Labor’s brewing renaissance: Union drives gain steam at Starbucks, other coffee shops

The success of SEIU in organizing baristas in Chicago has lead to the arduous task of negotiating first contracts in settings where worker turnover can be high.

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Starbucks workers held a one-day strike Aug. 30 at the store at 5964 N. Ridge Ave.

Starbucks workers held a one-day strike Aug. 30 at the store at 5964 N. Ridge Ave.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

If there’s really a renaissance going on in the American labor movement, it’s a heavily caffeinated one.

Coffee shops across the country have delivered a buzz for union organizing, especially at Starbucks. Some Chicagoans in recent weeks, visiting Starbucks for their morning joe, have encountered staff dramatizing grievances by walking a picket line.

The one-day walkouts, permitted under labor law, have occurred at Starbucks stores where employees have approved union membership. They’ve voted to join Workers United, part of the Service Employees International Union, which has been winning 80% of union elections at Starbucks stores nationwide.

With that success comes a daunting responsibility — negotiating the first labor contracts for the workers. Getting management and labor to agree on language for the first time commonly takes more than a year. For Starbucks workers, it could tax the patience of a young and low-paid workforce that’s prone to move on.

But at a one-day strike last week at a Starbucks at 5964 N. Ridge Ave., workers said they were determined to stick with the fight. Barista Chris Trascapoulos said the company already is “dragging things out. They won’t even talk to us.”

The workers approved union representation during a federally supervised vote in May.

They said managers have retaliated against some pro-union workers by arbitrarily cutting hours — costing some people health coverage. They also cited long-standing pay inequities with wage rates unconnected to years of experience.

Ryan Kiefer, a shift supervisor at another unionized Starbucks at 6350 N. Broadway, joined the Ridge store’s picketing in solidarity. “People have a real sense of purpose,” he said. A manager at the Ridge store would not speak with a reporter.

The employees’ resolve fits the national mood. In an annual Gallup survey taken in August, 71% of Americans favored unions, the highest level since 1965. In 2009, just 48% backed unions, Gallup said.

Union organizing at a range of employers, from a giant Amazon warehouse on Staten Island to cannabis stores in Chicago, has kept the National Labor Relations Board busy. The NLRB, which oversees workplace union votes, said for the first nine months of the current fiscal year, it’s gotten more petitions for labor votes than it received all of the prior year.

Two other Chicago-area coffee chains have unionized. In a huge win for Local 1220 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, about 400 workers at Colectivo Coffee in Illinois and Wisconsin have joined the union. Local 1220 also won representation rights at Intelligentsia’s five coffee shops in Chicago.

On the Starbucks picket line, workers sensed the balance of power is shifting away from employers.

“What’s unique is our group has a very wide range in tenure” on the job, Trascapoulos said. He said he’s been at Starbucks for nine months, but others have been around for years. “I think everyone is here to stay. We’re very passionate about this fight,” he said.

Trascapoulos is a member of a national committee the workers formed to open talks with Starbucks. The plan is to get the company to agree to nationwide terms, with local add-ons.

Erin Briggs joins other Starbucks workers in a strike outside the coffeehouse at 5964 N. Ridge Ave., where Briggs has worked for nearly four years,

Erin Briggs joined other Starbucks workers in a strike Aug. 30 outside the coffeehouse at 5964 N. Ridge Ave., where Briggs has worked for nearly four years,

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

But the strategy hatched with SEIU carries enormous risk. Starbucks, while affirming its obligation to bargain “in good faith,” has insisted the negotiations proceed only on a store-by-store basis.

That would mean 233 stores, using the National Labor Relations Board’s latest count of unionized Starbucks shops across the U.S. In the Chicago area, seven Starbucks have voted for the union and three rejected it.

The coffee chain has about 9,000 stores in the United States. The company has argued a union is unnecessary.

Starbucks is turning SEIU’s organizing strategy against it. During NLRB election hearings, the union successfully argued that each store, with an average headcount of about two dozen workers, deserved independent representation. Starbucks wanted union balloting at all stores within a district, which would have given it a greater chance of winning.

A Starbucks spokesperson did not answer questions about tactics in its union fight but provided a copy of a letter the company sent to Lynne Fox, SEIU international president, in August.

The letter from Starbucks Vice President May Jensen said, “With respect to the union’s demand to bargain on a national basis, it bears reminding that Workers United has, from the very outset, only filed petitions seeking to represent partners at individual Starbucks stores. … Given this established history, Workers United has no basis to now seek to bargain contracts on anything but a single store basis.”

SEIU officials were not available to comment last week.

The union’s strategy contrasts with that of the IBEW coffee klatch, which put groups of locations under one bargaining unit. “There’s power in numbers,” said Brett Lyons, business representative at Local 1220. He said the SEIU approach is risky. “It’s a lot more challenging. You’re going to drain your time and resources negotiating for small groups of people,” Lyons said.

He said IBEW hopes to have a contract at Colectivo by early next year. Bargaining has yet to start at Intelligentsia, where workers have been surveyed about priorities in a first contract, he said.

“We’re seeing progress at Colectivo. It’s really an incredible group of young people,” Lyons said.

Much of what’s happening in organizing appears due to labor’s youth movement. A left-leaning think tank, the Center for Economic and Policy Research, put its finger on why.

It analyzed the job market for workers under 35 and found that, after controlling for other factors, union membership meant an 11.3% increase in hourly wages. It also meant more access to employer-sponsored health insurance and retirement plans.

Still, unions’ share of all U.S. workers is only 10.3%, the same level as in 2019, before the pandemic caused the data to fluctuate. Union membership was twice that level in 1983.

Today’s organizers will need their youthful energy for what’s ahead.

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