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Historic Union Vote at Starbucks

Starbucks workers in Buffalo are taking a historic vote to form their first union at several stores in the area. The company, unsurprisingly, is doing everything it can to bust the union drive.

John Leslie

December 8, 2021
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Several Starbuck's employees speaking to reporters form behind a table.
Photo: Michael Sanabria

Originally Published in Socialist Resurgence

At a press conference on Wednesday, Dec. 1, workers associated with Starbucks Workers United discussed the current union vote at three stores in the Buffalo, N.Y., area. Additionally, they discussed a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) hearing set for the following day that would rule on the attempt by workers to unionize an additional three stores. Starbucks had argued that the entire district should be allowed to vote in the election and not individual stores, but the NLRB ruled against Starbucks’ effort to hold a district-wide election. In the past, the NLRB has ruled in favor of workers seeking to unionize a single store in a chain.

This last week of voting will end with a live online vote count on Dec. 9. One Starbucks worker, Michelle Eisen, said at the press conference, “In spite of everything the corporation has done over the last three months to try and destroy this union campaign, we are still completely confident that, come next Thursday, we will have the first unionized Starbucks out of almost 9000 in the United States.” Eisen stressed the importance of community support for this unionization effort and characterized the union-busting efforts as “contrary to what Starbucks professes they are as a company.” Eisen expressed the hope that the company would do an “about face” on their union busting in the face of community pressure. “We’re not stopping!” declared Eisen.

In an earlier article, Wilma Liebman, former chair of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), stated, “What Starbucks is doing to crush the union campaign seems extraordinary. Employers are not allowed to tamper with the ‘laboratory conditions’ for a fair election during a union campaign. From all appearances, this employer is doing just that, arrogantly defying basic labor law principles in an effort to kill the unionization effort, without regard for the consequences.”

Starbucks management responded to the union drive by flooding the Buffalo area with almost 200 managers, district managers, and executives, calling the effort the “Buffalo SWAT team.”  The company has tried everything in its power to stop or delay the vote, forcing workers to return multiple times to the NLRB for relief. Starbucks has padded the voting pool by adding workers from the district to the voter list who don’t work at the three stores in question.

A press release by Starbucks Workers United stated, “A member of Starbucks self-proclaimed ‘Buffalo SWAT Team’ acknowledged on tape that she had come to Buffalo to try to ‘save’ it from the union, that pro-union partners are ‘sucking the life’ out of her, and that no one should be jealous of her trips to Buffalo because ‘it’s not Rockefeller Center.’”

Brittany Harrison, the manager of a Mesa, Ariz., store released the tape to blow the whistle on corporate union busting and was forced to quit by the company while she is battling leukemia. The workers at the Mesa location have recently filed a petition to hold an NLRB union representation election.

Roxanne Williams, president of Starbucks North America, came to Buffalo the first day that petitions were filed and has stayed in the city. Other executives have also appeared in stores. One worker said that these execs in their expensive suits are hanging around the stores, emptying trashcans or sweeping floors. Pro-union literature has “disappeared” from break rooms. On Thanksgiving, Williams came to one store wearing a turkey hat. Workers report intense anti-union meetings, with one worker at the press conference saying that he was forced into a meeting with nine members of management. The company is pushing hard for a “no” vote, and the workers have been pushing back against management intimidation and “fear mongering” tactics.

Union-busting campaigns are nothing new. Aggressive and anti-union campaigns at Amazon’s Bessemer, Ala., hub resulted in a loss, but a recent NLRB decision cited company misconduct during that election to overturn the results and ordered a new election. Additionally, the Dollar General chain spent $10,000 per day per employee to stop a union drive at one store in Connecticut. Socialist Resurgence reported that Dollar General paid “five union-busting professionals each $2700 per day for 28 days—a total of $378,000 over less than a month—to surveil and harass workers at the shop. With five full-time employees in the store, that is a one-to-one ratio of union busters to workers.”

Meanwhile, the unions have quietly dropped advocacy for the PRO Act, which would make unionizing easier for millions of workers.

Capitalists spend more than $340 annually on “union avoidance.” Companies and their union-busting hirelings engage in a pattern of threats, intimidation, and harassment to put a stop to supposedly legally protected unionization efforts, but this abusive behavior is mainly ignored or even considered legal by the NLRB—all leading up to elections that are hardly democratic. The result is that although surveys show that in recent years about 49% of non-managerial workers, about 58 million, expressed a desire to join a union, NLRB elections resulted in only about 50,000 workers a year attaining unionized status.

The workers spoke about meeting with Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, who had tweeted support for their organizing efforts, and similar support from Senator Kristen Gillibrand and representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Press conference speakers expressed that they hope these elected officials would pressure the company to negotiate in good faith after a union victory.

A victory at three Buffalo Starbucks stores would open the possibility of more organizing campaigns in the restaurant and retail sectors. In these types of elections, workers face enormous obstacles in the form of corporate union busting and a lethargic, unresponsive trade-union bureaucracy.

A successful campaign to organize the unorganized in the low-wage wasteland of the U.S. economy will require a maximum effort from the union tops and from the rank and file of the unions themselves. Organizing all workers for better pay and working conditions is crucial to reversing the losses workers have suffered over the past decades of the one-sided class war waged by the bosses.

Winning this fight also means working-class political independence from the Democrats—even their “progressive” wing. The Democrats have been willing accomplices in the employers’ austerity offensive. While the support of politicians like Sanders, Gillibrand, or AOC are welcome, ultimately, they cannot be depended upon to stand with our class against their paymasters on Wall Street. Don’t forget the unfulfilled campaign year promise made by Barack Obama that “if American workers are being denied their right to organize and collectively bargain when I’m in the White House, I’ll put on a comfortable pair of shoes myself, I’ll will walk on that picket line with you as president of the United States of America.” After the election, Obama apparently misplaced those shoes.

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