Starbucks workers vote to unionize Buffalo, New York store


Starbucks workers at a store in Buffalo, New York, voted to unionize on Thursday, over the company’s objections, marking a first for the 50-year-old coffee giant and pointing the way to a new labor model for the company.

The National Labor Relations Board said Thursday that workers voted 19-8 in favor of a union at one of three locations in Buffalo. A second store rejected the union in a vote of 12-8. The results of a third store could not be determined because of several challenged votes.

If the labor board certifies the vote — a process expected to take about a week — it would be the first for any Starbucks-owned store in the US to unionize. Starbucks has actively fought unionization at its stores for decades, saying its stores function best when it works directly with employees.

Workers watching the vote count over Zoom on a big screen at a union office in Buffalo erupted into cheers and chants of “Elmwood, Elmwood, Elmwood!” when the results of that location were announced. They jumped up and down and hugged.

Workers at all three stores began voting by mail last month on whether they wanted to be represented by Workers United, an affiliate of the Service Employees International Union.

The National Labor Relations Board began counting ballots Thursday from union elections held at the stores. Around 111 Starbucks workers from the three stores were eligible to vote by mail starting last month.

Exterior of a Starbucks store in Buffalo, New York
Union backers at three Buffalo stores filed petitions with the labor board in August seeking representation by Workers United, an affiliate of the Service Employees International Union.
AFP via Getty Images

“Yes” votes could also accelerate unionization efforts at other US Starbucks stores. Already, three more stores in Buffalo and a store in Mesa, Arizona, have filed petitions with the labor board for their own union elections. Those cases are pending.

Kent Wong, the director of the UCLA Labor Center, says that it’s a big deal for even one Starbucks location to vote for a union, calling it “a symbolic victory for the labor movement.”

Wong noted that it could not only galvanize workers at other Starbucks locations but also at fast food chains.

“People are looking at what is happening in Buffalo,” Wong said.

Union backers at the first three Buffalo stores filed petitions with the labor board in August seeking representation by Workers United. Those workers say Starbucks’ stores had chronic problems like understaffing and faulty equipment even before the pandemic. They want more input on pay and store operations.

“We have no accountability right now. We have no say,” said Casey Moore, a union organizer who has been working at a Buffalo-area Starbucks for around six months. “With a union we will actually be able to sit down at the table and say, ‘This is what we want.’”

Starbucks workers sit in chairs in a room watching a screen as votes to unionize are counted.
Starbucks workers in Buffalo, NY, watch a screen as votes are counted on whether to unionize. Workers said unionizing will give them more input on pay and how stores are operated.
AFP via Getty Images

Starbucks insists its 8,000 company-owned US stores function best when it works directly with its employees, whom it calls “partners.” Many employees in the Buffalo area work at more than one store depending on demand, Starbucks says, and it wants to have the flexibility to move them between stores.

Starbucks asked the labor board to hold one vote with all 20 of its Buffalo-area stores, but the board rejected that request, saying store-by-store votes were appropriate under labor law.

In a letter to Starbucks’ US employees this week, Starbucks president and CEO Kevin Johnson reiterated the company’s wish to include all Buffalo-area stores in the union vote.

Beverage cups featuring the Starbucks logo
If the labor board certifies the vote, it would be the first for any Starbucks-owned store in the US to unionize.
Stephen Chernin/Getty Images

“While we recognize this creates some level of uncertainty, we respect the process that is underway, and independent of the outcome in these elections, we will continue to stay true to our mission and values,” Johnson wrote.

Johnson also reminded employees of the company’s generous benefits, including paid parental and sick leave and free college tuition through Arizona State University. Late last month, the company also announced pay increases, saying all its US workers will earn at least $15 — and up to $23 — per hour by next summer.

But backers of the union say Starbucks can do more.

Kevin Johnson holds arms up while speaking in front of a background featuring the Starbucks logo and a US flag
Starbucks, led by president and CEO Kevin Johnson, had wanted all of Starbucks’ locations in the Buffalo, NY, area to participate in the union vote, but the labor board rejected that request.
Getty Images

“If Starbucks can find the money to pay their CEO nearly $15 million in compensation, I think maybe they can afford to pay their workers a decent wage with decent benefits,” said US Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) in a recent Twitter post. Sanders held a virtual town hall with Buffalo Starbucks workers earlier this week.

Johnson earned $14.7 million in salary and stock awards in the company’s 2020 fiscal year.

Starbucks or the union can contest individual votes in the election, which could delay the certification process by the labor board. But if the votes do get certified, Starbucks is legally obligated to begin the process of collective bargaining with Workers United and any of the three stores that vote to unionize, said Cathy Creighton, the director of Cornell University’s Industrial and Labor Relations Buffalo Co-Lab.

Hands of a Starbucks barista preparing a drink at a Starbucks cafe
The Starbucks union vote comes as workers are making demands on several fronts, including strikes at Kellogg’s plants and the John Deere company.
Corbis via Getty Images

In some cases, companies have closed a location rather than deal with a union. But that’s difficult for a retailer like Starbucks, since it would be illegal to close one store and then open another nearby, Creighton said.

Starbucks has shown a willingness to bargain outside the US. In Victoria, Canada, workers at a Starbucks store voted to unionize in August 2020. It took Starbucks and the United Steelworkers union nearly a year to reach a collective bargaining agreement, which was ratified by workers in July.

The union votes come at a time of heightened labor unrest in the US. Striking cereal workers at Kellogg Co. rejected a new contract offer earlier this week. Thousands of workers were on strike at Deere & Co. earlier this fall. And the US labor board recently approved a redo of a union vote at an Amazon warehouse in Alabama after finding the company pressured workers to vote against the union.

Labor shortages are giving workers a rare upper hand in wage negotiations. And Dan Graff, director of the Higgins Labor Program at the University of Notre Dame, said the pandemic gave many workers the time and space to rethink what they want from their jobs.

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