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The First Pride Was a Riot, This Pride Is a Strike: Starbucks Workers Shut Down Over 150 Stores

This June, Starbucks implemented a new policy which prevented employees from decorating their stores for Pride. Instead of accepting this hypocrisy from the supposedly queer-friendly corporation, workers at over 150 unionized locations shut things down.

Reba Landers

July 1, 2023
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Starbucks has a long history of presenting itself both to customers and workers as a queer-friendly corporation. They have not been shy about allowing stores to be decorated for Pride Month, they have sold Pride merch, and have even offered some limited trans healthcare benefits to their workers. This June, however, rather than going all-out to celebrate Pride, Starbucks is cracking down on queer workers’ freedom of expression — they conveniently changed their policy on LGBTQ+ decorations in-store just as Pride month was beginning. 

In response to this anti-queer policy change, Starbucks Workers United (SBWU) filed an Unfair Labor Practice with the National Labor Relations Board against their employers, stating that this is an attack on queer workers, and that this policy change should have been discussed with the union rather than imposed from the top. In response, Starbucks Corporate did not budge — they filed their own Unfair Labor Practice against the union, claiming defamation and stating that the union was erasing Starbucks’s “long history” of support for Pride. At this point in a union struggle, workers could choose to put trust in the State and let the NLRB go through its process, which typically takes months and is far from objective, oftentimes ruling in favor of the boss. Instead, however, Starbucks workers took the more militant route: workers at over 150 locations across the country, from Oklahoma City to Philadelphia to New York City, have shut their workplaces down. 

In the midst of the worst legislative attacks on trans people in history, this anti-queer move from Starbucks is unsurprising. With election season right around the corner, LGBTQ+ issues have become perhaps the most polarizing issue on the ballot. The Far Right is waging attacks against the trans community to rally its voter base and draw votes from the center, and the Democrats are walking on eggshells trying to strike just the right balance of appearing queer-friendly without taking any meaningful action for fear of isolating more centrist voters. 

Corporations are taking a similar path. While in the past, Starbucks has been more rhetorically supportive of queer workers and customers, they only did so when it was profitable, and when  queer issues were less divisive and support could make them look good. However, in this year’s Pride climate, where major corporations like Target, BudLight, and others have come under fire for supporting the queer community, Starbucks’ rainbow decor could mean a PR nightmare, or worse, lost profits. Because the bottom line is ultimately all corporations care about, it’s no surprise that this is the year Starbucks cracked down. 

In a polarized political climate, supporting the queer community can cost money, and corporations will never choose the specially oppressed over a few more dollars, no matter how many rainbow flags they’ve flown in the past. 

This hypocritical divide between a company’s actions and rhetoric shows that corporations and politicians are only interested in their own wealth and power, no matter what it costs the working class. Bosses and politicians have never, and will never, care about workers. This is why the collective strike of these Starbucks workers is a vital example of worker power — these workers knew that they couldn’t sit around and hope the NLRB gave Starbucks a slap on the wrist, they couldn’t wait until the long and tedious bargaining process perhaps secured some meager gains, and they couldn’t allow these attacks on the LGBTQ+ community go unchecked. One unionized Starbucks worker in Chicago said in an interview, “At the end of the day, all corporations care about is capital.… We are putting our foot down and saying this beautiful vibrant community is not a token or a means to profit.” They knew that their bosses don’t care about their needs, they understood their power as workers, and they shut things down. 

Workers in all sectors and all parts of the country must follow the example of Starbucks workers. It has never been more clear that Republicans and Democrats do not care about the working class or the specially oppressed, and that corporations will only ever protect their bottom line. To fight back the attacks on the queer community, particularly on trans people, workers must utilize our greatest assets: labor power and sheer numbers. If we don’t show up to work, the whole world stops, and so do corporate profits. Mass strikes like that of Starbucks workers not only cut off the profits of the bosses, they build working-class solidarity and demonstrate that it is possible to organize together, independent of Democrats or Republicans, to win gains for workers and fight back the malicious attacks from politicians against our community. 

We must keep this energy up. The SBWU’s strike shows the strategic role the labor movement can, and must, play in fighting for queer liberation, but unions are not the only place to fight this battle. Non-union workplaces must organize walkouts and work stoppages to fight for their queer coworkers, Gender and Sexuality Alliances in schools must organize student walkouts, and independent community organizations must refuse to collaborate with the Democratic Party or with corporations and fight these attacks with class independence and militancy. The only way we win this fight is to rely not on the legal system, politicians, or corporations, but to rely on one another. A working-class movement for queer liberation is necessary, and we must organize together to create it. The first Pride was a riot but we don’t have to stop there. Let us riot, strike, and organize together for queer liberation and the liberation of all working class and oppressed people. Let’s organize to take down this whole system that profits from our oppression, organizing like the Starbucks workers, with the firepower of the working class and an anti-capitalist perspective.

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Reba Landers

Reba is a teacher and theatre artist in NYC.

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