Starbucks Officials Converge on Stores as Workers Seek Union

Starbucks Officials Converge on Stores as Workers Seek Union
Image courtesy of Facebook/Starbucks Officials Converge on Stores as Workers Seek Union

BUFFALO – Michelle Eisen claims she has dealt with occupational stress for over a decade at Starbucks. This includes greater use of productivity objectives, poor training, and periods of understaffing or excessive turnover.

But she had never seen the corporation add two more “support managers” from out of state, who often work on the floor with the baristas and had caused Ms. Eisen anxiety.

“It’s intimidating for newer baristas,” Ms. Eisen added. “It is not easy. It shouldn’t feel like everything you do or say is being observed and listened to.”

 

Workers and union activists claim the company’s counteroffensive is intended to scare workers, interrupt routine operations, and weaken support for the union.

 

Starbucks claims the extra managers, coupled with more employees and an out-of-town corporate executive, are regular company operations. The adjustments are in reaction to employee feedback, not a union campaign, and that they include temporarily closing stores in the area.

 

“The listening sessions led to partner requests,” said Starbucks spokesman Reggie Borges. “Our leadership didn’t come in and say, ‘We’re going to do this and this.’ We listened to their worries.”

 

No one works at any of the almost 9,000 corporate-owned Starbucks. However, workers may form a union, reflecting a recent rise in labor activism countrywide, including strikes in many industries.

 

The National Labor Relations Board states that union elections must be held in “laboratory conditions,” where workers can vote freely and without fear of retaliation.

 

Former labor board officials said the company’s activities might invalidate an election if the union loses.

 

“You could argue it’s part of an overarching succession of events that seems to cool or inhibit people,” said Wilma B. Liebman, board chairperson under Obama.

 

A labor board official recently recommended that a union election at an Amazon warehouse in Alabama be thrown out for identical grounds. Still, Mr. Borges said Starbucks did not believe that was warranted.

 

It’s not the first time Starbucks has faced union organizing drives, as evidenced by the firing of two union organizers in New York City in the early 2000s and Philadelphia in 2019. Starbucks has appealed.

 

While none of the efforts in this country succeeded, a Starbucks-owned store recently unionized, as did several other establishments with Starbucks license agreements.

 

Starbucks has responded in Buffalo, where union supporters desire to join Workers United, an affiliate of the huge Service Employees International Union, which is standard. Among the initiatives are firm officials questioning the need for a third party to represent them.

 

Starbucks also wants the labor board to require workers at all 20 Buffalo-area stores to vote, rather than allowing businesses to vote separately, citing employee travel time. (Union organizers prefer voting in smaller units to enhance their chances of winning some ground.) On this question, the board is expected to rule in the coming weeks.

 

Experts in labor law say the company’s activities throughout the union campaign were unusual. A large increase in employees, closing stores, it’s all unique, says former labor board attorney and St. Louis University professor Matthew Bodie.

 

A recent visit to a Starbucks near the airport revealed nine baristas but only a few customers.

 

“It’s insane,” said Alexis Rizzo, a veteran Starbucks employee and organizer. If you want to get a gallon of milk, you have to run an obstacle course through all the people who aren’t there for any reason.

 

Ms. Rizzo stated the sheer number of employees in the business made those who precede the union election filing feel outnumbered and dejected. “It’s scary,” she remarked. “You go to work and there are 10 strangers.”

 

Starbucks said the extra staff was needed to help with an increase in sick days.

 

Some of the new staff came from a nearby store that Starbucks recently converted into a training center. Its employees haven’t signed a union petition, but many of them feel alienated and disoriented.

 

“Initially, folks believed our store could use a reset,” said Colin Cochran, a pro-union employee who has since been moved to other sites. “It’s getting aggravating as it drags on and we’re dispatched to more stores. We miss each other.”

 

The rapid arrival of new management and company officials from out of town heightened workers’ uneasiness.

 

In a September conference video, an Arizona district manager informs coworkers that the firm has requested her to spend 90 days in Buffalo. An attendee at the meeting recorded the district manager saying, “There is a massive task force out there trying to fix the problem because if Buffalo gets unionized, it will be the first market in Starbucks history.” “We’re going to save it,” the district manager says when asked whether the task group is a “last-ditch effort to halt it.”

 

Mr. Westlake said a store log revealed many business officials from outside the Buffalo region had visited the store in the last six weeks. For example, Rossann Williams, Starbucks’ North American retail president, made at least seven visits.

 

On occasion, the authorities clean the restrooms or work on their computers facing the baristas, Mr. Westlake said. Many of his coworkers felt scared by these officials, and he considered Ms. Williams’ presence “surreal.”

 

These officials were helping to solve operational challenges and renovate stores as part of a companywide effort that began in May when Covid-19 infection rates dropped, and stores across the country became busier.

 

“The business revival came so fast we were unprepared,” Ms. Williams added.

 

The company says it has added recruiters in each of its 12 regions to speed up hiring. In addition, it stated it had converted 40 stores across the country into training centers.

 

On a Saturday in October, Ms. Williams stood behind a group of workers as a trainer briefed them at the bar.

 

She dismissed the argument that was temporarily closing a business or making other big modifications may damage the union election’s laboratory conditions later, sat outside the store.

 

“To go to a market and not do anything about it would be against my job,” she said. “I couldn’t possibly come here and claim I won’t do anything.”

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