Starbucks union campaign reaches 5 Chicago-area sites

Employees have filed petitions with the National Labor Relations Board seeking a union election, part of a national organizing effort with the Service Employees International Union.

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The Starbucks at 155 N. Wabash Ave., seen here in January.

Employees at the Starbucks at 155 N. Wabash Ave. were the coffee chain’s first in the Midwest to seek union representation.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times file

A union organizing drive among Starbucks workers that started locally at a downtown store has spread to four more locations in the Chicago area.

Working with an affiliate of the Service Employees International Union, the employees have petitioned the National Labor Relations Board for elections to certify their bargaining rights. The NLRB, which runs union authorization elections, has yet to decide when the Chicago-area workers can vote.

Employees at the Starbucks at 155 N. Wabash Ave. were the first in the area to file for a union election. They submitted their petition late last year. Since then, staff at two more Chicago stores and two in the suburbs have requested elections.

The Chicago stores are in Logan Square, 2543 N. California Ave., and Hyde Park, 1174 E. 55th St. The suburban sites are 38 S. La Grange Road, La Grange, and 620 Northwest Highway, Cary.

The local organizing is part of a national campaign by SEIU-offshoot Workers United that has drawn interest from staff at about 100 Starbucks across the United States. Organizers said the effort gained momentum in early December when workers at two Starbucks in Buffalo, New York, voted to unionize.

“This has been totally a movement — very homegrown,” said Carlos Ginard, assistant manager at the Chicago branch of Workers United. He said store employees have already started to build solidarity before they contact the union.

“It’s very admirable to see young workers organize. It’s a breath of fresh air for the labor movement,” Ginard said.

The five Chicago-area stores account for about 115 workers seeking union membership, said Grace Easterby, an organizer at Workers United.

Jasper Booth-Hodges, a barista at the Hyde Park store, said he supports the union even though he likes his managers and how his facility operates. “Things can be better, but they can also get worse,” he said. “The union means we have a say in how things work.”

One area for improvement, he said, is a vacation policy requiring employees to be on staff for a year before they accrue time off.

The company has argued that employees — partners, in its corporate language — don’t need a union. It has said it supports employees who want to organize, but it has adopted a stance in NLRB hearings that union backers insist is a delaying tactic, giving it more time to pressure employees to vote no.

Starbucks has argued that union elections should occur not within individual stores but in stores grouped by company districts. The NLRB, however, has rejected that argument in the Buffalo organizing and in pending cases in Arizona.

A company spokesperson declined to say if Starbucks will drop its vote-by-district arguments but emphasized it will respect NLRB rulings and bargain in good faith, as the law requires.

“We are listening and learning from the partners in these stores as we always do across the country,” the spokesperson said. “Starbucks’ success — past, present, and future — is built on how we partner together, always with our mission and values at our core. Our belief is that we are better together as partners, without a union between us, and that conviction has not changed.”

Starbucks has about 9,000 stores in the United States, so the union effort still involves just a sliver of its operations. But it marks a rare incursion of unions into chain-store food and beverages, a business segment with many young workers, often students, and with frequent employee turnover.

But Easterby said some Starbucks workers have at least five years of tenure.

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

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