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Workers at a Loop Starbucks join push to unionize

The staff at the 155 N. Wabash Ave. location are the chain’s first in the Midwest to seek representation with the Service Employees International Union.

Starbucks at 155 S Wabash Ave, Monday, Jan. 3, 2022. The Employees have have filed for a union election, the first Starbucks in the Midwest to do so.
Workers at a Chicago Starbucks have requested a union certification vote.
Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

Workers at a downtown Starbucks have become the first in the Midwest to request a union certification vote at the coffee chain, which is facing organizing drives at other outlets around the country.

Employees at the 155 N. Wabash Ave. store submitted signed cards Thursday seeking to join an affiliate of the Service Employees International Union. The cards were turned in to the National Labor Relations Board, a federal agency that oversees union organizing drives.

An overwhelming majority of the store’s roughly 14 workers, most of them part time, signed cards asking for an election, organizers said. Pete DeMay, organizing director with SEIU affiliate Workers United, said he hopes the NLRB will hold a hearing on the request later this month and schedule an election for a few weeks later.

Workers at the Wabash store said they want a voice in their wages and working conditions, with safety being a principal concern. They said that with crime more common in the Loop, they’ve had numerous instances of customers getting abusive or threatening. Some confrontations involve the requirement that customers wear face masks when not eating or drinking, they said.

“We don’t feel our safety issues are being listened to by the company,” said Brick Zurek, a shift supervisor and a Starbucks employee for two and a half years. Zurek said Starbucks needs to post a security guard at the store during certain hours.

Sonni Miller, a barista, said a visiting executive overruled employees who, acting on their own, banned an abusive customer from the store. Miller also said workers want improvements in wages that generally start about $15 or $16 per hour.

Starbucks is known for employee benefits considered progressive for the retail or restaurant businesses, such as tuition reimbursement and paid parental leave. But the workers said some benefits can be improved and could start immediately rather than after workers reach a minimum level of service time.

“It’s a company that does some things right,” DeMay said. “The mission is noble. There are enough things done right that it keeps people there.” But he said that means workers need improved wages and benefits to justify building a career at Starbucks.

In response, the company provided public statements from its top executives, including one from Starbucks North America President Rossann Williams asserting a commitment to “fairness and equity for our partners,” the company’s word for its employees. A spokesperson had no immediate response to the concerns about safety at the Wabash store.

Starbucks workers at a Buffalo, New York, outlet in December became the chain’s first location with a unionized work force after the NLRB certified the election results. Workers United also is involved in organizing drives at Starbucks elsewhere in New York, Massachusetts, Arizona and Tennessee.

The employees have called on the company to stop anti-union tactics it describes as intimidating, such as one-on-one meetings in which managers pressure rank-and-file workers to reject union membership.

The workers on Wabash filed their petition with employees at a Starbucks in Bloomfield, Colorado. DeMay said that within hours of the filing, some of the Colorado workers lost their homes due to wildfires but that all are reported to be safe.

Workers United said it represents 86,000 employees in diverse industries in the United States and Canada.