As Starbucks Stalls Negotiations, Workers Use New Tactics to Push for Contract

People picket in front of a Starbucks in the Greektown neighborhood of Chicago, Illinois, on June 24, 2023. Scott Olson / Getty Images

It’s been nearly two years since Starbucks Workers United went public with its union drive at the global coffee mega-chain. Since then, the campaign has seen some astounding breakthroughs. It has organized hundreds of stores in a notoriously anti-labor company and inspired new union drives within the food and beverage service industry. It has turned on thousands of young workers to unions and energized the wider labor movement.

At the same time, the campaign has run into challenges that may not disappear anytime soon. Starbucks is waging one of the most relentless anti-union campaigns in living memory. The company has faced a staggering number of National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) complaints. With billions of dollars under its belt, management seems intent on delaying bargaining and stalling on a first contract, with the ultimate effect of demoralizing workers and opening the way for decertification votes.

“Starbucks has decided that no matter the cost in terms of public reputation, it has to crush the union drive,” John Logan, a labor expert at San Francisco State University, told Truthout.

In recent months, the union has initiated new actions to maintain momentum, including Pride strikes, a bus tour, walkouts and “sip-in” protests, as well as finding creative ways to publicize its bargaining demands. The union also kicked off a national campaign to recruit and mobilize labor allies and customers, inaugurated by a day of action on August 7 that saw more than 1,000 supporters across the United States participate, according to the union.

As the union drive continues to organize new stores and expand its forces among baristas, customers and union allies, the question remains how the campaign can find new ways to ramp up critical pressure on the company’s leadership that seems willing to flout labor law and bear any public chagrin to beat the union.

Keeping Up the Momentum

Jacklyn Gabel has worked at Starbucks for four years. She’s a shift supervisor at the Mission and Dufour store in Santa Cruz, California, which was one of the first two Starbucks shops in California to unionize in May 2022.

Gabel doesn’t fit the typical media image of a 20-something rabble-rouser barista: She’s in her mid-30s and married with a child. She says she has a “great store manager” and “really fun work environment.”

But coming out of pandemic restrictions, amid high rental costs in Santa Cruz, she told Truthout that she and her co-workers needed more from Starbucks: more benefits, more flexible scheduling and higher pay. “We really realized collectively that we would have to really take that up with the company,” Gabel said.

Inspired by the examples of baristas organizing in Buffalo, New York, and in Arizona, her store began to talk seriously about unionizing in January 2022. They filed for an NLRB election on February 1. On May 11, the store’s workers voted in the union by a resounding 15-to-2 margin.

Gabel’s store was among the flurry of hundreds of union filings during 2022, especially the first half of that year. This period saw a rapid, historic rise of unionizing Starbucks stores representing thousands of workers. From Colorado to Florida, Utah and New York, the union reported dozens of new filings and victories every month.

This was no ordinary union drive. Starbucks is a goliath. With a market cap of around $115 billion, it is one of the world’s most valuable companies. It’s the eighth-largest Fortune 500 employer in the U.S., right after UPS. It rivals McDonald’s and Coca-Cola as a global brand icon. The company is a poster child for a barely unionized sector of food and beverage service corporations with millions of employees that labor in thousands of scattered stores.

Starbucks Workers United became the new and plucky hero of the labor movement: young, militant, diverse, worker-led. Its example soon spread to Chipotle, Trader Joe’s, and beyond.

While the union’s rate of new NLRB election filings has slowed down since the 2022 surge, the union is trying to maintain momentum and visibility. The end of June saw a weeklong series of strikes involving thousands of workers across 150 stores against — the union claims — Starbucks’s suppression of Pride decorations in stores. (Starbucks denies the union’s allegation.)

The union launched a bus tour across the U.S. that brought baristas to numerous cities where they visited stores and met with community allies. The tour linked up with local actions — a sip-in in Madison, Wisconsin; a bike parade in Oregon; and a rally in San Francisco, California, for example.

Meanwhile, the local worker-led actions continue: walkouts in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and Connecticut; a strike in Buffalo, New York; a work stoppage in Oregon, to name a few. New union filings and NLRB election wins continue to accumulate. Over the past few weeks, stores from South Carolina, Ohio, Seattle, Washington and Massachusetts have announced their unions, while stores from Nebraska; San Diego, California; New Jersey; San Francisco and St. Louis, Missouri, have won landslide NLRB elections. Gabel tells Truthout that there are more “underground” stores that will soon file for elections.

One of the most ambitious initiatives by the union is a new campaign for customers and allies to take action in support of unionizing Starbucks workers. The campaign made its debut during a national day of action on August 7. In the preceding weeks, organizers put the word out to supporters to “adopt” a nonunionized store in their area to leaflet customers to gather support for the union.

According to the campaign, more than 1,000 customers and allies held flyering events across 332 stores. Images and videos trickled in over social media from coast to coast: Oklahoma to Sacramento, California; Detroit, Michigan to Brooklyn, New York; Massachusetts to Minnesota. Labor allies from the Teamsters to the Writers Guild of America showed their support. (Full disclosure: I adopted a store in Tonawanda, New York, outside Buffalo. The customers our group flyered were largely supportive of the union).

Gabel told Truthout the day of action was “hugely successful,” and that many supporters reached out at the last minute as the word spread. “I anticipate that these events, like all things with our campaigns, are only going to grow,” she said.

The union says August 7 was “just the first of a series of national days of action,” and says it’s planning further actions.

Starbucks Challenges NLRB

As of August 15, 444 stores in 46 states have filed to unionize, and 348 stores in 42 states have won union elections. These are astonishing numbers for a campaign that is not yet two years old.

At the same time, the union drive faces a major challenge in Starbucks’s continued hostility, from open retaliation to endless delaying of bargaining.

According to former New York Times labor reporter Stephen Greenhouse, NLRB regional offices “have issued 100 complaints covering 357 unfair labor practice charges against Starbucks,” which include “a nationwide complaint consolidating 32 charges in 28 states” alleging that Starbucks “has failed or refused to bargain at 163 locations.” NLRB board members and judges have ordered the reinstatement of 28 fired employees.

In Buffalo, where the union drive began, numerous union supporters have been fired. In March, an administrative judge ruled that “Starbucks had violated federal labor law dozens of times in responding to a union campaign in the Buffalo area shortly after the campaign began roughly 18 months ago,” according to The New York Times.

In just the past few weeks, the NLRB ruled that Starbucks illegally fired baristas from Michigan and New York, and the company lost a court appeal ordering the company to rehire seven pro-union workers it fired in Memphis, Tennessee.

“Starbucks is challenging the very legitimacy of the NLRB,” Kate Bronfenbrenner, a labor expert at Cornell University, told Truthout. “[Starbucks is] refusing to recognize the union. … They’re taking everything through the court, knowing full well that delaying the first contract can be extremely detrimental to workers and the organizing effort. They’re delaying probably better than almost any employer ever has.”

This impasse has played itself out at Gabel’s store in Santa Cruz. While her store avoided retaliatory firing that other stores have experienced, the NLRB has filed charges against Starbucks for harassing, coercing and threatening pro-union workers at her store. “We’ve faced immense illegal union busting during our union drive, really from the moment we went public,” Gabel said.

Gabel says her store has struck five times and has yet to hold any bargaining sessions with management. She told Truthout that they had a date scheduled last December, but Starbucks refused to agree to a combined virtual and in-person bargaining session after Gabel, who was the lead worker bargainer for her store, got COVID-19. Since then, she says, “every time we commit to a date, Starbucks counters another date that’s a month from now, and that just keeps happening over and over and over again.”

While the union has organized hundreds of shops, that still only amounts to a small, single-digit percentage of Starbucks’s 9,000 corporate stores in the U.S.

“Getting the first contract is extremely difficult when you have such a small portion of the workers organized,” said Cornell’s Bronfenbrenner. “They’re pushing this employer, but the campaign is also struggling. They’re still winning elections, but compared to that steep curve in the spring of 2022, the number of elections has dropped precipitously, and there is not a single first contract yet.”

Finding the Leverage

Mike Locker, a longtime corporate power researcher and labor consultant, says the corporate structure of Starbucks creates challenges for the union. “You’re dealing with a gigantic concentration of capital at the top and enormous decentralization at the base,” he said. “How do you accumulate enough power to affect a corporation that is structured that way?”

Locker believes Starbucks is “extremely vulnerable” to a corporate campaign that locates and puts pressure on weak points within the company’s financial structure. “This is a heavily publicly traded company that relishes the price of its stock and bond structure and its banking relations, all of which can be analyzed,” said Locker.

Corporate campaigns can also focus on board members who govern the company. Starbucks’s board contains public-facing business celebrities like Mellody Hobson, who is the board’s independent chair, and Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella. Starbucks Workers United has engaged in protest actions against some board members. Some have noted that Hobson’s investment firm profits from managing unionized workers’ pension funds.

Union workers’ retirement funds also have direct and significant holdings in Starbucks: The California Public Employees’ Retirement System, for example, which oversees the retirement funds of many union workers, owns over $263 million in Starbucks stock, according to recent Securities and Exchange Commission filings.

Combined with continued bottom-up organizing, locating vulnerabilities within the Starbucks corporate power structure and financial apparatus can offer leverage against the company’s commanding heights of management, says labor consultant Locker.

“It’s always a question of finding multiple pressure points, and it’s a question of power,” Locker tells Truthout. “How much power can you accumulate to get management and the owners to come to the table to negotiate a reasonable contract?”

There’s also the tactic of a boycott. San Francisco State University’s Logan, a labor expert who has studied the union drive closely, says that some in the campaign believe that “a national consumer boycott is going to be necessary for Starbucks to back off from the unlawful union-busting and to bargain in true good faith.”

Jaz Brisack, the former Buffalo barista who was instrumental in starting the union drive, recently tweeted the “#BoycottStarbucks” hashtag.

Logan says that a successful boycott would be “a tremendously difficult undertaking” and would need to engage a “huge part” of the labor movement, but that Starbucks seemed like a good candidate for such a pressure campaign.

“If [Starbucks] doesn’t pay a price” for things like its “unlawful union-busting and its failure to negotiate in true good faith, its war of attrition against the union,” says Logan, then “it’s not going to change its behavior.”

A boycott combined with political pressure from the top and expanded organizing from below could ramp-up the reputational damage against Starbucks and upset investors. “I think all of these things together would make a difference,” Logan said.

Cornell’s Bronfenbrenner, meanwhile, sees leverage points for the union in Starbucks’s expanding global presence. Starbucks forecasts two-thirds of its global retail growth in the next few years coming from its international business.

“This is a global company, and it’s going to take a global campaign,” she said. Starbucks investors may think twice if political figures and labor unions in other countries start to vocally oppose the company’s expansion “because you’re a labor law violator in the U.S.,” she said.

Keeping the Fight Going

Bronfenbrenner points to the continued importance of maintaining momentum by building the union from the bottom and expanding the campaign’s ranks by bringing in new allies, like the August 7 day of action aimed to do.

“Unions depend on ally support, and allies depend on union support,” she said. “Working with customers is extremely important in a company like Starbucks because there are so many work sites scattered so far apart that you couldn’t do a union staff-driven campaign. You rely on workers and their allies to put economic pressure on the company.”

Polls show that Starbucks customers widely support the union drive. If the union can activate thousands of its supporters to take action through leafleting, picketing and protesting, and also bring in a more expansive mobilization of organized labor, it could transform the union drive into a popular social movement with a broader active base that could bring more pressure to bear on Starbucks management.

Labor expert Logan says that bringing in customers is absolutely essential. “Starbucks’s customer base is overwhelmingly sympathetic to workers having a right to form a union,” he said, and far more customers need to learn about “what the company has done to try and crush the union in terms of its illegal actions.” He says this will take a “really big national effort” that goes beyond one-day actions.

Meanwhile, Bronfenbrenner says continuing to develop rank-and-file leadership and educating members about the long-haul nature of the fight with the company are crucial. “They are gaining power,” she said, “but they have to keep organizing to sustain this. Not just more stores, but also the workers they’ve already organized.”

Things like the bus tour help keep up morale and cohesion within the union. “The bus tour was really amazing,” said Santa Cruz store shift supervisor Gabel. She told Truthout it offered a joyful respite for union members, allowing them to meet supporters and fellow baristas from across the nation. Participants separated by geography, who only know each other through Zoom calls, have been able to socialize in person and build solidarity for the struggles ahead.

“The objective was to meet more customers and create more union allies,” said Gabel. “But the internal part of that was a lot of fun, just getting to be with each other.”

CORRECTION: This article was updated to reflect that Starbucks, not the NLRB, is refusing to recognize the union.