BUFFALO, N.Y. — Starbucks workers have voted to unionize at a store in Buffalo, New York over the company’s objections, pointing the way to a new labor model for the 50-year old coffee giant.
Thursday’s vote by workers for unionization was 19-8, according to the National Labor Relations Board. The National Labor Relations Board is still counting votes on two additional stores.
If the labor board certifies the vote — a process expected to take about a week — it would be the first for any Starbucks-owned store in the U.S. to unionize. Starbucks has been fighting unionization of its stores over the past decades. The company believes its stores are more effective when it interacts directly with its employees.
Workers in three different Buffalo-area shops began to vote by mail last month whether or not they would like Workers United, an affiliate union of the Service Employees International Union.
This is a BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. AP’s earlier story follows below.
A growing effort to unionize Starbucks stores — despite company resistance — is facing its first major test.
Thursday’s ballot count by the National Labor Relations Board of union election results at three Starbucks shops in Buffalo, New York will be completed. Nearly 111 Starbucks workers were eligible to vote via mail beginning last month.
If the majority of workers at any of those locations votes to unionize, they could become the first union-represented U.S. Starbucks stores in the company’s 50-year history.
“Yes” votes could also accelerate unionization efforts at other U.S. Starbucks stores. Three more locations in Buffalo, and one in Mesa (Arizona) have already filed petitions to the labor board in preparation for their union elections. These petitions are still pending.
Union supporters at the three first Buffalo locations filed labor board petitions in August asking for representation by Workers United. Workers United is an affiliate of Service Employees International Union. Those workers say Starbucks’ stores had chronic problems like understaffing and faulty equipment even before the pandemic. They would like to have more control over pay and the operation of stores.
“We have no accountability right now. We have no say,” said Casey Moore, a union organizer who has been working at a Buffalo-area Starbucks for around six months. “With a union we will actually be able to sit down at the table and say, `This is what we want.’”
Starbucks insists its 8,000 company-owned U.S. stores function best when it works directly with its employees, which it calls “partners.” Many employees in the Buffalo area work at more than one store depending on demand, Starbucks says, and it wants to have the flexibility to move them between stores.
Starbucks requested that the labor board hold one vote in all its Buffalo-area shops. However, the board refused, stating that store-by-store voting was appropriate according to labor law.
In a letter to Starbucks’ U.S. employees this week, Starbucks President and CEO Kevin Johnson reiterated the company’s wish to include all Buffalo-area stores in the union vote.
“While we recognize this creates some level of uncertainty, we respect the process that is underway, and independent of the outcome in these elections, we will continue to stay true to our mission and values,” Johnson wrote.
Johnson also reminded employees of the company’s generous benefits, including paid parental and sick leave and free college tuition through Arizona State University. Late last month, the company also announced pay increases, saying all its U.S. workers will earn at least $15 — and up to $23 — per hour by next summer.
Backers say Starbucks could do even more.
“If Starbucks can find the money to pay their CEO nearly $15 million in compensation, I think maybe they can afford to pay their workers a decent wage with decent benefits,” said U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, a Vermont independent, in a recent Twitter post. Sanders hosted a virtual townhall with Buffalo Starbucks employees earlier in the week.
Johnson earned $14.7 million in salary and stock awards in the company’s 2020 fiscal year.
Starbucks or the union could contest votes cast in an election. This may delay the certification process of the labor board. But if the votes do get certified, Starbucks is legally obligated to begin the process of collective bargaining with Workers United and any of the three stores that vote to unionize, said Cathy Creighton, the director of Cornell University’s Industrial and Labor Relations Buffalo Co-Lab.
Some companies prefer to shut down a shop than negotiate with a union. But that’s difficult for a retailer like Starbucks, since it would be illegal to close one store and then open another nearby, Creighton said.
Starbucks is open to bargaining outside of the U.S. A Starbucks worker in Victoria, Canada decided to unionize their store in August 2020. Starbucks and United Steelworkers had to negotiate a collective agreement for nearly one year. The deal was signed by workers on July 1.
These union votes are coming at a time when there is increased labor unrest in America. A new contract was rejected by striking Kellogg Co. workers in cereal earlier this week. Thousands of workers were on strike at Deere & Co. earlier this fall. The U.S. labor Board approved the redoing of the union vote at the Amazon warehouse in Alabama, after discovering that the company had forced workers to vote for the union.
The rare exception is when workers have the upper hand in wage negotiations due to labor shortages. Dan Graff of the University of Notre Dame’s Higgins Labor Program, stated that many workers had the opportunity to reexamine their job expectations because of the pandemic.