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Interview: Starbucks Workers in Astoria, Queens Join Unionization Push

Left Voice interviews two Starbucks workers who recently filed for a union at their store on Astoria Blvd in New York City. This is part of a wave of one hundred and forty stores in twenty six states petitioning for union elections. You can follow and support Astoria Starbucks workers on Twitter or Instagram at @astoriablvdsbx.

Left Voice

March 27, 2022
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On the left is a blue bus stop for the Q19 bus as well as the subway tracks. On the right is a brown building with the Starbucks logo in the upper left corner, the starbucks coffee sign in white lettering in the middle of the building. Some people gather in front of the store.

Mike: To start, could you guys tell me about yourselves, your names or what your positions are at Starbucks, how long you’ve worked there, and when you first recognized you needed a union?

Kevin: Hi, I’m Kevin, I’m a barista at Starbucks. I’ve been there now for about two and a half years. I started not long before the pandemic. If I had to say when I thought we needed a union, it was during the pandemic. During the point where we reopened and we were mobile orders only was really hectic. It was a mess in terms of the number of customers, amount of orders, short staffing numbers, all that kind of stuff. And that’s definitely when I was like, “This is not right, you know?”

Josue: Hi, my name is Josue. I’m a shift supervisor at the Astoria location, and I’ve been a partner for about five years now. I was away for about six months just because I graduated college and I was trying to pursue graphic design. It wasn’t for me, and I just really missed the kind of connections and the way we get involved with customers at Starbucks, so I felt like I had to go back. But during the pandemic it was very hectic. Kevin had a lot of good points. It was really a struggle. It was not the same as before. Starbucks management always, never really listened to us, and specifically during COVID times, it was much, much worse. There was no connection. We would voice opinions and it just wouldn’t matter. For me specifically, the moment I knew we could win a union was really, really recently just because our store closed down for two weeks. And me and my team, we didn’t get to see each other. We only saw like three or four other coworkers at different stores. And in that time, I really got to experience the way other stores function and saw the relationship partners have with their managers. It was really eye opening. It was shocking like the way that no one trusts each other, like the way we trust each other at the Astoria Boulevard location. And coming back, we were all so excited to see each other. And that’s when I figured that it’s kind of up to us to start something ourselves. I thought: if we can trust each other this much, we know we can start something. 

Mike: You both touched on the working conditions during the pandemic. What were those like? I know anytime I come to Starbucks, I’m watching you all flip cups to each other and go back and forth. It seems pretty damn intense. It seems like you really have to be on your game to make sure that everything is functioning the way it is. So, the idea that things could get more intense during the pandemic, could you talk a little bit more about what those working conditions were like during the pandemic? How was staffing? How hectic was it? 

Josue: During the peak of it all, it was very much a lot of responsibility because you don’t want to let down your community, our customers. They know our names, like, they know what we do on the side besides Starbucks, and they literally come up to check up on us. Our customers basically become your friends, your family. And during the peak, we had so much extra responsibility, especially with our partners, and you don’t want to let your community and your partners down. We have 30 minute timers. Every 30 minutes, we have to wipe down every high surface area table. All door handles, the bathroom, everything, and we still have to do all that with the same amount of employees. We don’t get extra help. And we have to worry about the health department coming in or someone else coming in to check up on us and that everything is signed off. As a supervisor, I feel that pressure on top of me. Because it’s like, it’s up to me, like I have to make sure that I give my best possible self, so that the community feels safe and partners like Kevin feel safe. 

Kevin: I agree with Josue, we had just a lot of extra responsibilities, and we weren’t trained for this kind of thing. You know, I took the job, I knew I’m going to make coffee. I know I got to clean things, whatever, that’s the job. But then having all those additional responsibilities, keeping an eye on cleaning high-touch surfaces. Later on there’s checking people, making sure people are wearing masks on top of what are already a lot of general responsibilities, while also having in the back of your mind, there’s a pandemic going on. I don’t want to get sick or something. And there’s no social distancing at work with what we’re doing. Spaces are too tight, so it’s like there’s a lot that was put on to order and then on to frontline supervisors. It was a lot. 

Mike:To clarify, when you say partners, that means like a partner is somebody separate than a shift supervisor? 

Josue: Partners are just what we call employees at Starbucks. Just because we’re also given stocks in the company. So they like to refer to us as partners so that we all feel like on the same level. 

Kevin: Yes, key is so we “feel” that way. But we aren’t all on the same level so… 

Josue: Yeah, right, but we know that it’s not so.

Mike: It’s interesting that the “partners” terminology is used,  whereas I’m sure the amount of stock that that either of you, even if you combine your stock, compared to the amount of stock that the top, top level of Starbucks has, they’re not necessarily comparable. But that term partner almost makes it sound like it’s an equal relationship. 

Kevin: Yeah, on paper or to the highest levels of Starbucks we are, they call us that, but you know, is it actually? 

Mike: Yeah, yeah. Ok, so then the next question is, what would a union mean for Starbucks, for Starbucks workers at your location? 

Kevin: Well, it would mean that those who work in the store will be able to have a say in how things work. We work there, we’re on the floor. We deal with everything that comes down on us as opposed to like, you know, someone way above us is deciding. Managers may say, “Hey, your store gets X number of hours and this many people based on whatever metric.” We have no control over that; we are just supposed to deal with it. But, in forming a union, it gives us a say, it makes us more equal in that regard. It will be us together at a negotiation, as opposed to just dealing with this, and I think that’s really important. 

Mike: I’m wondering if you’ve seen any retaliation to unionizing efforts thus far, either before you officially filed or after?

Josue: Nothing much has happened, but before, our manager did mention a few things to us that did seem out of place. He asked some really vague questions that we weren’t really sure about. We did hear that in Manhattan they started posting up anti-union messages, and we have been wondering when this is going to come to our store. But right now we’re just waiting to see. We have so much support from the community, though. Our customers are coming in, often people we’ve never met before. So we’re hoping that the level of support we have kind of deters management from messing with us. 

Mike: I had read that Starbucks workers in Denver’s East Colfax Starbucks went on strike recently. They were protesting the unfair labor practices in retaliation to their efforts in unionizing the store. I’m wondering if either of you have thoughts on that? 

Kevin: I came across that on Reddit, I believe, and saw that they had walked out. And, you know, I would say I thought, “Right on!” We’re aware of what’s going on in our store, a lot of us are aware of the Buffalo store, and maybe some other stores working to unionize. So to see that showed that workers recognized these working conditions are a problem and aren’t going to stand for them.

Josue: So we’re in talks with Starbucks United and we’re actually trying to start a few things with other stores, but nothing is concrete. We’re constantly in communication with them, and we’re trying to find multiple ways of helping all the other stores because thanks to social media, we’re talking to people from other states. We see what everyone is going through and notice how many people from different stores around the country have the same exact issues other people are going through. We’re hoping that we can grow something larger from here and other stores that are pushing to unionize. 

Mike: You mentioned that these struggles are similar in that a lot of people are going through similar circumstances at different stores around the country. And now we’ve seen this wave of unionizing efforts at Starbucks, which is really all over the country with one hundred and forty stores in twenty six states petitioning for union elections. More recently, the previous CEO, Kevin Johnson, has stepped down and the new anti-union CEO Howard Schultz, is back. Now, to me, it seems like the reaction from the top of Starbucks is, “We need to retake over the reins here and figure out how to stop all these stores trying to unionize.” And I’m wondering what you guys think. Do you think that Starbucks leadership is threatened by this unionization effort that we’re seeing? 

Josue: They should be scared. They should be. We’re obviously the people that are stepping up. Care about each other. We knew from the very beginning this was not completely about us, it’s about everybody around us. We’re just the spark. That’s all it is, and we’re hoping that everyone else can become brave and strong enough to stand up. It’s obvious that something is wrong. And if Starbucks leadership’s intention is to try to control us or try to put us down, they’re going to have a hard time. They really are. Speaking of our store as an example, we hang out after work all the time. We truly, truly care about each other. And if they think that some change in leadership is going to affect anything, we have each other’s back. So we’re not scared of anything. We’re not worried. And we know we got each other and are going to keep this momentum going.

Kevin Damn right. 

Mike: I have one last question…..I don’t think this struggle against poor working conditions is limited to a struggle at Starbucks; around the country, workers are rising up. So for example, education workers in Minneapolis have been on strike for about three weeks. They’re demanding increased wages, smaller class sizes. They’re demanding support and retention of BIPOC teachers. They’re also demanding increased mental health support for students is in a city where George Floyd was murdered, which was the epicenter of those protests that we saw two summers ago. So I’m wondering how you see your fight for a union tied to other workers like these fighting for better working conditions?

Josue: In the first weekend that we started announcing that we were trying to form a union, customers showed up to show support from all over. While I was working, many expressed to me how they were also going through similar issues. And 90 percent of them told me that they were so inspired by us just on that one day that they wanted to start a movement. They’ve been thinking about it, they were saying how they don’t have proper working conditions and see the pressures that workers like us take. All of the pressure we take, all of the hard work and we’re expected to meet sales demands or this or that. Everything is just thrown on top of us, and we deserve to have a voice. So in order to push back it means organizing like we are or other workers are. So yeah, I see that as the connection.

Mike: Thanks so much for this interview. How can our readers support you all, both at your specific location in Astoria and then, do you have thoughts of how our readers can support other Starbucks workers that are struggling together? 

Kevin: I would say, like if you’re local to us, come to our store for your coffee order with “union strong” as the name. Just coming to our store and doing that shows support to us. And whether you’re local or not local, just spread the word in any way possible, on social media, between friends or coworkers. Just anything like that helps. 

Josue: On Monday, we went live with our Instagram on our Twitter. So if people want to follow us, it’s @Astoriablvdsbx. We post there regularly. We really just want to keep everyone informed that way through social media. Another definite way is what Kevin said… and customers keep coming in. They don’t order, like sometimes, they’ll just order water, and they put their money in the tip jar for us where it counts. And they just give us words of encouragement, which really helps a lot. We’ll be getting destroyed, making all these drinks and customers will just hang around, wait when it’s slow, then come up to us and give words of encouragement. They’ll come to just show support and ask for a cup of water or a small coffee or green tea. They’ve been ordering the simplest drinks to make because they know it’s not a huge workload on us. Besides that, anybody can help in various ways. For example, I’ve had three customers yesterday come in and offer us spaces to meet or try to give us connections like “Hey, I have this equipment, if you need it? Are you guys going to do a photoshoot somewhere? Would you guys be interested in doing videos for social media?” Or they come to give tips of where other workers are organizing if we want to meet with them. So literally, if you can just stop on by words of encouragement, anything helps. But definitely follow us on Instagram and Twitter and share the things that we post if possible. 

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