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The Kids Are Alright: Meet the 17 Year Olds That Want to Unionize Starbucks

They haven’t finished high school yet, but they are already fighting to organize the first union at Starbucks in the San Francisco Bay Area. Driven by the unionization wave sweeping the country, two 17-year-olds are organizing with their coworkers through a chat called “Union Babes” and fighting the company’s union-busting campaigns.

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The wave of unionization across the United States is showing no signs of slowing down. Alongside the important triumph of Amazon workers, who recently won their first union in Staten Island, New York, workers at the Starbucks chain have also been making rapid progress in organizing stores across the country.

Workers at more than 250 stores have already signed petitions to vote on unionization, and 75 are already unionized.

The state of California has just registered its first Starbucks union at a Santa Cruz store, but the movement in California may be accelerated by unionization efforts in the San Francisco Bay Area. There, two 17-year-olds who have not yet finished high school are leading the fight to organize workers and confront the company’s harsh anti-union policies.

As the San Francisco Examiner reports, “It all started when Clark, 17, saw the way the corporation was responding to a unionization campaign by a group of workers in Buffalo, New York,” where they had been targeted by Starbucks’ blatantly anti-union policies.

“I saw the way Starbucks was reacting to the union being formed and petitions being filed at other stores. I was frustrated that (the company) wasn’t respecting their right to organize,” the Tamalpais High School junior told the San Francisco Examiner.

That’s when Ella Clark contacted fellow student Emma Orrick, also 17: “We were some of the youngest workers here when we got hired around a year ago and we immediately connected over that,” Orrick said of Clark. “So, Ella talked to me about organizing and we met with the local Workers United rep. He prepared us for what our managers would try to do [to keep them from gathering signatures to vote for a union].”

Together, they organized a group chat called “Union Babes” with other high school students who work in other stores in the area, and they are clear on their demands: access to tips on credit card payments, turning off mobile ordering, wage increases, extra pay for COVID and sick pay, and better health plans.

Both know that they have the privilege of being able to look for another job if they are sanctioned or fired by the company, and that is why they are leading the fight by putting themselves at the forefront of the organization effort.

The company carries out harsh anti-union practices that include captive audience meetings, which workers are forced to attend and where management pressures them not to sign union cards or vote for the union. They also do this through store managers at all times and in the middle of the workday.

This harassment was even denounced by the National Labor Relations Bureau (NLRB), which ruled against mandatory meetings to hear anti-union arguments.

But it doesn’t end there. About two weeks ago, Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz announced that a pay raise would be granted, but only to non-union workers, while unionized workers would be given nothing. A video was also leaked in which he called on store managers across the country to redouble pressure on workers not to unionize.

Despite the company’s long-standing claim of being a “friendly,” sustainable, diverse company and calling workers “partners,” complaints of low wages, harassment and poor working conditions have proliferated, as has the struggle to organize.

Clark and Orrick’s example can help advance unionization in the San Francisco Bay Area. Although they are a little younger than the rest, they are part of the so-called “Generation U,” who work in precarious conditions and want to fight for their rights. They are a new cog in a process that is already sweeping the country and seems unstoppable.

First published in Spanish on May 18 in La Izquierda Diario.

Translation by Maryam Alaniz

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La Izquierda Diario Argentina

Our Argentinian sister site, part of the international network of La Izquierda Diario

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