On March 22, hundreds of Starbucks workers and their community and union allies protested outside the Seattle-based corporation’s SODO headquarters. More than 100 unionized stores across the country that day went on strike in a national day of action.
The demonstrations came days after Starbucks founder and now former CEO Howard Schultz stepped down, two weeks before he was expected to do so. The actions were also planned to coincide with Starbucks’ annual shareholder meeting, which took place the morning of March 23.
Among the biggest complaints were the heavy-handed tactics Starbucks management has used to try to quell the recent union drive. According to the labor news site More Perfect Union, nearly 400 stores have filed to unionize as of March 24, with 293 voting in favor of a union, 69 voting against and 25 with pending elections.
At the rally, Seattle-area workers recounted alleged retaliation, including firing union organizers, reducing workers’ hours to the point of making them ineligible for benefits and closing stores that chose to unionize.
In Seattle, four stores that voted to unionize have closed or transferred management since the union efforts began in late 2021. The union representing Starbucks workers — Workers United, an affiliate of SEIU — has filed more than 1,400 unfair labor practice complaints with the National Labor Relations Board and accused the company of firing more than 200 union organizers.
“If they cared about us in our respective communities, they would stop union busting and show up to the bargaining table,” said Starbucks barista Kaylee, who spoke at the rally. “They would stop firing workers and closing stores.”
Gwen Williamson, another Starbucks barista from Bellingham, said at the protest that Starbucks fired her after she had to call out of four shifts to deal with her apartment flooding in December 2022. As a lead organizer at her store, she said that the company used this leave as an excuse to terminate her.
“It’s clear they were trying to find excuses to fire me with the best they can muster being a personal emergency,” Williamson said. “Despite this setback, I still to this day dedicated myself to leading the charge for unionization efforts because I care about the people I work with.”
Schultz’s resignation as CEO follows shortly after he agreed to testify about Starbucks’ approach to the union before the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, which is chaired by Democratic Socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders. Sanders had threatened to subpoena Schultz to testify if he did not show up voluntarily. The former CEO will still testify at the March 29 committee hearing, Sanders said.
Incoming Starbucks CEO Laxman Narasimhan has promised to bring a friendlier face to corporate leadership after Schultz’s outspoken opposition to the union drive. This includes a pledge to put in shifts as a shop floor barista every month in an effort to be more relatable to workers. This news received lukewarm reception from union members on Twitter, who wrote that they would prefer if Narasimhan prioritized better treatment of workers and good faith negotiations. In its 2022 fourth quarter report, Starbucks investor relations announced record earnings of $8.4 billion in the last 13 weeks of the year, largely driven by an expansion in market share and increased prices. The corporation has more than 35,000 stores around the world, including nearly 16,000 in the U.S. and more than 6,000 in China, its second-largest market.
The corporation has also become something of a quasi-bank through its mobile app, which allows customers to prepay for drinks and food in exchange for rewards. In its fourth quarter financial report in 2022, Starbucks announced that it had more than $1.6 billion in assets under management through this rewards system, some of which it has reinvested in securities. These assets rival many medium-sized banks yet there is little oversight or regulation, allowing the company to maintain a sizable reserve of cash at no cost and paying no interest.
Despite the company’s rosy financial outlook, Starbucks is still facing pressure from the grassroots and some shareholders. Several analysts believe that the union–busting tactics will cause lasting damage to the corporation, which has historically cultivated a liberal reputation.
At the March 2023 meeting, shareholders proposed five non-binding resolutions related to the corporation’s management and policies. These included calls for an independent investigation into the alleged retaliation against union organizers.
Activists and public institutional investors, such as New York City’s pension funds and Norway’s $1.3 trillion sovereign wealth fund — which owns 1 percent of the company — have backed these resolutions. The Starbucks board has recommended shareholders vote against all the proposals.
With new leadership coming to helm the company, workers remain determined to fight for their rights and fair pay and conditions.
“When we unite and help one another, when we collectively come together to demand action, that is how humanity is guaranteed safety and success,” Williamson said.
Read more of the Mar. 29-April 4, 2023 issue.