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The Unbelievable Struggles of Queer Organizers Trying to Unionize an Ohio Starbucks

From rampant misgendering and denial of promised trans healthcare to hostile store management and callused corporate rebuffs, queer union organizers at one Cleveland Starbucks have their work cut out for them.

Mandy Shunnarah

April 7, 2022
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Originally published in The Buckeye Flame

Around greater Cleveland, three Starbucks locations are working to unionize. At the Clifton location, on the Cleveland/Lakewood border, queer workers are helping ensure that trans healthcare, gender inclusivity, and disability accommodations are represented at the bargaining table. 

“How can you claim to run a company that makes a whole motto out of how your partners are your lifeblood, then don’t listen when your employees are telling you that you don’t treat us well?” said Mars Moreno (they/them), a barista who is active in union organizing. 

Though “partners” is what Starbucks calls its employees, the number of stores across the country that have unionized or are working to unionize indicates that many employees feel the same way about this partnership. 

The Starbucks on the Cleveland/Lakewood border.

The Starbucks Bait-and-Switch

For trans, nonbinary, and disabled “partners” like Moreno and their fellow barista Levaille Eitzman, working at Starbucks feels like a bait-and-switch. They note that Starbucks touts itself as a progressive company, offering health insurance to part-time workers — including health insurance that covers gender-affirming care — as well as disability accommodations, yet they make it difficult to access these resources for those who need them.

“I want trans healthcare because I’ve been trying to get top surgery for close to two years,” Eitzman said. “I would like to access the benefits that Starbucks is so proud they have, but I can’t because there’s no way in hell that I’m able to get 20 hours a week for three months straight to even qualify for health insurance, and then maintain those 20 hours a week to keep it and pay for it.”

Both Moreno and Eitzman said they have had their hours cut, especially since the unionization effort began. They said the Clifton location where they work has hired a lot of new people, an anti-union tactic employed at other Starbucks locations nationwide, according to a report by In These Times. Hiring more employees dilutes the union vote and makes it harder for “partners” to get hours, and a lack of hours disqualifies them from being eligible for company health insurance. 

Starbucks union activity in Buffalo, NY (Photo credit: SBWorkersUnited).

“I worked once this whole month,” Moreno said. “I made my availability over 10 hours for the days that were solidly busy. I had a shift — because I get notifications when a shift is entered and when a shift is removed. There was a shift put in by the associate manager and I was really excited because a lot of people are having hours cut. Then my manager deleted it and I still have not worked.”

Moreno said this has had a major impact on their income.

“I made $150 in one paycheck because I never get scheduled for more than 5.75 hours. Which is fine because I know some people have shorter shifts than others. But if I’m going to have shorter shifts, I should at least have the opportunity to be able to work more than one day a week,” Moreno added. “There are hour cuts for everybody in the union except shift leads because they’re too important, but baristas are suffering right now. Because we’re in a union they’re trying to force us out.” 

In response to the claim of hours being cut for union organizers, a spokesperson at Starbucks said that any changes in hours are a result of meeting the needs of customer behaviors and not any other factors.

“To say that we’re cutting hours isn’t accurate, and any claims of anti-union activities are categorically false,” the spokesperson told The Buckeye Flame.

Calloused Incompetence at the Top

Eitzman and Moreno said their lived experience is in sharp contrast to the positive image insisted upon by corporate, and they aren’t giving up on holding Starbucks to that promise of true partnership. They’ve spent hours on the phone working their way through the corporate phone tree, trying to find someone to help them hold the company accountable for the lack of accessibility to benefits.

“I spent six or seven hours on the phone trying to find anybody at all who works for the company who knows anything about accommodations for disabled partners and what my rights are and what’s available to me for support,” Moreno said.

“I worked my way all the way up to a big boss who sits at a table where decisions are made and talked to them about how in order to get insurance to treat and take care of and support disabilities you have to be able-bodied enough to be able to work 20 hours a week for three months, then continue that in order to get and keep that healthcare to help your disabilities. It’s incredibly ableist. 

“I was trying to get accommodations to lower the number of hours required so that my body with all of its disabilities, physical and mental, would be able to get healthcare. And it was a big no.”

Despite having trans advocates at the corporate level, not all of them are versed in trans issues.

“I was thinking that because I’m a trans partner I could be represented by this trans advocate who can help me get everything I need in order to get top surgery from start to finish: before, during, and after, paperwork, finances, insurance, all the way through recovery. Which is what they talk about in the partner benefits,” Eitzman said. 

“In order to validate my identity, she forced me to deadname myself. Which no other identity verification through any of the other Starbucks corporate things asks you to do. You can just give your date of birth and your social security number, your address… but she wouldn’t accept anything other than me deadnaming myself. 

“I said, ‘My name is on there, Levaille Eitzman, and she said, ‘Yes, but there’s another name written.’ I said, ‘Yeah that’s my deadname.’ And she said, ‘But you have to tell me so I know who I’m talking to.’ Then she spent two and a half hours deadnaming and misgendering me.”

The experience left Eitzman feeling angry and confused. Toward the end of the call, they asked the trans advocate a question that had been on their mind throughout the conversation.

“‘Have you ever met a trans person before?’ She stuttered and said, ‘I’ve helped a couple of people through this job, so I guess technically I have.’ And I said, ‘No, other than what you do for this job, which is just paperwork for trans people, have you ever met with, shared conversation, and knowingly interacted with a trans person?’ She said no.”

Eitzman then proceeded to ask her if she’d like to know Eitzman’s pronouns since the woman had spent hours misgendering them. The advocate replied that all the trans people she talked to were transitioning from male to female, so their pronouns had to be she/her.

Eitzman said the call was ultimately fruitless.

“The phone call was a total waste of time,” Eitzman added. “She also told me I’d have to pay for more than half of top surgery out of pocket, even with the best insurance tier. I’d have to spend over $5,000 to get just under a $9,000 surgery.”

The Starbucks spokesperson told The Buckeye Flame that she did not have any knowledge of the role or training of the trans advocate.

Misinformation and Knowledge Hoarding 

In the back of the store, away from customers’ visibility, corporate-approved posters are pinned on a bulletin board. 

The person leading the union effort at the store placed sticky notes alongside the poster correcting the misinformation. The sticky notes reassured workers that they could not lose their benefits or be fired for unionizing.

Eitzman said the store manager removed the sticky notes. In the days after, she took down everything that anyone put up that wasn’t printed out from corporate as official communication — a practice that seemingly had never before been enforced.

Eitzman witnessed that same store manager shout at a nonbinary employee for not telling her their pronouns.

The employee’s pronouns were on their name badge and Eitzman noted that the employee felt uncomfortable correcting their boss on the first day of the job. When Eitzman alerted the manager that the new hire’s pronouns were they/them, the manager proceeded to check whether this was true by bursting into the back room where they were washing dishes and, without greeting, yelling, “Are your pronouns they/them?”

When the employee confirmed their pronouns were they/them, the manager became upset and continued yelling. Eitzman witnessed the manager shouting, “You didn’t tell me, so you don’t get to be mad at me.” The manager then turned that hostility onto Eitzman, insisting that her not believing Eitzman about the new hire’s pronouns being they/them wasn’t personal. 

“I don’t have trans gaydar pronoun vision. They were wearing a pride flag, a trans flag, a nonbinary flag, and a bunch of rainbow hearts on their hat. I picked up on one of the dozen clues and I asked what their pronouns were,” Eitzman said. “She [the manager]didn’t have to get defensive when I told her. The only correct answer is, ‘I didn’t know that, thank you.’”

With confrontational encounters between LGBTQ+ workers and management, Eitzman and Moreno worry how managers will be held accountable if not through a union. 

Squashing Union Talk by Any Means Necessary

Baristas aren’t the only ones running afoul of management; sometimes even paying customers are unjustly subject to their ire. Especially when the customer is Nina Turner, a former Ohio State Senator and a pro-union Democrat currently running for Congress. 

Starbucks union organizers marching (Photo credit: Michael Sanabria).

Turner and her team came in and purchased drinks then proceeded to sit at a large cafe table with shift leaders who were not on the clock. They talked about the issues Starbucks employees are facing, how it makes them feel, and what their experiences have been.

“The assistant manager was on the phone, walking back and forth, trying to figure out a way to get rid of these people,” Levaille said. “They found that on a technicality you can’t film inside of Starbucks, which is a rule that is never enforced, so they kicked everyone out to squash union talk.”

For her part, Turner is quick to praise the partners in this statement provided to The Buckeye Flame:

“They are the 21st century version of the unionists that came before them in the 20th, 19th, and 18th centuries.They are following in the footsteps and taking it to a whole other level like the freedom fights that came before them. The Starbucks partners are continuing a great, robust, magnificent tradition of demanding representation. They are standing up for the past, they are standing up for the present, and baby, they are standing up for the future. I am incredibly proud to be in allyship with the Starbucks partners.”

The Starbucks spokesperson told The Buckeye Flame that they believe strongly that the NLRB’s process is the best way to achieve and ensure that our our partners have their voices heard throughout the process of petitioning, voting, and the rest of the unionization process. But the official corporate statement expresses doubt about the positive benefits of a union in this relationship with Starbucks partners.

“From the beginning we’ve been clear in our belief that we are better together as partners without a union between us, and that conviction has not changed,” the spokesperson said.

And Of Course, Low Pay

In addition to the issues faced by trans, nonbinary, and disabled employees like Eitzman and Moreno, other issues affect employees at large — namely, pay. 

“They pay us $14 an hour when they can afford to pay us $22,” Moreno said. 

While $14 an hour is above minimum wage — according to a 2021 report by the Coalition on Homelessness and Housing in Ohio — Cleveland is one of the more expensive areas to live in the state. A worker would need to work 40 hours a week at $16.63 an hour to afford a two-bedroom apartment priced at fair market value. 

“All the quote-unquote services they offer that they say the reason we pay you so little is so we can afford these, most of the people who work for Starbucks don’t even qualify for,” added Moreno. 

Meanwhile, as the Seattle Times reported in October 2021, “Starbucks said its revenue rose 31% to $8.1 billion for the quarter, an all-time high.”

“​​That’s why I was so excited when we started unionizing because it meant that we would finally have a voice. They don’t have the choice but to listen to us now,” Moreno said. “The larger it gets and the more people that get involved, the more they’ll have to take us seriously. They can’t ignore us anymore.”

“I want to unionize so there’s literally any amount of representation for disabled and trans partners,” Eitzman added. 

How You Can Help

As the Clifton Starbucks union’s fate hangs in the balance, union organizers are doing what union organizers have done since time immemorial: help each other survive through mutual aid. 

There is a GoFundMe to raise money for workers whose hours have been cut so much that they now can’t afford to live. For those unable to donate money, sharing the GoFundMe and showing your support on social media can go a long way, they said.

“This isn’t going to stop anytime soon. This union needs to happen, not only for LGBTQ+ partners but partners as a whole,” Moreno said. “What we have is a cruel injustice to what we were promised and I don’t think it’s fair that we’re being punished for seeking out what we were promised.”

Though times are hard, Eitzman and Moreno are hopeful. After the success of Starbucks unionization at stores in Buffalo, New York, and Mesa, Arizona, they hope their location will be next because, despite everything, they want to have long careers doing this job they love. 

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Mandy Shunnarah

Mandy Shunnarah is a nonbinary, bisexual, Palestinian-American writer living in Columbus, Ohio. Their first book, Midwest Shreds: Skaters and Skateparks in Middle America, will be out soon. Read more at mandyshunnarah.com.

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