The recent wave of Starbucks workers seeking to join a union shares many characteristics of a mass movement.
With union drives now reaching more than 300 Starbucks stores across the country, organizers are grappling with questions of national structure and tactics. But the organizing push wasn’t always envisioned as a countrywide campaign.
“[We weren’t] initially looking at Starbucks as a national project but as a geographic upstate New York restaurant [one],” says Richard Bensinger, an organizer with Workers United and senior adviser on the Starbucks Workers United (SBWU) campaign.
To understand how the union shepherded SBWU into being, one needs to go back to Ithaca, New York, in 2017. There, Workers United—an 86,000 member affiliate of the Service Employees International Union—got its start in the coffee industry, organizing a small chain called Gimme! Coffee.
“Our union represents food service and hospitality, but we hadn’t represented baristas until Gimme! Coffee,” explains Gary Bonadonna, the elected leader of Worker United’s Rochester, New York, branch.
But the Gimme! Coffee campaign, Bensinger says, was “not really the start of the geographic restaurant project.” The idea to organize all the baristas in a single locality emerged for Workers United in 2019 and was a key to eventually generating the national wave. “Rather than do one restaurant or coffee shop we decided to focus on a city, which was Rochester,” he explains.
After a win at a Rochester SPoT Coffee location, Workers United soon expanded its campaign to Buffalo, New York, where SPoT is based. Again, the idexa wasn’t just to organize SPoT but to start a movement toward unionizing every coffee shop in the city. “The Starbucks campaign would not have happened with our particular union and in Buffalo without [the citywide] SPoT coffee [one],” says Bonadonna.
For their part, Buffalo workers at SPoT were drawn in by the win in Rochester and inspired by a strike at a Niagara Falls Rainforest Cafe right across the border in Canada, according to Bensinger.
Meanwhile, a few SPoT workers who also worked at Starbucks contacted the union, and, during the summer and fall of 2019, Workers United and the Starbucks workers were organizing under the radar, Bensinger says. By winter, Workers United quietly began to reach out to more Starbucks workers.
The organizers proceeded in the early months of 2020 to the point where the union considered pushing a public demand for Starbucks to agree to a neutrality agreement similar to the one that SPoT had finally agreed to that would coincide with the signing of the first contract at SPoT.
Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit, putting a stop to the nascent campaign to unionize Starbucks locations across Buffalo. Or so it seemed.
While the pandemic raged, Bensinger began organizing via Zoom, a skill he had picked up from a campaign that he worked on in Massachusetts, helping to organize a Boston-based chain called Pavement Coffeehouse.
By August 2021, Starbucks workers and the union had formed a citywide committee in as many as eighteen of the twenty stores in the Buffalo area, encompassing up to fifty workers who became the foundation of Starbucks Workers United.
“All of a sudden, here’s this store across the country, that’s saying that they want to join us…it was almost like another glimmer of hope.”
Conditions at Starbucks in Buffalo, both before and during the pandemic, had created fertile ground for the union campaign to go public. In the ensuing months, however, Starbucks workers have come forward, alleging that the corporation’s intense union-busting drive in the Buffalo area whittled down the initial number of stores filing for a union to just a handful.
There was an acknowledgement that “if something went wrong here in Buffalo, and . . . none of these stores managed to win, that would be the end of it right there,” says Michelle Eisen, a longtime Starbucks barista in Buffalo.
The campaign appeared to be on a knife’s edge.
But under the surface, the movement was spreading outside of Buffalo through a combination of union and grassroots initiatives, even as figures like Bensinger continued to think of the campaign as primarily focused on organizing coffee shops in upstate New York.
In early October, Michelle Hedjuk, a shift supervisor in Mesa, Arizona, used a new email address not identifiable with her out of fear of being fired to reach out to the Buffalo campaign. But this concern eventually led her to not pursue the issue further.
That is, until her manager Brittany Harrison, who was suffering from symptoms of newly diagnosed cancer at the time, was fired in November, suddenly losing all of her health care benefits. This pushed Hedjuk, shift supervisor Liz Alanna, and their co-workers past the tipping point, despite Hedjuk’s fear that they would all be let go as a result.
Hedjuk quickly got in touch again with Bensinger about next steps. The workers in Mesa then formed an organizing committee, and within days, her store had filed to unionize.
Meanwhile, back in Buffalo, it was the Mesa campaign that provided Bensinger, Bonadonna, and others with the inkling that their effort might succeed and spread. It also gave confidence to grassroots workers like Michelle Eisen who were already thinking big: “All of a sudden, here’s this store across the country, that’s saying that they want to join us…it was almost like another glimmer of hope,” says Eisen.
Eisen was more surprised by the timing than the reality that stores in other parts of the country might follow suit. In Austin, Texas, a transfer from Buffalo had already started organizing, an effort that ultimately didn’t yield fruit. But in Boston, Massachusetts, Kylah Clay, a worker at a local Starbucks and a law student at the time, approached the union in the fall.
At the same time, at a different store in Boston, Starbucks worker Tyler Daguerre was connected to a Buffalo organizer through a mutual friend.
Stores that were organizing in different parts of the country were strategically kept under wraps by the union in Buffalo, even as it embraced them all. The union and Buffalo workers kept the separate drives in Boston so quiet that Clay and Deguerre did not meet, even on Zoom, until December 9 of last year.
That’s when the Elmwood Avenue cafe in Buffalo made history by winning the first union at a company-run Starbucks in decades. Clay’s and Daguerre’s stores, which had delayed their filings until after the Buffalo victory to try to create the perception of a cascading effect, filed on December 13.
The floodgates had opened: What had been a trickle of contact from baristas around the country to Starbucks Workers United turned into a river. The first store to file in Starbucks’s hometown of Seattle—where the company’s first-ever barista union was formed in the mid-80s, only to be decertified a few years later—came on December 20.
Maggie Carter, who works at a Starbucks in Knoxville, Tennessee, reached out to Workers United in mid-December and filed for the first Starbucks union in the South on December 27. Stores in Denver, Colorado, and Chicago, Illinois, followed suit before the end of the year.
By the end of January 2022, more than fifty stores in 19 different states had filed for elections around the country. By March, it was more than 100. Today, even at a slower pace of growth, the number of stores that have filed or voted stands at more than 300, with workers electing to join a union in about 80 percent of the elections.
Now, what was once a drive to organize an industry in a single city has become a national wave to unionize every Starbucks store in the country.
“I knew that I couldn’t be the only Starbucks partner feeling like this,” says Eisen. “I knew that there were thousands of me, across the country, who were feeling exactly the same way.”