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El Paso Starbucks Workers Are Organizing in the Face of Relentless Union Busting

Starbucks’s preemptive union-busting tactics in El Paso, Texas, have backfired and inspired workers at the Fountains to unionize.

Paul Ginestá

May 20, 2022
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A protester waves a sign that read "unionize" near the Country Club Plaza Starbucks store where dozens of Starbucks employees and union supporters protested alleged anti-union tactics by the company Thursday, March 3, 2022.
Image: Jill Toyoshiba/Kansas City Star/TNS

When looking at a map of the continental United States showing Starbucks stores with announced plans to unionize, you’ll find a single store in an expanse bordered by Phoenix, Colorado Springs, and Austin.

On April 25 employees at the Starbucks at the Fountains Store no. 19876 in El Paso, Texas, announced their intent to join the union drive led by Starbucks Workers United (SbWU).

In publishing their open letter to Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, Margie Roman and her partners at Starbucks took a giant step for all of El Paso into the ongoing upsurge in labor organizing.

This happened after months of abusive behavior from upper management, which included poor training, corrective action as a result of the poor training, belittling and condescending remarks from district management, and — to add injury to insult — a merry-go-round of changing and decreasing shifts to force out longtime partners. It is in this context that Starbucks store no. 19876 took action and filed a petition for SbWU to represent them in collective bargaining on April 27.

In her conversation with Left Voice, Roman talked about her 11 months working at this Starbucks. She said that in June 2021, she was comfortable with the onboarding process in her new workplace, describing her first few months as “straightforward and honest.”

She said her team consisted of “good, honest, hardworking people,” but when she became a shift supervisor, “I started to notice things changed.”

She said that while this change in position normally happens after six months, her previous experience as a barista at a licensed Starbucks location in Amarillo helped her get promoted in December. But her onboarding period to become a shift supervisor was very limited and not long enough to provide adequate training.

Shortly after her change in position, her store underwent a change in district management, resulting in a conflict between district and store managers. Her store manager, who had 11 years’ experience working at Starbucks, demoted himself on January 27 and transferred to a different location to work as a barista.

Beginning in February 2022, Roman described behavior from Starbucks she’d never seen in all her time working for the company, including the licensed store.

“The new store and district managers went in, said no one knew how to do their jobs, started changing shifts, and said they were going to do everything they could to ‘fix’ everything,” said Roman.

New management came in “guns blazing,” belittling the workers at the Fountains store and demeaning them with abusive language. This was in stark contrast to the attitude of the previous store manager, who was described by Roman as helpful and encouraging.

It was around this time that management began criticizing Roman’s performance as shift supervisor. Despite the already toxic behavior at the store, she still wanted to improve, rise to the occasion, and prove that she could be a shift supervisor. Management promised to invest in training her and give her the time she needed to succeed at her position. Time passed, and when it became clear that management was not going to follow through on its promise, Roman demoted herself.

She was then removed from the work schedule for 10 days while another shift supervisor with one month’s experience was hired to replace her.

Starbucks only ramped up the toxicity from there. Although her coworkers were understanding and encouraged her, management told Roman that she “should’ve never been promoted” and that she was unfit for the corporation’s culture.

“Of course I felt crushed and belittled in a way I never did before,” said Roman.

The final straw for Roman was Starbucks’ manipulation of work hours. The company’s policy is to provide 10-minute breaks after four hours of work and 30-minute lunch breaks after six hours of work. After the change in management, Roman’s demotion, and management’s blaming workers for poor morale (caused by the disciplining of one of their own), they put the icing on the cake by maxing scheduled workdays at five and a half hours. Their cherry on top was asking workers to keep their availability open, even though many of them had to work second jobs just to pay their bills. When workers said they couldn’t, they were removed from the schedule for a minimum of 10 to 14 days.

To further drive a wedge in between workers, management provided workweeks of more than 30 hours to new hires — in other words, employees who were inoculated against SbWU’s organizing and who could be more easily kept in the dark about Starbucks’ union busting.

Before January 2022, shifts were flexible at Starbucks at the Fountains; if workers needed more or fewer hours, they could accommodate each other.

“I never had an issue with scheduling,” said Roman, “and then all of a sudden everyone that had been a part of that store is only getting 20, 25 hours scheduled while these new hires are getting scheduled 30, 35 hours. I feel like they really did that with a purpose, they really did that with an intent.”

At the same time, Starbucks store managers around El Paso regularly rejected attempts by workers from the Fountains to pick up hours offered by their fellow workers around the city — something they never had difficulty with before.

“Almost instantly every time my store manager, Sara, would remove them from my schedule,” Roman said, “so even if we did try to pick up shifts [or] pick up hours and do what we could, they would make it a point to remove us from the schedule.”

She added, “The way that they just play and mess around with people’s lives like that, huh? That’s really what makes my blood boil, when I see my partners suffering like that, and they’re telling everyone that we suck at our jobs and do not let us pick up shifts and do not let us pick up hours.”

Yet some of these “partners,” as Starbucks calls its employees, had worked for Starbucks for several years without making a livable wage in El Paso, a city whose local government is attacking its renting (working-class) population while granting tax cuts to capitalists’ pet projects.

Meanwhile, some “partners” live paycheck to paycheck in one of the most “affordable” places to live in the U.S.

Many of them are not given enough hours to qualify for college assistance benefits, and nowhere near enough money to pay for it themselves.

“Our entire lives are affected by the money we’re basically allotted to live with,” Roman said. “Some of us are affected by where we have to live and the costs of living.”

Despite all this, the Starbucks workers at the Fountains just wanted to receive their hours, pay, and benefits. Roman reached out to Starbucks’ HR departments, known as the Partner Contact Center (PCC), which suggested that Roman speak with the same district manager who had retaliated against his workers. When she explained why she wouldn’t do that, the PCC said it would “try” to help.

How the Fountains Workers Filed Their Petition for Union Representation

That was when Roman decided her Starbucks needed a union.

SbWU’s subsequent victories since Buffalo, New York, last December, in addition to the success and popularity of Amazon Labor Union’s union drives, have fired up the imagination of the American working class. A Gallup poll in 2021 found that 68 percent of Americans support unions, the highest percentage since 1965.

“We’re all going to have the proper training, proper skills, and be able to properly support one another,” Roman said. “Partners would be able to have a guarantee for the kinds of hours that will actually support people’s livelihoods. There’s no reason you should make yourself available to a company that isn’t providing these things.”

The workers’ other include a minimum wage of $16.50, a guaranteed 30 hours a week, seniority pay, and guaranteed benefits.

“Starbucks is leading in benefits and supporting partners in that area,” Roman said, “but it’s still not enough. Partners can’t afford this healthcare, and they’re not making enough hours to pay for it, much less qualify for the benefits.”

These demands prompted Roman to contact SbWU in early April for information about unionizing her workplace. Four weeks later, workers at the Starbucks at the Fountains filed a petition for union representation, with signed cards from almost 75 percent of the store.

Roman’s talks with her fellow organizers around the country made the difference.

“When you have that drive, want, and need for change but you know it can’t be an individual’s task, having people to back me up meant the world and was immensely helpful,” said Roman.

She added that in her relationship with SbWU, it was key to have an accessible labor lawyer, an interactive field team ready to remotely assist store organizers, and transparent and honest organizing conversations.

“A few of the partners that are out there in San Antonio and in Austin said that if need be, they would make a trip out here and they would help out even if they have to ask for an entire week or whatever,” she said. “So that is super encouraging and hopefully they’re true to their word,”

While all these factors are undoubtedly critical to SbWU’s success around the country so far, only time will tell if this kind of accessibility can or will be sustained.

In addition to the assistance being provided by SbWU’s national union drive, Roman’s experience with labor struggles and housing precariousness has shaped her drive to unionize her workplace. Being involved in organizing for housing justice provided Roman with experience in community-based organizing.

“I’m not saying that everyone could face going through that experience,” she said, “but creating that solidarity and that sense of community, especially somewhere like El Paso … I think that’s such a big deal, as far as reaching people in their mentality, the ideas that they have of workers, specifically people in Texas can see that when shit hits the fan, and we’re fucking freezing, and we don’t have heaters, and there’s no electricity in the state, no one is gonna come save us, especially not the government that we’re so fucking reliant upon.”

The Fountains Store Can Be a Lightning Rod for Labor Solidarity in El Paso

When asked about how the community can show its solidarity, Roman said any show of public support would be a huge boost for the workers at the Fountains. Store managers are being instructed by upper management to not only avoid any discussion of union campaigns around the city and country but also to place more anti-union literature in their workplaces. Even the very word “union” itself is under attack.

In this context, community support could prove crucial, especially in spreading the word in El Paso without risking further retaliation for Starbucks workers. With established labor unions like AFL-CIO’s locals and the Teamsters failing to get a single pair of feet in the El Paso’s streets for May Day, actions like these could serve as the chispa, or the spark, for more grassroots labor organizers in the area.

And some community members are doing just that, forming solidarity committees to work alongside SbWU. But community support is only the first step. The next step for both community members and Starbucks workers is to recognize where our strength lies: not in the ballot box, as politicians from the Democratic Party would have us believe, but in organizing our workplaces from the bottom up.

With union density in Texas so drastically low, it is crucial for established unions such as AFL-CIO affiliates and Teamsters locals to throw their weight behind all newly organizing workplaces.

A fighting union is one of the best weapons a worker can wield against the injustices of the ruling class. With SbWU throwing down the gauntlet while abortion rights are under attack, now is the perfect time for organizers to discuss how the labor, abortion, and civil rights movements can organize together in solidarity and common struggle and to show why every worker needs a union.

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