations shut down their stores and formed picket lines, calling for gender pay equity and better ventilation at work.
Emily Minkus, a shift lead at Homegrown in Queen Anne, said that women and nonbinary shift leads were making less than their male counterparts for the same amount of work.
“It first came to light when I looked at my paystub, which we never do,” Minkus said. “… and then I had every single shift lead look at their paystubs for me, and I asked them what their hourly rate was. And it came back that the two men that were working at our store at the time were making, I want to say, at least 60 cents more than I was an hour. The two of them had been shift leads for two years, whereas I had been one for four.”
Minkus said that despite bringing up the concerns back in June, management has yet to take action other than investigating the issue.
In addition to pay equity, workers are also calling for a wage increase to a base of $20 an hour for all workers and $25 an hour for shift leads.
According to Ivy Vance, another worker at the Queen Anne location, the company has prioritized profit over worker safety.
During the June 2021 heat wave, when temperatures reached 110 degrees, Vance said that management decided to keep their store open while nearby businesses closed, resulting in more than $10,000 in sales in a single day.
“Because we had AC [air conditioning], our managers were like, ‘Oh, they can work here; they can keep working because we have AC,’” she said.
At the Redmond Homegrown, workers say that smoke from the ovens made working almost unbearable.
“It’s hard to work when it’s hard to breathe,” said Sydney Lankford, a worker at the Redmond location. “The smoke is pretty bad, and it makes our eyes burn.”
Lankford said that because the store is in a historic building, it is hard to install adequate ventilation. However, she also said that management had failed to be proactive in addressing the longstanding concerns and only began to do so after workers organized.
Compensation has also been a big issue for Lankford — she said she gets paid less in an hour than the $19 chicken pesto sandwich a customer recently ordered. Because Redmond has a lower minimum wage than Seattle, workers receive about a dollar less per hour than their Queen Anne counterparts. Customers don’t always leave tips. The company also doesn’t add automatic gratuity, meaning workers don’t get any additional compensation for larger orders.
“We got one [order] that was $800, and they gave us no tip,” Lankford said. “And the company refuses to do anything about that.”
Homegrown declined to comment about the unionization effort.
According to a spokesperson from Unite Here Local 8, workers are planning more work stoppages and other actions in the coming weeks to put pressure on the company. The union is asking cafes to boycott Homegrown brands. So far, Victrola Coffee and Kaladi Brothers Coffee in Capitol Hill have stopped selling Homegrown products.
Workers outside the restaurant industry are also striking. Educators in Kent have gone on an indefinite strike due to an impasse in contract negotiations. Classes have been canceled since the school year started on Aug. 25.
Staff are asking for higher wages, smaller class sizes, safer working conditions and mental health support. So far, the union has rejected the district’s offers as inadequate.
The Seattle Education Association recently announced that its contract was expiring at the end of the month. The union is currently at the bargaining table with Seattle Public Schools and could vote to strike if negotiations fall through. Seattle teachers went on strike in 2015, delaying the start of classes by five days.
Guy Oron is the staff reporter for Real Change. Find them on Twitter, @GuyOron.
Read more of the Aug. 31-Sept. 6, 2022 issue.