Workers at 2 Twin Cities Starbucks stores join national unionization wave

By: - February 11, 2022 3:47 pm

Workers at the Starbucks at 300 Snelling Ave. S. in St. Paul announced their intent to unionize on Feb. 11, 2022 along with worker at a Minneapolis location. From left: Max Chang, Colton Johnson, Sohyeon Yun, Graciela Nira, Asusena Barragan, Lola Rubens, Sitra Abdulkadir. Photo by Max Nesterak/Minnesota Reformer.

Workers at two Starbucks locations in Minneapolis and St. Paul sent letters to the CEO on Friday declaring their intent to unionize, joining a national wave of union drives that has reached more than 70 Starbucks stores across the country.

“This is about getting a real voice in our workplace and earning ourselves a true seat at the table,” said Lola Rubens, 20, a Starbucks barista in St. Paul.

The National Labor Relations Board certified the first union at one of Starbucks’ roughly 9,000 corporate-owned stores just two months ago at a store in Buffalo, New York, after a successful vote. A second Buffalo-area Starbucks followed suit last month, while workers at a third store that had announced their intent to unionize ultimately voted against it.

Rubens says well over 70% of workers at both Minnesota locations — at 300 Snelling Ave. S. in St. Paul and 4712 Cedar Ave. in Minneapolis — signed union authorization cards with Workers United, an affiliate of the Service Employees International Union.

They’re asking Starbucks to voluntarily recognize their union, which would bypass an election overseen by the National Labor Relations Board.

But a spokeswoman for Starbucks says the company will wait for their “partners” — as they call their workers — to vote, saying the process gives workers an anonymous, democratic way to express what they want.

“We respect our partners’ right to organize,” Starbucks spokeswoman Sarah Albanesi said. “And for the stores that do choose to be represented by Workers United, we will bargain in good faith.”

Since the stores in New York successfully unionized, workers began filing petitions for unions in Pennsylvania, Illinois, Hawaii and Wisconsin.

Rubens earns $15.50 an hour and says workers hope to win higher wages, but more than that they want more respect from the company and a greater say in the company’s operations.

“The increase in wages is not the primary focus of the movement, although it’s definitely a part of it,” Rubens said, adding workers often feel left out of decision-making. “Regardless of what you tell your manager or what you tell your shift supervisor or your assistant manager, it’s not going to change. And there’s nothing you can do to change it.”

While public support for unions is the highest it’s been in generations, union membership across the country remains near all-time lows.

Despite news of union drives sweeping across the service sector, union membership in Minnesota has stayed mostly flat, with the percentage of union members in the state ticking up from 15.8% in 2020 to 16% in 2021. Over the same period, the union membership rate nationally decreased slightly from 10.8% to 10.3%.

That reflects how hard it is to form a union in the United States. A study of more than 22,000 union drives between 1999 and 2004 found that just over half clear the certification-vote hurdle. John-Paul Ferguson, a McGill University professor and author of the study, pointed to frequent interference from management.

After the stores in Buffalo, New York, announced their intent to unionize, Starbucks flew in executives and managers from around the country to work in those stores, doing tasks like sweeping floors and taking out trash, while also holding “listening sessions” with workers. Union leaders said their presence was coercive ahead of union votes. Two of the three Buffalo-area stores ended up voting to unionize.

This week, Starbucks fired seven employees at a store in Memphis, Tennessee, after they announced their intent to unionize. A Starbucks spokesman told the Washington Post the firings weren’t related to their union activities but rather because of security violations, including allowing a TV news crew to be inside the store after hours to conduct an interview with the workers.

While the National Labor Relations Board will review alleged interference with unionization efforts, they’re unable to issue fines or any other significant penalties to employers who engage in union busting. Employers are charged with violating federal labor law in 41.5% of all union elections, according to the Economic Policy Institute.

Even if workers succeed in voting to unionize, many fail to win a first contract. Ferguson found just 14% of unionization efforts ended up winning a contract within the first year.

Both Buffalo-area Starbucks stores that cleared the hurdle of an election are now negotiating their first contracts.

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Max Nesterak
Max Nesterak

Max Nesterak is the deputy editor of the Reformer and reports on labor and housing. Previously, he was an associate producer for Minnesota Public Radio after a stint at NPR. He also co-founded the Behavioral Scientist and was a Fulbright Scholar to Berlin, Germany.