How Gen Z Baristas Are Spreading the Starbucks Unionization Effort
Joseph Nappi, a Starbucks barista at 20 and a Cleveland State University political science major is Joseph Nappi. He’s also learning how to be a union organizer.
“My family is a union family,” Nappi says. Nappi’s grandfather, who died in 2008, was president of United Steelworkers of America Union Ashtabula Ohio. “They gave my grandfather a fantastic pension that allowed him to send my dad and his brothers to school,” Nappi says. “We still get benefits from his pension now to help afford my grandmother’s memory care. If it wasn’t for United Steelworkers, I don’t know where we would be with supporting my grandma.”
Nappi started working at Starbucks in June 2021. However, he moved to his present location in Cleveland last September. Nappi began talking to a colleague about the possibility of unionizing last month. “One of the main motivating factors for the partners at this store to try and unionize was our partners in Buffalo,” he says. “What they’ve done out there, I think it really lit a fire under us to start the process of filing for an election and trying to become a unionized Starbucks.” Seventeen of the store’s 20 partners (Starbucks’ term for employees) signed union cards. The signatures were electronically signed in the age of COVID.
Workers at three Starbucks-owned stores in Buffalo, N.Y. held hearings and votes in front of the National Labor Relations Board. They were then officially organized with Workers United (a Service Employees International Union affiliated). Two locations in the area voted in favor of unionization. The NLRB reports that more than 60 store-owned companies across the United States, from Massachusetts and California to unionize, has filed for elections. Three of these are located in New York City. Two of the companies’ three U.S.-based flagship stores/roasteries have filed; one is in Seattle, the other in New York City. Starbucks has created a website to express its opposition to unionizing. Starbucks has been accused by union-busting attempts, which included firing workers involved in organizing stores. On Tuesday, employees planned rallies and marches across the nation after seven Memphis workers were dismissed by the company. The union organizers claimed that their firing was revenge for them trying to organize their stores.
The image of union organizing today is very different from the old days when workers walked to work on picket lines. Many of the Starbucks organizers are in their 20s—the average age of a barista is 24—and are tweeting their calls to unionize, running Zoom onboarding meetings for other would-be organizers, and holding organizing get togethers in their living rooms or at local bars.
Nappi states that people tend to think of union jobs like teachers or steel workers. “But we live in this new time, during what’s been called the Great Resignation,” he says. “It’s really turned everything upside down. It’s finally becoming clear that workers have this right and are entitled to demand more from their employer. That’s what we’re doing at Starbucks. We don’t want to be part of the Great Resignation because we like our jobs and we want to keep working at Starbucks. But we want to make Starbucks a better place to work for all of us.”
Cortlin Harrison, Buffalo, N.Y., echoes this sentiment. In an attempt to find a job, the 25-yearold began to send his resume out to businesses around Buffalo in hopes of receiving a response. To apply for the majority of jobs, he just uploaded his resume and hit “send”. He says he spent a lot of time on his Starbucks application. He knew about all the great benefits offered by the company and that his store might be the first to unite.
Harrison says that when he was young, he worked in fast-food restaurants such as Subway and Burger King. “None of them really cared about the workers, so I felt no loyalty to them,” he says. Harrison wanted college tuition to be covered, but none of the other companies offered similar benefits. “But even with all the benefits, at the end of the day, it comes down to pay,” he says. “It’s great that they offer health insurance and they offer to pay for my school, but if I can’t afford my rent, what does any of that matter?”
Harrison was the first to sign his union card.
“It’s exciting,” he says. “I’m working at the first American store to unionize. It’s a big deal. What we do here is a model for how other stores should perform. I think that all the eyes are on us right now.”
Many of the workers older than the rest were involved in the original push for unionization. Michelle Eisen (38), works in the exact same Buffalo Starbucks as Harrison. She has worked at Starbucks for just over 11 years. In her 20s, she took the job because her other job as a production stage manager didn’t have benefits. “I needed a job that would provide those benefits for me. And I’d heard really great things about Starbucks as a company and how flexible they were and the benefits they provided,” she says. “They really were that company when I started with them.”
But Eisen says she has noticed a “pretty big decline” the last four years with the cost of benefits going up while the coverage goes down, among other changes. “It has been a pretty clear shift from partners to profits,” she says. “It’s very much, ‘Get a body in there and get them to produce as much as they can produce in whatever time period they’re able to give you.’ And then whatever happens to them doesn’t really matter. It’s been very disappointing to see this change.”
She says that the epidemic only made matters worse. “Starbucks really capitalized on the fact that, because they remained open throughout all of this as a company, it represented to their customers and the public the last ditch of normalcy: no matter what was going on in the world with COVID, you could still get in your car and drive to your local Starbucks and get your caramel macchiato,” she says. “It began this push within the company to not only produce at the rate we were producing pre-COVID, but to exceed those expectations, at any cost, in my opinion.”
Eisen felt unsafe and too large to handle the changes, so she decided to move in fall 2021 after her stock vesting period. “But then, suddenly, this opportunity to organize and form a union and have some sort of voice where we felt like we didn’t have one presented itself,” she says, “And that’s what brought me to this cause.”
Nappi, a young American barista from Ohio was inspired by the action in Buffalo. “When I first started thinking about organizing, it had been after seeing what was going on in Buffalo, and the swift corporate reaction,” says Kylah Clay, 24, who works at a store in Boston, Mass. “It was a very slow process of very discreetly speaking with people to get a gauge on how they feel about it and then eventually forming a small committee and a lot of logistics from there.”
Clay Daguerre and Tyler Daguerre were 26 years old. Before joining the union drive they had never met. Instead, their lives were parallel: Clay worked in Boston at different Starbucks while Tyler went to law school. They became de facto leaders when their two stores in Massachusetts decided to unite and they began helping other stores unionize. Now the two talk like friends who have known each other for years, laughing simultaneously and finishing each other’s sentences.
Daguerre says it’s been a nonstop operation since December, when his Brookline shop filed paperwork. “It has actually been crazy. Just yesterday, another onboarding meeting was held with an old partner of seven years. We have another partner who’s been with Starbucks more than 10 years who wanted to do it. But then I also got a message today from someone who has only been working at Starbucks for a week and is asking how they can get involved and how they can get their store on board,” says Daguerre.
Clay stated that most organizing takes place online. All onboarding meetings and other activities are done via Zoom. Although this method presents some difficulties, it allows organizers the opportunity to connect and collaborate with baristas from across the country, Clay says. “We’re helping the organizers by essentially onboarding them and giving them all the information we have. They don’t have to reinvent the wheel. We are helping them through the process and kind of streamlining things so that way, once they feel ready, they don’t have to go through all the hoops and logistics.”
When a worker emails Clay’s team wanting to learn more, they set up an initial meeting via Zoom and run through a broad overview of unionizing. She then follows up with her to discuss the details step by step. “Once they’re ready, our team in Massachusetts prepares starter kits with union signing cards, shirts, and buttons so they can get the process kicked off,” says Clay. “I help them gather everything for their petitions and provide this information to the union attorneys for filing.”
Clay helped to onboard 10 stores. “At first, we’d get connected to baristas interested in unionizing their store through coworkers,” she says. “Now, we’ve been doing outreach and visiting stores to spread the word and help them get connected to our team.”
Grant Graves, 22, has been carefully watching unionizing efforts like Clay’s in Boston and others elsewhere via social media at his barista job at a Starbucks in Gainesville, Fl. Since 2016, the University of Florida Senior has worked at Starbucks intermittently.
“Before the union success in Buffalo, most partners did not think unionization was possible within Starbucks,” he says. “Now, I think many more are hopeful that unionization could become a reality.”
But Graves isn’t so sure his store–or others in Florida, even the one in Tallahassee that organized last month–will be successful. “To be perfectly honest, here in Florida, I think it is more likely that my fellow partners and I will be fired for trying before actually achieving union representation, but I think it is worth trying anyways,” he says.
Customers have asked him about the prospects for unions. He has to inform them that he cannot discuss this while working. However, he felt supported in both subtle and obvious ways.
“One [customer] changed the name on their mobile order to ‘Union Strong,’” he says.