The effort began in Buffalo last year when workers at two stores voted to unionize. Since then, over 150 stores have followed suit, including now four in Texas.
“We believe that the best way to truly inspire and nourish the human spirit is to organize for greater justice, greater equality, and a greater vision of what life can be for Starbucks workers,” reads the Starbucks Workers United website.
In short, those unionizing want to collectively bargain more benefits into their contracts with corporate — things like higher wages, some seeking a $25 per hour wage; more consistent assignment of hours; elongated training periods; and miscellaneous benefits.
Now with two unionized stores in San Antonio and two in Austin, the national wave is reaching Texas.
Democratic congressional candidate and former Austin city councilman Greg Casar spent the early part of last week visiting each of the unionized Starbucks locations in Texas. Casar — whose political rise began with the Workers Defense Project, an organization that acts like a union but doesn’t file taxes like one — was joined by progressive politicians from both cities in support of the employees’ efforts.
“I am disheartened to hear about the anti-union posture of Starbucks,” he said in a letter to the company. “This is your opportunity to recognize the invaluable contributions workers bring to your company and the entire community.”
The Starbucks employees have been driving their own unionization efforts across the country but are aided by the Workers United Labor Union, an affiliate of the Service Employees International Union. According to those employees pining for unionization, the company has tried to head off their efforts. And a few days before the first Buffalo vote, Starbucks announced a new $1 billion investment in raising wages and benefits for its employees.
A Starbucks spokesperson told The Texan, “We are listening and learning from the partners in these stores as we always do across the country.”
“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.”
When asked if their position on unionization being unnecessary, or even a hindrance, is unique to their situation or if it applies more broadly to other businesses as well, the spokesperson declined to comment.
Casey Moore — a Starbucks barista in Buffalo who spoke with The Texan on behalf of Starbucks Workers United — said that when the unionization votes began to form in Buffalo, the company held meetings hoping to dissuade the workers.
“Starbucks brands itself as a very progressive company and then they fire people for joining unions,” said Casey Moore.
Starbucks has a history of jumping aboard progressive hobby horses. In 2020 after pressure about store dress code, the company purchased 250,000 Black Lives Matter shirts for its employees to wear on the job.
They also earmarked $1 million for grants to “promote racial equity and create more inclusive and just communities.” The company has a page on its website dedicated to “Environmental, Social, and Governance” declarations and progress reports.
Benefits the company offers mirror this as well — they offer health care coverage, including for gender transition procedures; tuition reimbursements; paid time off to get vaccinated; and parental leave pay. To receive these benefits, employees must work about 20 hours per week.
The company pays its employees at least $15 per hour, and this summer the average wage will jump to $17 per hour — at or above the wage line most cited by progressive activists.
But the unionizing employees say that across the country they’re seeing weekly hours reduced, sometimes dramatically, and facing pressure from management to spurn union membership.
Moore says one of her friends, a barista in another part of the country, had her weekly hours reduced from 35 to 7. Moore also accused the company of firing some employees at a Tennessee location over their interest in unionization.
The company spokesperson rejected this accusation, adding, “An [employee’s] interest in the union does not preclude other standards of employment.”
Among the Texas stores, only one is firmly on the path toward voting for unionization. The others are in the beginning stages of jumping through the hoops with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) and Starbucks.
CJ Craig, a shift manager at the San Antonio location approaching their vote, told The Texan his store is seeing a reduction in assigned work hours, but it’s not as drastic as in other parts of the country.
According to Starbucks, shift hours are assigned at a local level, store by store, and are not micromanaged by corporate.
“Everyone at my store is taking pride in being the first store in Texas to begin unionization,” Craig said. “We sort of reshaped the conversation about unionization in Texas.”
Two Buffalo stores are in the early stages of negotiating a contract with corporate, but the Texas locations are not near that stage yet.
Texas is a Right to Work state which means “a person cannot be denied employment because of membership or non-membership in a labor union or other labor organization.” Practically, this means employees cannot be forced to pay dues to unions that represent them.
Collective bargaining and striking by public employees are prohibited under Texas law — although some localities make carve-outs, such as Austin with its police union — but those restrictions do not apply to private-sector unions.
Now returned to the company he founded after a hiatus that included exploration of an independent bid for president in 2020, Howard Schultz now faces a wave of unionization through the nearly 6,500 stores in the U.S.
In 2020, donations from Starbucks-affiliated individuals went to Democratic candidates and organizations at a 8 to 1 rate, according to Open Secrets. That same year it spent $1.1 million on lobbying.
But it’s now become the focus of a nationwide unionization movement, facing criticism from progressive figures like Casar and its employees with whom it, at least on the surface, shares many opinions.
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Brad Johnson is a senior reporter for The Texan and an Ohio native who graduated from the University of Cincinnati in 2017. He is an avid sports fan who most enjoys watching his favorite teams continue their title drought throughout his cognizant lifetime. In his free time, you may find Brad quoting Monty Python productions and trying to calculate the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow.