Starbucks baristas seen as driving force behind a new, growing US labor movement

On August 23rd, 2021, fifty Starbucks partners in Buffalo, New York drafted a letter to former CEO Kevin Johnson declaring their intentions to unionize.  Just over one year later, over three hundred stores have filed for their own union referendums, and over two hundred of those stores have successfully organized.

Starbucks Workers United, a workers union supported by Rochester Regional Joint Board, was established late last year. According to their website, “Starbucks workers have formed more new unions in a 12-month period than any US company in the last 20 years.”

What started in upstate New York inside a coffeehouse appears to have spread across the nation and industries. The National Labor Relations Board reports that union election petitions are up 53% since the end of the last fiscal year. With 2510 union representation petitions submitted, it is the highest number since the fiscal year of 2016. The NLRB’s caseload – which includes unfair labor practices as well as union petitions – has seen its largest percentage increase, 23%, since the Eisenhower administration.

Despite union membership being at an all-time low, a recent Gallup poll shows that U.S. approval of labor unions is at its highest level since 1965 with 71% of Americans saying they are in favor of labor unions. While only marginally up from last year’s 68%, the numbers are up a staggering 64% from pre-pandemic polling. In contrast to the growing support of labor unions, union membership has remained stable since 2001. One in six Americans, 16%, live in a union household; a number that is consistent within the range of 14% to 21% Gallup has recorded for the last two decades, but this number may be growing soon.

Starbucks isn’t the only notable company to have had an upstart labor movement recently. The last twelve months have seen workers form unions at companies like REI, Trader Joe’s, Amazon, Apple, and Google. This is the first national labor movement in the era of social media, and viral clips of protests or walk-outs are something the heads of these blue-chip companies are being forced to contend with.

A TikTok video of a planned walk-out of Starbucks partners went viral garnering 5.1 million views. Starbucks Workers United’s Twitter account has over 90k followers, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez not least among them.

“Unions are cool again, is what it comes down to,” said Ruth Milkman, a sociologist at the CUNY School of Labor and Urban Studies.

While their success is aided by the virality of the internet, even the most staunch labor supporters would admit they’ll have to do more to increase union representation. Although membership fell significantly during the last two decades of the 20th century, labor unions became more egalitarian as a result. Today, women and men share an almost equal percentage of union memberships.

They’ve become more politically diverse, too, as a Starbucks partner in Buffalo points out.

“We do have Trump supporters on our organizing committees,” Will Westlake said.

“We have moderate Republicans. We have centrist Democrats. We have progressives.” Westlake said that at his own store, however, lead organizers are “mostly under 35, mostly women, and mostly queer.”

Starbucks workers may face an uphill battle in their quest to unionize.  Founder and frequent CEO Howard Shultz conceded that the corporation would have to “customize new benefits” and “demonstrate to our people they can trust us,” but when asked if he would consider “embracing the union” as part of the strategy he responded firmly in the negative.


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