Unionized Starbucks Stores Go on a Weekend Strike

Up to 100 stores represented by Starbucks Workers United (SBWU) are set to go on strike this weekend, including over 20 that are going on strike for the first time.

Most of the walkouts are starting Friday, part of a three-day unfair labor practice strike over what workers see as selective closures of union stores. One store in Seattle, where Starbucks is headquartered, was shut down last week, raising outcry among SBWU baristas.

During this weekend’s work stoppages, which SBWU is calling the “Double Down Strike,” the union is also focusing on what it sees as the company’s unilateral cuts to barista hours, short-staffing, and the denial of credit card tipping to baristas at most union stores. All of these actions have taken place as Starbucks has shown an unwillingness to negotiate first contracts with newly unionized stores, and as the company has bestowed benefits on employees at non-union stores while denying them to workers at unionized stores.

“Since we won our union election, the store has remained really understaffed during the week,” says Julia Berkman, a barista based in Waban, Massachusetts, whose store will be on strike all weekend.

“A lot of our really solid long-term trained baristas are feeling really overextended, having to do the job of two baristas,” she says.

More from Saurav Sarkar

The lack of negotiations has frustrated Starbucks workers. “We all want to push Starbucks on the national level to be actually bargaining … The fact that [it’s] still closing stores and firing partners—everyone wants to have an end to that,” says Sarah Wayment, a shift supervisor based in San Antonio, Texas, whose store is also going on a three-day strike this weekend.

The national actions this weekend are part of a three-month period of escalation by workers and their union, SEIU affiliate Workers United, to push back against a harsh campaign of retaliation by the $117 billion coffee company. As part of that effort, SBWU is asking consumers not to purchase Starbucks gift cards during the holidays.

“We’re hoping to show Starbucks that we are not backing down, that we’re getting stronger, that we’re committing to more actions,” says Julie Marie Langevin, a Redding, Massachusetts–based barista and member of SBWU at a non-union store.

In November, upwards of 110 stores went on strike on what baristas said is one of the company’s busiest days, Red Cup Day, when the company hands out reusable red cups to customers.

More recently, workers rallied with labor allies in ten cities, including Buffalo, Chicago, and New York, to mark the one-year anniversary of the network’s first union win at the Elmwood store in Buffalo last December.

The latest action this weekend steps things up further, as SBWU says it is not willing to tolerate further retaliation and what it sees as failure on the company’s part to truly negotiate.

Langevin says, “We’re not going to stop [until they] meet with us … really in good faith at the bargaining table so that we can win this contract.”

Starbucks Workers United says it is not willing to tolerate further retaliation and what it sees as failure on the company’s part to truly negotiate.

Organizers lauded what they described as the longest national action in the worker network’s brief history. The strike in November had been the first on a coordinated national level, though individual stores have held scores of strikes over the past few months, including two victorious ones that lasted over 40 days. Workers at a Boston Starbucks stayed out for 64 days until the company replaced the store’s manager.

THE RECENT WAR OVER UNIONIZING STARBUCKS began in earnest in Buffalo in late 2021. A fierce battle to organize the city’s Starbucks locations whittled 18 stores filing for election down to six, through extraordinary pressure by the company. Union strategy further reduced this to three initially.

Of those three, on December 9, 2021, one lost, one had indeterminate results, and one won.

The election win at Buffalo’s Elmwood location triggered an exponential increase in union filings at Starbucks around the country over the winter that continued into the spring. All told, 269 company-run stores have won union elections—a far cry from the approximately 9,000 stores in the U.S., but many, many more than the zero that prevailed as of November 2021. Close to 7,000 employees work at those unionized stores.

In response, the company has cracked down hard on a national level, apparently to stem further organizing, and brought back its longtime CEO Howard Schultz, who once compared the Starbucks corporate culture to that of Holocaust victims sharing a blanket.

Thus far, Starbucks has provided better benefits and raises to non-union stores, aggressively attempted to dissuade workers from unionizing in one-on-one sessions and meetings, mismanaged stores, and used its vaunted benefits for transgender workers as a union-busting point, among other steps.

The National Labor Relations Board has filed 45 separate complaints against the company and is currently seeking a national cease-and-desist order against what it sees as union-busting by Starbucks. SBWU has filed a whopping 548 unfair labor practice complaints this calendar year.

Meanwhile, Starbucks made nearly $900 million in profits in the quarter ending in October, while its baristas average a little over $15 per hour.

The actions of the past year set the stage for 2023. Over the next few months, SBWU baristas will have to decide their best negotiating tactic with Starbucks: a national work stoppage, or the NLRB filing. They’ll also have to choose whether to prioritize grassroots movement-building or traditional union organizing.

These tensions have been present throughout the campaign’s year of existence, but have now crystallized in the face of months of intense “bullying” by Starbucks, to use SBWU’s term.

It’s of course possible to weave together a combined strategy on each question, but it’s not clear as of now which path SBWU will prioritize in the new year.