The University of Washington (UW) has the opportunity to make a bold move in solidarity with Starbucks workers by not renewing its contract with the Seattle-based mega-chain, students say.
The two parties signed a 10-year sponsorship agreement in 2013 that is set to expire at the end of June. This contract, obtained by students through public disclosure requests, allows UW’s Housing and Food Services to operate licensed stores that sell Starbucks beverages and food in exchange for a 7 percent royalty and other fees. The company, which was granted privileges such as the titles “Signature Partner,” “Exclusive Coffee Provider” and “Exclusive Freshly Brewed Tea Provider,” also paid the university more than $10 million as part of the agreement.
Starbucks has come under fire for its harsh response to a recent union drive. Since December 2021, workers at more than 319 stores across the country have voted to unionize, including 20 locations in Washington state.
According to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), the company is accused of committing 686 unfair labor practices since January 2022, with alleged violations ranging from terminating union organizers to refusing to bargain in good faith. NLRB judges have also ruled against the company in 16 out of 17 legal cases over the past eight months.
For UW students such as Alisha Foster, Starbucks’ unfair labor practices left a bitter taste. As part of the student labor solidarity organization United Students Against Sweatshops, Foster helped launch a new campaign calling on UW to forgo further business with the company.
“The idea was to have an action on campus that was targeting the UW-Starbucks contract in solidarity with the workers who are being attacked for their unionizing and for their organizing efforts,” Foster said.
Students and workers gathered in Red Square on May 31 to call out UW’s ties with Starbucks and educate the public about the company’s union-busting record in a playful skit. In addition to labor concerns, they also highlighted how the corporation’s licensing agreement with UW reinforces monopolistic, anti-competitive practices. The group also delivered a letter to university administrators reiterating these concerns.
Zeynep, a UW student who researches unions and labor studies, said that Parnassus, a 71-year-old coffee shop in the university’s art building that recently closed, exemplifies this issue.
“It literally shut down because they couldn’t make enough profits,” she said. “It makes you think like if they had the promotional rights that Starbucks got and the opportunity to expand their supply a little bit more, maybe they would still be running right now.”
In an email, UW spokesperson Victor Balta wrote that the university received the letter and is closely reviewing it. He also said that the company had a beneficial impact on the institution.
“Starbucks has been a positive contributor to our University community and their partnership has supported a wide range of UW programs,” Balta wrote.
Read more of the June 7-13, 2023 issue.