- Natalie Sherman
- Business Reporter, New York
In a relatively unexpected move, employees at about 220 Starbucks coffee shops across the United States voted to unionize the category.
But the mobilization came at a challenging time, as the economy slows and the company reacts furiously.
Joselyn Chuquillanqui had been working for Starbucks for nearly seven years when the company fired her last month.
The 28-year-old knew this could happen.
While she enjoyed her job as a barista, which gave her the flexibility to care for her niece, Joselyn was frustrated with the company’s stance on sick leave during the Covid-19 pandemic — and had tried to mobilize her coworkers in New York to come to her aid. join a union.
Soon after, she says her boss started punishing her for infractions that didn’t lead to punishment for other employees, such as being a few minutes late for her 5:30am shift.
In July, she lost her store key, which was found inside the store. And although she immediately informed the manager, it seems to have been the final straw.
In the termination notice, Starbucks cited that there was a “pattern of delays” and the key incident.
“It was definitely some kind of retaliation. I’ve never seen anyone fired for being less than five minutes late,” says Joselyn, who was a shift supervisor with a salary of more than $22 an hour and worked for Starbucks. since 2015.
Union leaders say Joselyn’s case was part of a nationwide crackdown, in which more than 75 union activists were fired and some stores closed as the company, which considers itself a progressive workplace, tries to stop the labor movement from winning. force.
Starbucks, which owns nearly 9,000 stores in the US and licenses thousands more, denies retaliation. The company says it respects workers’ right to unionize and has closed stores based on safety reports.
But there is no doubt that the company sees the union as a threat.
“We don’t believe that third parties should lead our people, so we are in a battle for hearts and minds. And we will succeed,” Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz said during a conference in June.
Born into a working-class Brooklyn family, Schultz followed various labor movements at the company throughout his first tenure as CEO from 1987 to 2000, and again for about a decade after the 2008 financial crisis, as the small chain from Seattle was transformed into a giant, internationally recognized network.
When the company’s CEO Kevin Johnson retired in April of this year amid the union campaign, Schultz returned as interim CEO, vowing to repair the company’s relationship with its employees and “reinvent the role and responsibility of a publicly traded company.” “.
The company’s top management organized dozens of meetings on the subject, with the aim of finding out about complaints and convincing employees that the company can respond better without a union.
The company also announced more than $1 billion in investment in salary increases, additional training and other improvements, bringing the company’s minimum wage in the U.S. to $15 an hour and the average to about $17.
When the pay increases went into effect on Aug. 1, the company deliberately did not extend the raise to employees at unionized stores, saying a change in benefits must be negotiated as part of a broader contract.
“Sharing success through wins and benefits with our partners is among our core values, and has been for 50 years,” Schultz said in May.
“Our values are not and have never been the result of demands or interference from any external entity.”
Worldwide, unions represent a small portion of the company’s workforce, mainly in Chile.
Pro-union campaigners say the recent improvements announced by Starbucks are the result of their efforts, which include about 60 worker strikes across the US.
Their cause was bolstered by an unusually buoyant job market, which ultimately empowered workers to speak out at companies across the US, including Apple and Amazon.
But as the economy shows signs of slowing, those conditions could be changing. At the same time, Starbucks’ response intensifies, and organizers face pressure to negotiate a tight-knit contract.
Evan Sunshine, 20, worked at a Starbucks store in Ithaca, New York, which voted to unionize in April and was recently closed by the company, citing difficulty fixing the overflowing kitchen grease trap.
Evan credits the union for helping him move his job elsewhere, but warns that “many workers are starting to tire, and workers at other stores who have not unionized may want to, but are afraid because of all the this retaliation”.
The Workers United union has accused Starbucks of violating labor law, filing dozens of complaints against the company with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), the government’s labor rights watchdog.
The NLRB filed 16 complaints on its own after investigating the claims and, in some cases, sought court orders to reinstate terminated employees immediately — an unusually proactive step.
Starbucks, which is fighting the allegations, has filed its own complaints accusing the union and regulatory authorities of misconduct.
And he called for dozens of pending union elections to be put on hold while his grievances are investigated. The company also recently barred an NLRB request to reinstate workers on an emergency basis in Arizona.
Regardless of how these disputes are resolved, Risa Lieberwitz, a professor of employment law at Cornell University in the US and director of the Worker Institute, says US companies often overstep the law as protections and penalties for violating them are notoriously weak.
According to her, the most serious risk for the company could be that the clash affects its brand, as polls indicate that American approval of union organizing has risen to the highest level in decades.
Recently, a group of socially conscious investors sent a letter to Starbucks urging the company to take a more neutral stance, noting that the company has a long history of courting progressive customers by allying with causes like Black Lives Matter.
“Public opinion is always important, especially when you have a very large and well-known corporation that would like to present itself as [progressista]”, says Lieberwitz.
“When that kind of contradiction arises… it can really damage the company’s reputation.”
For now, it looks like Starbucks is willing to take that risk.
At Joselyn’s store, employees in May opted not to join the union in a five-to-six vote.
The union is contesting the results, alleging unfair practices.
Joselyn said her manager spread rumors that she was being paid for her union work, cut her hours and warned staff that she would be denied promotions and other benefits.
“It was very disappointing,” she says.
“They messed with people’s vulnerabilities and defamed me, that’s how they won.”
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