Claiming Victory, Boston Starbucks Workers Call Off 64-Day Strike

After 1,500 hours on the picket line, Starbucks workers at a store on Boston University’s campus ended their strike last Wednesday, declaring victory. Their manager will be replaced, as they had demanded. The baristas had alleged a litany of offenses by the manager, ranging from homophobia to simultaneous hour cuts, short-staffing, and the hiring of new staff.

Not only will the Starbucks at 874 Commonwealth Avenue get a new manager, but workers say the local district manager has committed to including baristas in an investigation into the former manager’s conduct, something the Starbucks workers were determined to achieve. District managers oversee store managers in Starbucks’s corporate hierarchy.

The baristas had also sought more input into how the shop runs on matters like scheduling. While they won no firm guarantees, such as a management-labor committee, workers were convinced that the district manager will operate in good faith moving forward, and that they have the muscle to make sure that he does.

“It felt like a win to us. We thought we could return to work as long as we stay vigilant to make sure that these talks aren’t just talks and actually happen,” says Nora Rossi, a shift manager at the store.

The strikers faced their fair share of resistance, notably from the company and law enforcement.

The strike, which lasted 64 days, ended just weeks after the workers were told by the district manager that “the company was never going to talk to us about our demands, and was never going to negotiate with anybody in the union,” says Spencer Costigan, an employee at the Boston Starbucks. (Costigan was interviewed prior to the end of the strike.)

It was the first open-ended strike in the brief history of Starbucks Workers United (SBWU). The national barista-led movement has unionized 240 company-run stores across the country since last December. While the pace of SBWU’s expansion has slowed, dozens more store elections are still scheduled in the coming months. On Monday, Starbucks proposed bargaining dates for a first contract with 238 of its 240 unionized stores.

Among the major developments that ended the Boston workers’ revolt was a company flyer posted in other area stores on Sunday that stated that unionized stores would not be subject to a new availability policy that workers at non-union stores are now forced to labor under.

According to the two-month-old policy, workers must make themselves available for 150 percent of the hours they wish to work. Starbucks Workers United says that Starbucks illegally applied the policy to unionized stores by unilaterally imposing it without bargaining at numerous stores around the country.

“We’re not asking for anything drastic with this strike, we’re asking that the company follow the law,” says Costigan.

Moreover, the campaign says that district managers and store managers often modify the policy according to their own preferences. At the store at 874 Commonwealth Avenue, says Costigan, the erstwhile store manager asked staff to be available for upward of 35 hours per week, while granting a maximum of 18 hours of work to any given barista.

“A lot of our workers are students who couldn’t give the availability Starbucks had suddenly started asking for,” says Rossi.

Unions and rank-and-file members provided crucial backing for the strike in Boston. The most notable support came from other Starbucks workers, with several other Massachusetts stores joining in weeklong solidarity strikes. More than 100 Starbucks workers in the region were simultaneously on strike in early September.

But baristas weren’t the only ones backing the Starbucks picket on BU’s campus. Unionized truck drivers were a crucial ally.

“The Teamsters have been the linchpin to all of this … we maintained the 24-hour picket lines so they couldn’t make any deliveries to our store like food or milk or anything like that. So [Starbucks] couldn’t reopen even if they wanted to,” says Rossi.

She added that Teamsters have a contract clause that allows them to not cross picket lines.

Boston University graduate students who recently announced their intention to unionize were also key supporters of the Starbucks workers, particularly with students flooding back on campus several weeks ago. Barista Taylor Dickerson says that when students returned, the baristas identified community education as a key need, and the grad students played a role in providing that.

“It’s kind of a cool give-and-take between the two unions … we’re both offering support to each other, they’re coming by our picket all the time, they’re educating their people and everybody on BU’s campus about what we’re doing,” says Dickerson, interviewed prior to the end of the strike.

The striking workers received an outpouring of community support on the picket lines, in donations to their strike funds, and in other ways. Local political organizations like the local Democratic Socialists of America chapter provided presence on the picket line and other support. Further, politicians like Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-MA), Boston Mayor Michelle Wu, and City Councilor Kendra Lara provided strong backing for the baristas.

It wasn’t all sunshine and roses though. The strikers faced their fair share of resistance, notably from the company and law enforcement. At midnight on August 8, according to Costigan, the Boston Police Department received an anonymous call to show up at the picket line at 5:15 a.m.

“The only people who would know to have somebody come out at five in the morning would be the company,” says Costigan. “So it had to be management.”

While two officers in a BPD cruiser observed, Starbucks employees with a U-Haul lugged away the patio furniture that workers and supporters had been using for weeks. The police maintained a presence at the site in the weeks to come, even parking a paddy wagon next to the picket on several occasions.

On September 15, after being threatened with trespassing charges by the company, the strikers moved their picket to the sidewalk. Organizers later tweeted that police “harassed and filmed picketers, refused to show their badges, and made misleading statements about the law.”

In the end, though, the baristas won, not Starbucks.

“It’s been pretty life-changing,” says Rossi. “A lot of us were very disheartened and bitter by how we were treated during the COVID pandemic, by Starbucks cutting our hours and short-staffing again, even when people were desperate for this paycheck.”

And what’s next?

“Just remaining vigilant and taking care of each other and taking care of ourselves,” she says.