Union loses 2 of 3 elections at Starbucks in Chicago

The votes mark an unusual setback for a campaign led by Workers United, part of the Service Employees International Union, that has spread across the country.

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A customer leaves a Starbucks at 2543 N. California Ave. on Tuesday, June 7, 2022.

Workers at the Starbucks at 2543 N. California Ave. voted against unionizing.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Chicago, sometimes called the “hometown of the American labor movement,” dealt a setback Tuesday to the nationwide union organizing drive targeting Starbucks. In a ballot count for three city locations, employees at two of the stores rejected union membership.

Baristas and other eligible workers assigned to stores at 155 N. Wabash Ave. and 2543 N. California Ave. opted not to join Workers United, part of the Service Employees International Union. Staff assigned to a store at 1174 E. 55th St. narrowly voted in favor of the union.

The National Labor Relations Board, the federal agency that oversees union organizing, counted the mailed ballots during a Zoom session that included representatives of labor and management. The NLRB has been inundated with organizing petitions for Starbucks stores across the country, and Workers United has won the overwhelming majority of elections so far.

In the Chicago area, the union has now suffered three defeats against four victories. Last month, Starbucks workers in LaGrange rejected the union. Workers United has won representation votes for a store in Cary and two in Chicago’s Edgewater neighborhood.

Each store that unionizes becomes its own bargaining unit, with the right to negotiate its own contract with the company. Starbucks has aggressively fought the union drive.

Responding to the Chicago votes, a company spokesperson said, “Starbucks is pleased to see that partners have voted to continue our direct relationship.”

The votes rejecting union affiliation were 6-7 at the Wabash Avenue store and 8-10 at the California Avenue store. The 55th Street store staff backed Workers United by a 5-3 vote.

The NLRB said last week it has filed 57 charges against the company alleging unfair labor practices, including the unlawful firing of some workers involved in union organizing. The allegations involve incidents outside the Chicago area.

Asked about those charges, the Starbucks spokesperson said, “Any claims of anti-union activity are categorically false. We respect our partners’ right to organize.”

The national organizing drive, which started last year with stores in Buffalo, New York, has been intense despite the challenge of mobilizing employees across small, scattered sites. The organizing now covers nearly 300 Starbucks in 38 stores, according to a tally the pro-union group More Perfect Union publishes. The group said the union has won 122 elections so far against only 13 defeats, a count issued before Tuesday’s voting. Starbucks has more than 9,000 stores in the United States.

Starbucks workers have cited better pay and benefits and more say in scheduling as being among their priorities. The company has said it offers workers better terms than they might get under a union contract.

Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz has countered the union campaign by raising salaries for workers across the board and by promising improved benefits but only for stores not involved in organizing.

Schultz’s tactics have taken momentum from some of the union’s efforts, said Jasper Booth-Hodges, a barista at the store on 55th Street. He said the three locations that had their votes counted Tuesday filed organizing petitions months ago and have seen staff turnover since then.

He said Starbucks managers have intimidated some workers in the Chicago area. As for alleged retaliatory firings, Booth-Hodges said, “It has happened all over the country. I’m waiting for it to happen here.”

But he said a union contract can address important issues such as poor staffing levels during certain shifts. He also said he has earned only three days of vacation despite working at Starbucks for two years.

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