Since that historic December vote in Buffalo that won the first union at Starbucks in the U.S., six other locals have gone on to unionize and multiple new organizing attempts are cropping up across the country.
Left Voice joined Zach and Ethan, both workers at the Starbucks located at 47 and who are part of this union drive attempt, in a conversation about their reasons to fight for a union and what the effects have been so far.
What are the reasons for you to fight for a union at Starbucks?
Ethan: We have seen serious damage done to people by Starbucks, partially because of the working conditions. And I will say it’s definitely tough sometimes when it comes to the issues of working conditions for my Starbucks, it’s not because of the lower management, it’s because of the higher management.
We were over 70 percent when we presented the letter to the CEO. Right now, the work we’re doing is literally just checking in with people because the election’s in a month. And right now we’re just: “Hey, are you a yes vote?”; “Hey, are you?”; “What do you want from this contract?”. Because we’re going to be immediately working on that the minute afterwards.
For us, it’s not a “will we?” It’s when we and the work is now about getting other stores right on top of this.
Zach: I think the general consensus is that this is a preventative measure for us, Starbucks has proven that we’re all disposable. It can take just a second for them to decide that. We really need to address this because we’ve watched these stories from these other Starbucks where they’re in these situations that shouldn’t get that bad for us to have to do this. We should be able to exercise our rights and it’s our right to unionize. So that’s why we’re doing this.
What are some of the demands that you are thinking to put forward in a future contract?
Ethan: We need better pay. I mean, simply enough, that’s the number one obvious thing that every union advocate will say is better pay. And that’s just simply put. Fifteen dollars is not a living minimum wage, especially not in cities. As much as working conditions can be good or bad, depending on low hours, low amount of staff, but if we’re not able to live on the wage we’re getting, it doesn’t matter. We’re going to be stressed outside of work. We’re going to be crying at home about bills. We’re going to be stressing constantly.
Zach: We have a lot of colleagues and partners within the queer community and a large reason that some of these queer partners to come to Starbucks is for the health care, and talking to this partners, the hoops that they have to go through to acquire gender affirming health care is ridiculous. And for us to bargain for a clear cut and concise path toward that is important to these partners and it’s important to me.
The majority of the partners at my store cannot afford that. And you know, I care about them and we work every day together on the floor going through the same things. They matter to me. And it’s been real eye-opening through this process the number of partners who have said, “I want this, I want this to happen.”
What do you think will be the effects of unionizing your local?
Zach: We’re all working paycheck to paycheck. I think that the movement with Starbucks has really changed the status quo in the food industry because it’s such a high turnover position and not just at our company. All food industries work for us to say, “Yeah, this may be a temporary position.” But I think it’s an important challenge to say, “Look, no, we all deserve a living wage and dignity at our workplace.” So I think really for us, it’s just important to get into this movement and support it. I think a win for us just shows that it’s possible. It’s a lot of what the Buffalo location showed us; that it was possible, and it allows the movement to continue to grow and allows it to snowball. Because since this has started, since we’ve announced, we’ve got all sorts of stores and partners, that we know since it is a network, reaching out to us saying, “Holy cow, like we didn’t know we could do this. How do we start?” And it was such an encouraging thing to see.
Ethan: It was back in November when we were seeing those Buffalo stores unionized. Seeing that support in our communities showed us we could do it right. We could do this. And I think also the fact that everyone in our stores, at least a lot of them are mid-twenties adults. We’re the exact type of people who need to be fighting on this, and seeing the Buffalo stores do it definitely was the point, the point that we were like, “OK, we’re doing this now.”
We’re in contact not just with Starbucks in Buffalo. We’re also in contact with Starbucks around the Twin Cities. It started with two, one here and one in St. Paul. But we’re now looking at adding more stores. Building that network has been awesome. It’s been really cool to hear someone say “Oh yeah, I got a text from this Starbucks that they’re interested.” Being that inspiration is amazing. It’s just amazing because we were inspired by workers who did it in Buffalo. And now we’re seeing workers inspired by us who are doing it right now.
What are your thoughts about the current teacher and ESPs strike in Minneapolis?
Zach: These teachers are taking like two extra jobs on top of it. Can you imagine? I can’t. We met with an ESP the other day while bringing out coffee, and when she told me her salary, I had to bite my lip because I’m working at Starbucks, making more. I don’t want to undervalue my work, but there’s no reason for that. I think I value her work monumentally. Like doing that job for less than I am making lattes for, can you believe that? It’s insane. And for them to make a salary that low when they could quit and go work fast food and make more money. And we’re sending our kids to these places. This is our future. I just want the world for them.
Ethan: A bunch of us are people who are going to be teachers, who are studying to be teachers. So, I mean, it’s hard to resist. It’s hard to say how connected we feel to the education system around here because a lot of us went through it and want to be a part of it. I have friends and many coworkers who are looking to be educators and they’re excited about doing the work but they’re not excited about the pay. They’re not excited about the treatment that they know is going to be rough when they do that type of work. And to them, this is taking the fight that we’re having in Starbucks and taking the fight that is happening with Minneapolis teachers. And it’s all one fight for them.
We’re fed up. You can only take so much punishment, so much loss before you just decide to…I mean, eventually, the cat that you’ve backed into a corner is going to scratch you back. And we’re starting to fight back more. And we’ve lived through these two once in a lifetime recessions.
Do this work at every single store. Do this because everywhere should have a union. And I don’t mean that lightly. Like everywhere, this store that we’re in currently should have a union. Every single place should have someone to have the voice of the workers represented because the current relationship between worker and boss is one which one tells the other what to do and what they get. And that’s it. And I’m sorry if you don’t like it. And that’s just that’s not sustainable. That’s not livable. As we’ve seen, it’s literally not livable. It kills people, whether by starving them out or making it so that their mental health collapses. The current relationship is an abusive and manipulative one that every single person who sees the work that we’re doing should do at their own workplace.
We need to be fighting right now for workers, for us.