The Nation's First Starbucks Just Unionized—Here's Everything to Know

Workers at a Starbucks in Buffalo, New York, made history.

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As 2020 laid bare the immense inequality that permeates many facets of American life, many people began organizing themselves to effect some change. Service workers, quickly recognized as essential workers and put on the frontlines during the pandemic, were one of the many groups that began demanding more from employers. Workers at Amazon, Kellog’s, and Starbucks all made national headlines for trying to unionize their workplaces.

On December 12, the Elmwood Starbucks branch in Buffalo, New York, made history as the first company-owned Starbucks location to ever unionize.

Here’s what you need to know about their effort, and what this could mean for future labor fights.

What does it mean to be unionized?

A labor union, as defined by Merriam-Webster, is "an organization of workers formed for the purpose of advancing its members' interests in respect to wages, benefits, and working conditions." Clearly, if your first introduction to unions was through the film The Irishman, the real application doesn't seem so peachy. But off-screen, being in a union typically offers protection from unfair work practices. It allows people with less power in a company or workplace to team up and negotiate with bosses, executives, and other higher-ups. 

In order to form a union, a workplace must have 30% of workers sign a union card or a petition stating their support. The National Labor Relations Board will then conduct an election unless the employer voluntarily recognizes the union.

Why did Starbucks employees in Buffalo unionize?

The pandemic was a reckoning for many. While some billionaires made more money than ever, the rest of the country faced mass evictions, a public health care crisis, and unsafe workplaces with low wages. This included workers at Starbucks, who, as essential workers often on the frontlines, were hoping to, as a union, have stronger negotiating power with bosses to secure a better contract.

One shop in Buffalo secured enough votes to unionize by an employee vote of 19 to 8, but there are an additional two shops in the city that are currently in the process of counting votes, and three shops that have announced the intent to unionize. A Starbucks in Mesa, Arizona, announced its intent to form a union in late November. 

"This is a historic moment in time," Michelle Eisen, a Starbucks barista who worked at the coffee giant for 11 years, told the press. "This win is the first step in changing what it means to be a partner at Starbucks, and what it means to work in the service industry more broadly. With a union, we now have the ability to negotiate a contract that holds Starbucks accountable to be the company we know it can be and gives us a real voice in our workplace."

The one shop that secured the votes will be affiliated with the Service Employees International Union.

Why didn't all Starbucks employees unionize?

There are roughly 8,000 company-owned Starbucks stores in the US, according to AP. That equals about 235,00 employees and organizing that many workers is a monumental task. Additionally, the shops that have been attempting to unionize were met with strong resistance from Starbucks executives. In Buffalo, Starbucks sent in top executives and even former CEO Howard Shultz to persuade employees not to unionize.

What happens next for those Starbucks workers?

The successful unionization of the Elmwood branch and the pending votes of the other locations is part of a larger resurgence in labor organizing. The Elmwood workers will now wait to see if Starbucks will come to the bargaining table to ratify a new contract. A new contract could guarantee higher wages for everyone, but particularly long-time employees. A contract could as include protections from dismissal, additional vacation time and maternity leave, and more health benefits. Currently, no law dictates that Starbucks executives have to meet with the newly formed union, according to CNN. However, major investors and public figures have urged Starbucks to respect the union

The effort already has some very public supporters, including Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, who has been vocal about his support. "The workers who are working so very hard to organize, who are standing up and fighting for justice are an enormous inspiration to me, and a reminder that if we stand together, there is nothing we cannot accomplish,” Sanders tweeted.

How does this affect Starbucks?

Starbucks did not want this union effort to succeed. The corporation filed a report with the United States Securities and Exchange Commission, in which the company outlined the predicted effects of widespread unionization among Starbucks employees. “If a significant portion of our employees were to become unionized, our labor costs could increase and our business could be negatively affected by other requirements and expectations that could increase our costs, change our employee culture, decrease our flexibility, and disrupt our business,” the filing states.

According to Zip Recruiter, the national hourly average for a Starbucks barista is $11.64. In 2019, Starbucks made $24.61 billion in revenue. The company will likely try to improve working conditions and raise wages to sway employees from following in the footsteps of the Elmwood branchbased on initial efforts to prevent the Elmwood branch from unionizing.

What will happen next?

The labor movement is picking up steam across the country. Kellog’s workers in Tennessee are on strike, Amazon workers in Alabama are attempting to unionize, and nurses in California made national headlines in November for threatening to strike.

The number of unionized workers in the US is quite low. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that as of January 2021, only 6.3% of private-sector workers (meaning not employed by the government) were unionized. In the food and beverage industry, the percentage of workers in a union dropped even lower, to 1.2%. While the number of workers who are organizing, unionizing, and striking has increased in 2021, it remains to be seen if this will be a sustained movement going into 2022.

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Opheli Garcia Lawler is a staff writer at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @opheligarcia and Instagram @opheligarcia.