Starbucks Employees Want Their Actual—Not Metaphorical—Seat at the Table

“We all love this company. We just want to hold them accountable, to be the company they say they are.” Angel Krempa, a supervisor at one of the Starbucks locations in Depew, New York tells Food Tank.

Starbucks workers in Buffalo began the process of forming a union in August 2021. Of five stores that have filed for a vote, three are voting this week, and more regionally (and even nationally) have taken interest. The voting process is happening by store, versus by region. If the majority of workers in one store vote yes to form a union, that store will become recognized, and move into contract negotiations.

Workers want a union so they can have a say in company decisions. During the pandemic, “a lot of us were nervous about getting sick and we didn’t really know what was going on,” Caroline Lerczak, an employee at the Cheektowaga store, tells Food Tank. “We got closer, banded together. Then the problems became more evident.”

Krempa added that Starbucks workers were inspired by their colleagues at Spot Coffee, who effectively organized a union in 2019, and that she had witnessed neglect in her workplace, including safety and customer concerns that were ignored by the company.

However, apart from feeling unity and excitement around their efforts, Starbucks workers are also facing severe opposition from their employer. Intimidation, stalking, and misinformation were just a few of the descriptors Lerczak used. It’s leaving workers feeling uncomfortable.

In addition to flying in high-level executives from headquarters—a highly unusual action—the company has added staff to the stores who filed to vote, apparently as an attempt to dilute the votes. The company has also made use of its internal text platform to send messages to workers in Buffalo, blatantly asking them to vote no. The Starbucks Workers United Twitter account reveals some of the tactics Starbucks has been using to convince its workers to vote against their union.

The company has also filed counteractive motions with the National Labor Relations Board, such as asking for workers to vote by district instead of by store. When asked if they feel the company will abide by the results of a yes vote, both workers said they expect Starbucks to continue to try and delay the process and avoid negotiating in good faith.

Krempa wants to see improved health and safety guidelines, and their adherence by the company in a first contract, as well as accountability from district managers and upper management, and increased diversity of hired Starbucks employees. Angel tells Food Tank that while the company “touts themselves on being extremely inclusive,” the current staff demographics do not actually represent the city of Buffalo.

She also wants a robust health care program that can accommodate people with preexisting conditions and people who have not yet experienced a major health event. Lerczak wants the same.

Krempa lives with a chronic illness, and when she was initially presented with health care plan options from her employer, she realized even the cheapest option still had a US$2,000 deductible, which made the plan unaffordable. She was able to go on her stepfather’s health insurance instead, which is ironically the same plan, but free, because it’s he has a union which pays the deductible.

Most importantly, the workers want their seat at the table. Starbucks executives tote the fact that at every board meeting, they leave two chairs empty—one for a barista, and one for a customer. However these chairs are entirely metaphorical, and those stakeholders never actually invited.

Krempa is heartened by the way Buffalo tends to rally behind its workers. “At this point, we need the community to put pressure on the company,” she says.

Starbucks workers’ attempt to freely form a union is already rippling across the country; a store in Arizona recently filed a petition to vote. “We’re not replaceable,” Lerczak says. “We know what we’re doing, we know that we have power. We have a voice and there’s no reason for us not to use it.”

By 1:00 PM EST on December 9, the results of the first three stores’ votes will be in. “We need to win at least one store to establish a union and the right to bargain,” Richard Bensinger, Senior Advisor to Starbucks Workers United, tells Food Tank.

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