Finally, Starbucks Is Going to Bargain With Its Unionized Workers

Workers unionized the first Starbucks store in Buffalo, New York in 2021, and for the past three years, the relationship between unionized workers and Starbucks has been contentious. But now, there is a glimmer of good news. Starbucks and SB Workers United have agreed to a “path forward,” and will “begin discussions on a foundational framework” to achieve collective bargaining agreements and resolve outstanding litigation, according to statements from both SB Workers United and Starbucks.

“I think both sides are anxious to get going as quickly as possible,” says Michelle Eisen, a barista at the Elmwood Avenue location in Buffalo and an organizing member of SB Workers United. She explains that the goal was always for each store to have their own contracts, to reflect the individual issues each location faces. However, there are common issues that affect most if not all Starbucks workers. Starbucks has agreed to bargain a master agreement that covers those common issues, “so we can sit at a single table and bargain over issues that affect over 400 stores,” says Eisen.

According to Eisen, stores must now elect representatives from each location to serve on a bargaining committee, and while there’s no set date yet, Eisen says the company hopes to begin meeting with the bargaining committee in April.

This agreement does come with some immediate wins for workers. SB Workers United says that Starbucks will be granting all unionized workers benefits the company announced in May 2022, including credit card tipping and back pay from raises. At the time, Starbucks denied unionized workers these new benefits under the specious excuse that it believed workers had to bargain for them first; in a hearing before Congress former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz was explicitly told this was an incorrect interpretation of the law (he then amended his position to say it was the company’s “preference” to deny those benefits to unionized workers). Now, “the company is clearly demonstrating its intentions to forge a good faith relationship with its unionized workforce and those who want to join the union in the future,” says SB Workers United.

This week’s agreement came out of mediation discussions over “ongoing brand and IP litigation.” Recently, the company sued the union over pro-Palestinian tweets, arguing that the union’s use of the Starbucks name and “intellectual property” confused customers. The suit is just the most recent way the company’s animosity toward the union has manifested. The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has ruled against the company for illegally firing and penalizing workers in retaliation for union organizing. Workers have also accused the company of violating Starbucks’ media policy by penalizing them for speaking to the press.

In January, the NLRB hit Starbucks with a nationwide failure to bargain complaint. “The complaint alleges that Starbucks failed to provide union representatives with information they need to bargain effectively, including employee hiring dates, hours, and scheduling information,” writes Bloomberg Law. Starbucks did not respond to a request for comment on what has changed to make them willing to bargain now.

That organization efforts across Starbucks locations have kept up over the past three years. Eisen points to a recent effort in which 21 stores filed to unionize on the same day. This past November, unionized workers went on strike at over 100 stores. “I like to think that sent a signal to the company that this isn’t slowing down,” she says. “I also want to believe that whoever is in charge of making those decisions came to the realization that this is not only the best path forward for the workers but for the company and the company’s future.”

A change in leadership could also be a factor. Schultz was notoriously anti-union, telling workers to “go somewhere else” if they didn’t like the company. During a hearing with the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee regarding Starbucks’ treatment of unionized workers, Schultz’s sentiments prompted Minnesota Sen. Tina Smith to tell him, “Honestly, it sounds as if you are personally offended or even insulted that anyone would question you or your company. And it seems that you feel only bad companies should be unionized … and that Starbucks doesn’t need a union because you are a good company. But I think, Mr. Schultz, that that is not your decision to make.”

Schultz has served as CEO of Starbucks multiple times, most recently stepping down in March 2023. In a statement, Starbucks says Schultz’s successor, Laxman Narasimhan, has “been clear that we are deeply committed to delivering on our partner promise and to restitching the fabric of the green apron for all partners at Starbucks.”

The American Prospect called the agreement “the single most important breakthrough American workers have achieved in a very long time,” noting that it’s been nearly impossible for fast food and service workers to organize. It’s too soon to know whether that’s true — agreeing to bargain is not the same as bargaining in good faith — but it is certainly a huge shift in the relationship between Starbucks and its workers, and workers are optimistic.

“I started with the company in 2010, I’ve said from the first point of this campaign that I thought the company would inevitably do the right thing,” says Eisen. Starbucks has always sold itself as a company that valued ethics and treating its workers well, a reputation that has been challenged as it’s continued to fight against unionized workers. She hopes this agreement means that other companies with similar reputations — like Apple and Trader Joe’s, which have also been accused of opposing workers’ unionization efforts — will follow Starbucks’ lead. “I think we’re seeing the company recognizing the path forward for them is a unionized workforce.”

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