Is union’s victory at Starbucks a sign of things to come?

Captioned: “Waiting for the vote count by the NLRB and preparing to be the first unionized Starbucks in the United States.” - Source: Twitter/@SBWorkersUnited
Dec 10, 2021

Workers at a Starbucks store in Buffalo, NY, voted to join the Workers United union, making it the first company-owned location in the U.S. to do so.

The store on Elmwood Avenue was one of three locations where workers were to vote. One of the three rejected union representation while a third election in Cheektowaga has yet to be decided. Workers at the Cheektowaga store appear ready to join the union with 15 voting in favor and nine against. The decision will not be final, however, until seven ballots that have been challenged are reviewed.

Starbucks also faces organizing activity at three other locations in the Buffalo area as well as at a store in Mesa, AZ. The four stores have filed petitions to hold union elections with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) and are pending.

Workers United’s success in Buffalo has many questioning if Starbucks and others may now face tougher fights trying to keep unions out.

Rossann Williams, Starbucks executive vice president and president of North America, told The Associated Press that staffing shortages and equipment problems in Buffalo created conditions that the company did not handle adequately. She said that Starbucks has hired more than 200 new employees in recent months and opened a training center to address the concerns of its workers in the market.

The number of unionized workers in the U.S. has dropped in recent decades, but public opinion about labor representation is trending upward. Recode, citing Gallup numbers, reports that union favorability among the public (68 percent) is at its highest level since 1965.

“Although it’s a small number of workers, the result has huge symbolic importance and symbols are important when it comes to union organizing,” John Logan, a labor studies professor at San Francisco State University, told The New York Times. “Workers who want to form a union in the United States are forced to take a considerable amount of risk, and it helps if they can see others who have taken that risk and it has paid off.”

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: How significant is the decision by workers at Starbucks in Buffalo to be represented by a union? Do you think that non-union workers are more open to considering union membership now than they have been in the recent past?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.

Join the Discussion!

15 Comments on "Is union’s victory at Starbucks a sign of things to come?"

Sort by:   newest | oldest | most voted
Mark Ryski

As the first company store to unionize, this is symbolically significant, however, the long term impact is still yet to be determined. There’s no question that the balance of power has been shifting to workers, and one of the ways they are collectively expressing this is through unionization. I have no doubt that other non-union workers may be encouraged or inspired to unionize as a result, but again it’s hard to say what the bigger impact of all this will be.

Dr. Stephen Needel

The decision is symbolic, but very symbolic. Unfortunately, it could be the cause of more store closures. Unions work best (for the workers) when conditions are awful and management’s options are limited. These days, closing a retail location is an option that we’re seeing to much of, and the unions could hasten closings or make them more appealing.

Lee Peterson

It’s about time. It took a pandemic, some government help and a logistics logjam, but an avalanche of issues like those and more have suddenly given the worker some leverage. Having said that, in this instance, I’m not sure how the “one store” element makes any difference unless it’s the spark that the other 20,000 needed. Besides that, of every company out there, I always thought Starbucks was pretty revered for the way they treated their employees. Insurance, tuition, time off, etc. But who knows, that may all have been PR. Starbucks workers face more stress than any retail floor associate I’ve ever seen and deserve to be treated accordingly.

Gene Detroyer

There is a very significant message here. Consider the political trends of this former very red city. In the last mayoral election, the write-in candidate (incumbent) beat the candidates from the other two parties. Also look at the demographics of the Starbucks workers. They are the next generation.

Also consider what is happening with Amazon workers. In very red Alabama and Staten Island, NY, the movement is strong and may result in unionization. Trends start with small steps that gain momentum. I believe that is what we are seeing here.

Lastly, consider the trend of income inequality in the U.S. It has exploded over the last 50 years and not to any workers’ benefit.

Steve Montgomery

Starbucks’s comments include all the things they knew or now know were issues that they had failed to correct. A labor attorney once told me that employees don’t work for a union they vote against management. This appears to be a classic case where that was true. If Starbucks learns and addresses these issues elsewhere they will find less enthusiasm for unionization.

Rich Kizer

Well, I have to say that the Starbucks I frequent has some of the nicest and longest term baristas I have met. But there is a grumble in the coffee shop: No, not about customers. One barista I have had an acquaintanceship with for a number of years vented to me that “it used to be fun here.” Then I was told to look at the people behind the counter and how they ran just to make and deliver the morning orders to waiting customers in the store. And then this veteran’s story continued: “it used to be fun but, really, not so much now.” His final statement was: “I don’t think the company sees what is happening with us and how we deliver. It’s not that easy, or fun.” Looks to me like some associates would welcome a vote.

DeAnn Campbell
I’m sad the workers felt the need to take this step, and I’m sure retail and service companies across the country are watching carefully. I think many more employee groups will be considering their options as a result of this ruling. It’s a sign that our fast food and retail service model has been broken for a long time. Most retail and service sector jobs were designed decades ago as lower wage jobs for college kids and young people at the beginning of their career to earn “extra” money. Today our society has come to rely on these jobs as primary income, often supporting families. These types of businesses aren’t able to offer full time career wages without significantly raising product prices, which reduces how much their shoppers buy. I know I’ve reduced my Starbucks intake considerably over the past few years as their prices have nearly doubled. At the same time, companies like Amazon and Walmart continue to keep prices low through a supply chain most retailers can’t possibly build, putting them between a… Read more »
Melissa Minkow

This is an extremely significant decision, and it will likely pave the way for many other employees at other companies to want the same for themselves. With all the labor shortages and minimum wage debates, this is a chance for retail employees to feel heard and valued.

Bob Phibbs

Let’s be clear, this is not Norma Rae or the aftermath of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. These are people doing a job in a company that has taken great strides to make things good for employees. I don’t really see what good comes from it in the long term. What does surprise me is this is in a very red area of New York which I would think would be traditionally anti-union. So the big question: is this a trend or a one-off? We’ll have to see.

David Biernbaum

The unionizing in the one store might spawn a trend at Starbucks and, eventually, other places. The tricky part is that some stores are privately owned and some are corporate. Some are stores within a store, and even owned by the store itself. Starbucks corporate management has always positioned the brand as being employee-friendly, open-minded, and “liberal.” If employees attempt to unionize, there might be resentment at corporate headquarters.

With the current labor shortage environment, as it is, many Starbucks locations are open limited hours and are having to close unexpectedly when even one or two employees don’t show up and cannot be replaced. Unions, it would seem, will make business even more difficult for Starbucks.

Ryan Mathews

One success does not a groundswell make, but there is no question that the pump is primed for an innovative 21st century union movement. The problem is most unions have a decidedly 19th century view of the world. That said, it’s plausible that somebody in the labor organizing will recognize the need for new tactics, new issues, and new strategies and, if this happens, Buffalo is likely to be the tip of a potentially huge iceberg. As to the second question, there are two ways to look at that. If you think that the wage gap, poor working conditions, eroding benefits, etc. are going to continue polarizing society it seems credible believe workers will be more receptive. If you look at the culture wars, it’s entirely possible workers will continue to operate against their best collective interests.

Dr. Stephen Needel

Ryan — I’m sure there’s a sentence you never thought you’d write: “Buffalo is likely to be the tip of a potentially huge iceberg.” 🙂

1 year 1 month ago
My father was his union’s president and during his tenure he organized at least one memorable strike against his employer. Which they won. But eventually the company, still in existence and greatly profitable, eventually automated many of the processes he and his coworkers undertook. So those jobs no longer exist. Because, well, companies will pay workers just so much—for doing what their unions say is allowable—before they do something else. This is what we will see play out here. No, I do not necessarily see Starbucks baristas becoming actual bots (or do I?). But yes, I do believe that they will only go so far in having their heretofore rather positive-for-workers operations dictated by union forces. That, I might add, are not necessarily perfect for every place. Even where and when they are deemed needed. That’s the true rub: figuring which workers really need organized protections from bad (or not very conscionable) employers, to staff who suddenly feel empowered with the hint of power that unions can bring to some not-very-good workers’ work-less ethics. Believe… Read more »
Craig Sundstrom

I think the labor shortage/wage increases wrought by the Pandemic will substantially outweigh any impact increases in unionization will have. And Starbucks? I’m having a hard time picturing the Revolt of the Masses starting from behind an espresso machine. (The Amazon vote, which has been ordered to be re-held, is probably more meaningful.)

Unions, like department stores and newspapers — and (passenger) railroads before them (all of them, perhaps not coincidentally, heavily unionized) — have been in a long-term decline for decades; I don’t see what’s happening now changing that.

Anil Patel

Unions are formed when an employer is not able to meet their employees’ expectations. Starbucks will have to deal with an additional stakeholder as a result of its incompetence in handling the demands of its employees.

I believe employees do not want to create unions if everything is going well. Because when a union is created, high achievers get unhappy and dissatisfied because they are considered the same as low or mid-level achievers. The company realizes this and minimizes its responsibilities as a result. And significant responsibilities go beyond the scope of the union.

In my opinion, unionization results in the robotization of employees.


Take Our Instant Poll

How likely are the numbers of retail and foodservice workers represented by unions to go up over the next five years?

View Results

Loading ... Loading ...