Starbucks set the stage for its employees’ union vote in Buffalo

The first Starbucks union is now in Buffalo, New York.
The first Starbucks union is now in Buffalo, New York.
Image: REUTERS/Lindsay DeDario/File Photo
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At a Starbucks in Buffalo, New York, baristas formed a union this week, marking the company’s first unionized location out of more than 8,000 corporate-owned stores in the US.

As a brand that has long positioned itself as a progressive employer that wants to listen and learn from employees, Starbucks shouldn’t have been surprised that its workers would want to enshrine those values in a contract, and have a stronger voice in establishing working procedures, benefits, and wages.

Starbucks—which likes to call its workers “partners”—has offered health insurance to part-time workers since the late 1980s. It offers parental leave, including six weeks paid leave for non-birth parents, and other perks like tuition reimbursement. And, recently, the coffee chain announced it would raise its starting pay to $17 an hour by mid-2022.

And yet Starbucks had countered the organizing efforts. In a letter to employees in Buffalo, Rossann Williams, Starbucks’s North America president, reportedly asked employees to vote against the union and said the company itself is best positioned to improve working conditions.

Workers at Starbucks’ Elmwood Avenue location in Buffalo voted 19-8 in favor of unionizing under Workers United New York, which is part of the Service Employees International Union. A second location nearby voted against forming a union, while results of an election at a third site have yet to be determined.

Where should progressive companies draw the line when it comes to labor unions?

Starbucks had faced union campaigns before both in New York City and Philadelphia. The experience didn’t seem to make it any more sympathetic to the unionization efforts in Buffalo.

“It’s about power,” says Ruth Milkman, a professor at the City University of New York’s School of Labor and Urban Studies. “It’s one thing to say, ‘We want to do the right thing for our employees… that’s all very nice,” she says. But “who has the power to determine pay and working conditions? If the employer unilaterally decides to be ‘generous,’ that’s one thing; if they’re sort of forced into it by union negotiations, that’s another.”

Buzzy brands from Allbirds to Sweetgreen have, like Starbucks, positioned themselves as ethical employers embracing purpose, diversity, and sustainability. If unionization efforts arise at their shops, how will these companies respond?

If you’re running an organization that touts progressive values, says Milkman, you can expect that to influence your workers’ demands.