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Starbucks shops in New York state lead unionization drive

·4-min read
If an effort to unionize Starbucks stores in New York state is successful, it may spur similar attempts by employees across the company (AFP/SAUL LOEB)

"Without us, there would be no Starbucks," said Casey Moore, who, along with dozens of employees of the American coffee chain, wants to unionize.

"Just having a say in our workplace is really important to me," she told AFP.

But management is pushing back.

The battle began in late August, when 49 employees from three shops in Buffalo, New York, near Niagara Falls, officially filed a petition to unionize under the name "Starbucks Workers United."

The leaders of the coffee chain jumped into action, sending a battalion of executives, including the iconic former CEO Howard Schultz, to the city.

This fight echoes the unsuccessful attempt by workers to organize at an Amazon warehouse in Alabama last April.

Richard Bensinger, a seasoned trade union activist helping with the Workers United efforts, said he has never seen such an all-out offensive to pressure employees.

"Why are they so completely afraid of allowing the baristas here to have a union? It's beneath them" as a progressive company, he said, pointing to the many meetings organized by management to encourage workers to vote against unionizing.

Starbucks declined AFP's requests for comment, but in a message on the company website in early November, Schultz said he was "saddened and concerned" to hear some workers felt they needed to organize.

"No partner has ever needed to have a representative seek to obtain things we all have as partners at Starbucks," he said.

Days earlier, with no mention of the events in Buffalo, the company announced a nationwide minimum wage increase, bringing it to at least $15 an hour in the summer of 2022 and, for the first time time in its 50-year history, a seniority bonus.

- 'Wave within the company' -

Starbucks filed two unsuccessful petitions with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), seeking to delay or change the planned vote on unionization effort.

The requests were denied and the ballots were sent out on November 10. Employees have until December 8 to respond and the count will take place the following day.

Cedric de Leon, a labor movement researcher at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, said the Starbucks employees' initiative is part of a larger trend of renewed mobilization by workers across the United States.

It began in 2018 with teachers strikes and was mostly recently seen in the walkout of 10,000 employees of tractor manufacturer John Deere, which was resolved this week.

If a single cafe manages to unionize, "it could create a wave within the company," he said, especially as employees know they are negotiating from a position of strength since businesses nationwide are struggling to fill open positions.

- Complaints of low wages -

Bensinger said young potential workers will ask, "Why should you work for one of the richest restaurant companies on Earth, but live paycheck to paycheck?"

Employees from three more shops in Buffalo have joined the effort, which the backers insist is not anti-Starbucks.

Moore, 25, said she enjoys working for the chain, which offers health insurance and a flexible schedule that allows her to prepare for a return to school.

But while they have been called "essential workers," she said, "I'm also getting paid barely above the minimum wage," of $15 an hour in New York.

The company's resistance took her by surprise.

"It's insane, honestly, to see how many people they've sent, probably over 100 corporate representatives and managers from around the country, into our stores," she said.

The union also has received a lot of support, including from the star of the Democratic party's left wing House Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and New York Attorney General Letitia James.

Bensinger would not venture to predict the outcome of the vote, but said he was "confident."

However, Ruth Milkman, a labor sociologist at The City University of New York, cautioned that "in the absence of any change in labor law here, the employers have all the cards."

Walmart employees have tried for years to unionize, with no success, she said, and the unionization rate in the private sector is only 6.3 percent.

US President Joe Biden supports legislation to reduce obstacles to unionization, but it is stalled in the Senate.

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