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Store by store, the union drive at Starbucks is gaining ground


What it started with one Starbucks in Buffalo, N.Y., is now spreading across the country. So far, 13 Starbucks have unionized, with another four counting votes today. In all, more than 200 stores have sought union elections recently. NPR's Andrea Hsu has been talking with Starbucks workers and asking them, why now?

ANDREA HSU, BYLINE: I sat down with a few workers outside their Starbucks in Springfield, Va. First thing to know about them - they love Starbucks. They love the culture. They love their regular customers. But more recently, that love has been tested. It started in the pandemic.

GAILYN BERG: The beginning of the pandemic, truly.

HSU: That's when Gailyn Berg began to feel undervalued. Berg is a shift supervisor here. Their store was closed for six weeks early on, with pay. During that time, the staff got together on Zoom to brainstorm ideas for how to keep safe. They decided to place a table and a tent at the door. Customers could order on the app and pick up their drinks outside. But they were overruled.

BERG: Our district manager said that that was not appropriate, and they had to come into the store.

HSU: For food safety reasons, even though, Berg points out, lots of businesses were leaving food outside.

BERG: That was definitely a rough first couple of weeks, when we were still getting used to what Starbucks corporate wanted us to look like and deciding if it was actually safe enough.

HSU: Now, Starbucks corporate did do a number of things for employees at that time. For 30 days, they paid workers regardless of whether they went to work or not, for whatever reason. They gave two weeks of paid time off to workers exposed to or diagnosed with COVID. They expanded child care benefits and introduced hazard pay...

BERG: Three dollars extra an hour.

HSU: ...For a couple of months. But increasingly, the employees felt voiceless over the challenges they faced at work. Claire Picciano, a barista, remembers telling her manager...

CLAIRE PICCIANO: I'm just so stressed out. Like, we need more help.

HSU: And it was like that for months. Then last fall, one of their pandemic benefits got phased out - a daily free food and drink item from any location, whether you were working that day or not. Megan Gaydos, another barista, says they were told the company couldn't afford the benefit anymore.

MEGAN GAYDOS: And then it came out that we had, like, record-breaking sales and that the CEO at the time, Kevin Johnson, was going to receive a 40% raise.

HSU: Now, Starbucks points out that it's raised wages for the rank and file, too, twice in the pandemic. But Gailyn Berg is not impressed.

BERG: Starbucks is boasting about raising everyone to $15 an hour, but that was 10 years ago that we needed that.

HSU: Well, in January, the closing shift in Springfield got to talking about the union drive in Buffalo. Tim Swicord is on that shift. He's a high school senior who joined Starbucks in the pandemic.

TIM SWICORD: We kind of very casually were joking about it initially, but then eventually, we just started to think, hey, this is something that we should really do as a store.

HSU: He became one of the organizers. He also became a target of Starbucks' counter campaign. He was brought into a meeting with his store manager and the district manager.

SWICORD: Where they were saying to me things like, you know, you've expressed interest in becoming a shift supervisor. If we unionize, there's a potential that somebody that is worse skillswise might get that promotion.

HSU: Now, Starbucks has long prided itself on not needing a union because it treats its employees well, and the benefits are generous. Gailyn, Claire and Megan have all gone to college on Starbucks' dime. So I asked the workers, what exactly do they want out of a union?

BERG: Of course, a raise - yeah, that's our very first one. And then regular raises after that.

HSU: Also, on scheduling.

SWICORD: Consistency of how many hours we get allotted each week.

HSU: And another big issue - tipping.

GAYDOS: Every day I have customers ask me, oh, how do I tip on the card reader?

HSU: Turns out you can't. The baristas also want Starbucks to supplement the tips. They say a lot of people don't tip because the prices are so high.

PICCIANO: It is not our fault that Starbucks keeps increasing the cost of everything to the point where it's, like, the most expensive cup of coffee you've ever had.

HSU: And aside from all of this, the workers want a say in how things are done at their store. Tim Swicord says, by seeking a union, they're in fact carrying out one of Starbucks' corporate values.

SWICORD: Acting with courage, challenging the status quo and finding new ways to grow our company and each other. I think that's exactly what we're doing. We are growing our store. We are growing each other.

HSU: And if they win their vote next week, also growing a movement.

FADEL: That's NPR's Andrea Hsu reporting from Springfield, Va., and she joins us now. Hi, Andrea.

HSU: Hi.

FADEL: So, Andrea, that's how things are playing out among some Starbucks employees, but we're also seeing a workers movement at Amazon. Is this also a wages issue?

HSU: Well, yeah, wages are a factor. But, you know, wages at Amazon and Starbucks are competitive. In fact, you often hear other employers saying we can't find workers because Amazon's paying $19 an hour, $22 an hour. What workers are making clear in this moment is, yes, money is important but so are health and safety, so is their well-being. And moreover, they're saying we know best what we need because we're doing these jobs. So workers want a seat at the table now, and they think a union will give them that.

FADEL: And how have the companies reacted to the wave of organizing?

HSU: Well, they don't like it. They continue to fight it. At Starbucks, a few workers involved in organizing have actually been fired. Starbucks says they violated company policies, but union organizers say the company is engaging in unfair labor practices. Amazon, meanwhile, spent millions of dollars on labor consultants. They've also held meetings with workers, trying to get them to vote no. But right now the momentum seems to be on the side of the unions. And we'll see how that goes.

FADEL: That's NPR's Andrea Hsu. Thank you so much for your reporting.

HSU: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
Andrea Hsu is NPR's labor and workplace correspondent.