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Starbucks Workers At A Chicago Location Begin Unionization Attempt
Workers at this recently opened Starbucks in Downtown Chicago are pushing to unionize, making the cafe the first of its kind in the Midwest.
Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

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The Starbucks Union Push Arrives in Chicago

A Loop cafe becomes the first Starbucks in the Midwest to join the growing labor organizing effort

Workers at a downtown Chicago Starbucks became the first of the chain’s Midwestern locations to sign union cards, as they filed a petition for union certification last week with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). The request comes as Starbucks faces coordinated organizing efforts at its cafes across the country, a movement that started with a union vote last month in Buffalo, New York.

The general concerns that led to organizing boil down to three major issues, says Zero Muñoz, a barista at the Chicago Starbucks: better wages, a better distribution of labor, and security.

“A lot of us want to be with the company a really long time,” Muñoz says. “We want to survive off of Starbucks. We enjoy our jobs. We just know that, as good as conditions and benefits are, they can be better.”

“A near unanimous majority” of the 15 hourly workers at the Starbucks, which opened last year at 155 N. Wabash Avenue — steps away from Macy’s State Street and the Chicago Cultural Center — signed union cards, according to Pete DeMay, the organizing director of Chicago and Midwest Regional Joint Board of Workers United. DeMay declined to disclose exact numbers, citing labor confidentially laws. His group is the same union that represented the Buffalo workers, an affiliate of Service Employees International Union.

The NLRB will determine an election date at a hearing on January 20; the election will be six to eight weeks after the hearing. The news was first reported by Crain’s.

A Starbucks spokesman, in response to questions from Eater about unionization efforts and specific working conditions at the Wabash store, had no comment beyond, “Our success, past, present, and future, is built on how we partner together.”

Organizing efforts at several Starbucks locations in Chicago — home of the world’s largest Starbucks — and across the Midwest began even before the results of the Buffalo election were announced, DeMay says. Several other Starbucks locations in the Chicago area and in Illinois and other nearby states have also contacted Workers United to petition for their own elections, he says, although he won’t disclose how many. Two Starbucks in Boston and one each in Arizona and Colorado have already filed petitions with the NLRB. Efforts are ongoing at stores in Massachusetts and Tennessee.

Starbucks recently boosted its starting hourly wage to $15, which is above minimum wage but not, workers say, enough to live on. As a result, Muñoz says, workers take on more hours, and then develop work-related injuries, which causes them to miss shifts.

Many shifts are also understaffed, workers say, something that has been exacerbated by COVID-19: Workers have had to miss shifts due to getting sick or being exposed to the virus. At times, as many as six of the 15 baristas and shift supervisors at the Wabash Starbucks have been unable to work, which means the rest have to cover for them. Other Starbucks around the city, including in Andersonville and on Michigan Avenue at Madison Street, have had to close this past week, workers say, because there weren’t enough employees who were able to work. Sometimes there isn’t enough staff to open the store on time, or workers have to stay two hours or more past closing time to finish cleaning up.

“It’s not what we were promised,” says Brick Zurek, a shift supervisor who spearheaded the efforts at the Wabash store. “It’s not the work environment we want.”

Security in particular is an issue at the Wabash Starbucks, according to employees. Customers frequently harass and make violent threats against them; once, Muñoz and Zurek say, someone threw a cup of hot water at a manager, burning their face. “We have to file incident reports fairly often,” says Sonni Miller, a barista. But Starbucks management rarely provides backup, Miller says, and employees have no way of enforcing the city mask mandate or preventing someone who has been banned from the store from coming back. On the one occasion a district manager did witness violent behavior from a customer who had previously been banned, Miller says, the manager allegedly invited the customer to sit down and have a conversation, and the harassment continued. Many neighboring businesses in the Loop have security guards, and the Starbucks workers are hoping for the same.

“This is what we have to do to ensure our own safety,” says Zurek. “One of the tenets of Starbucks is to see the best in people. I’m hoping that’s the issue here, because the alternative is that they just don’t care.”

Two baristas make coffee at a coffee bar, pouring the drink into Chemex.
Workers make coffee before the pandemic in 2019 at the world’s largest Starbucks located off Michigan Avenue.
Barry Brecheisen/Eater Chicago

In the past, there had been unsuccessful unionizing attempts at Starbucks, but when the news broke this fall that there would be elections at three stores in Buffalo, it galvanized a movement around the country. Baristas began talking among themselves and pooling information, says Zurek. The results in Buffalo were mixed: One store didn’t have enough votes to unionize, and the results at the third store were disputed.

In Buffalo, workers said that Starbucks actively tried to interfere with their organizing, “engaging in a campaign of threats, intimidation, surveillance,” according to a federal labor charge. But the Chicago workers say they haven’t heard much from management at all, aside from a few general letters addressed to all employees. “The district manager came in one day and gave everyone some pronoun pins,” says Miller. Chicago organizers hope this silence means that Starbucks is preparing a more thoughtful response.

Starbucks, which has 8,941 stores in the U.S., making it the nation’s largest coffee chain, has cultivated a reputation for being a progressive company. It provides extensive health benefits to employees, known as “partners,” including full coverage for gender confirmation procedures — something management added after consultation with transgender workers, according to a company blog post. It also offers paid parental and sick leave, tuition reimbursement, and stock options. However, many benefits are contingent upon employees working a certain number of hours. In February, a new policy will reduce COVID-related paid sick leave to just five days.

In an open letter to employees last month, executive vice president Rossann Williams wrote, “From the beginning, we’ve been clear in our belief that we do not want a union between us as partners, and that conviction has not changed.” She added that the company does plan to bargain in good faith with the employees at the unionized store in Buffalo — but only if they do the same.

For the workers, the unionization effort is a way to become partners at the company in more than just name only. They want to have a role in making decisions about their wages and working conditions. “They really pride themselves on being a progressive company,” says Miller. “We want to hold them to that and do more for us, because we know that they can.”

Restaurant and retail workers all over Chicago and the Midwest, and not just at Starbucks, have also been inspired to organize and have approached Workers United and other unions. DeMay thinks this may be a watershed moment in the labor movement. This past fall, employees at Colectivo Coffee, a Wisconsin-based chain with five Chicago-area locations, voted to join the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers after a long and tumultuous battle with management. Colectivo is now the largest unionized workforce at a U.S. coffee chain. However, despite multiple rulings from the NLRB, workers allege that company leadership is still ignoring the union’s meeting requests and stalling contract negotiations, according to a recent Instagram post.

Restaurant workers have struggled with labor organizing, but the recent developments at Starbucks could provide a model. DeMay says the unionizing movement at Starbucks will only grow, just as efforts at individual auto plants in the 1930s eventually grew into United Auto Workers.

“This isn’t going to go away for Starbucks until they sit down at the table and figure out a fair process and start taking partners into account,” DeMay says. “It’s very off-brand for [Starbucks] to be squashing worker dissent.”

Eater Chicago Reporter Naomi Waxman contributed to this report.

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