Unionized Seattle Starbucks workers went on strike Nov. 17 to protest unfair labor practices by the company. The baristas joined more than 100 other unionized stores across the country as part of a national “Red Cup Rebellion” day of action, which was scheduled to coincide with the Seattle-based corporation’s launch of its annual festive winter beverage cups.
Baristas held pickets outside of three Seattle stores: at University Way Northeast and 42nd Street Northeast, Broadway East and East Denny, and Fifth Avenue and Pike.
Historically, “Red Cup Day” is the most profitable day of the year for Starbucks, when customers flock to stores to receive a complimentary reusable cup. By staging a one-day strike, Starbucks Workers United hoped to bring attention to the company’s treatment of workers who decide to unionize.
According to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), which governs union elections and union-related labor disputes, workers filed 472 complaints against Starbucks for unfair labor practices this year as of Nov. 18. Starbucks has counter-filed 45 complaints against Workers United with the board. On Nov. 15, the NLRB filed a petition for a preliminary injunction against firing union organizers nationwide. The agency said that it was currently prosecuting the company over the firing of 34 Starbucks workers in 14 separate lawsuits.
According to the labor news site More Perfect Union, workers at 13 Seattle stores have filed to unionize with the NLRB. Ten stores voted in favor of unionizing, one store rejected the union and two are still pending. The corporation closed three of the nine unionized stores over the summer due to safety concerns and a shift in operations — a decision that the union alleged was in retaliation against labor organizers. On Nov. 21, Starbucks announced that it would close the Broadway store allegedly due to safety concerns, marking a fourth unionized Seattle location to be closed this year.
At the pickets, workers sang chants, gave out information to passersby and distributed their own version of the red holiday cups, complete with a Grinch hand holding an ornament emblazoned with the union’s logo. Union workers protested that three higher-level management “scabs” kept the downtown Fifth and Pike store open despite the strike.
Daisy Federspiel-Baier, a supervisor at the Starbucks on University Way Northeast, said that workers decided to use the annual Red Cup Day to draw attention to labor issues and hit the company where it hurts.
“Red Cup Day, for a lot of locations, ours included, is the busiest day of the whole year, and they are cutting our staffing really frequently,” they said. “So we decided to take away their profits.”
Federspiel-Baier also said that Starbucks has not been cooperative during contract negotiations.
“They are walking out of the bargaining room and refusing to listen. And if they’re gonna walk out on us, we’re gonna walk out on them,” they said.
According to Starbucks Broadway East and Denny East barista Caidence Stone, management has refused to allow the union’s bargaining committee to use video conference calls during negotiations. Stone claimed that whenever the union set up a laptop to allow other members to attend virtually, Starbucks negotiators walked out of the sessions.
“Because when you collectively bargain with a union, you bargain with the entire union,” Stone said. “But Starbucks is refusing and attempting to bargain with a single store at a time.”
Workers have also complained about alleged retaliation by Starbucks. This included firing union organizers for old or trivial offenses, giving additional benefits to non-union stores but withholding them from stores that voted to unionize and bringing in additional managers to surveil staff.
A spokesperson for Starbucks wrote that the company respects the rights of workers to engage in lawful protest activity. They wrote that Starbucks has engaged in good faith with the union and that to date, “we’ve shown up to more than 50 bargaining sessions across the country and have another 60 scheduled in the coming weeks.”
Federspiel-Baier said support for their union has grown significantly, with other labor allies and community members showing up at the pickets in solidarity. Stone said that they were inspired by the uptick in enthusiasm for both Starbucks workers and the labor movement as a whole.
“Public support and union support has grown hugely in [the past year]; the movement is just growing and growing,” they said.
Read more of the Nov. 23-29, 2022 issue.