Starbucks barista Darrow Pierce added a new fixture to their work wardrobe last week: a Starbucks Workers United pin, complete with a diagonal rainbow filling in the union’s logo.
It’s a physical representation of the announcement their store, the Starbucks at 19th and J Street in Midtown Sacramento, made on Feb. 17: The store’s workers, or “partners”, as Starbucks calls them, are filing to unionize under Starbucks Workers United, alongside the 7th and K Street Starbucks located in the Downtown Commons complex.
Along with safety concerns organizers at both stores cited in letters to Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, Pierce says one big problem is that they and fellow workers are “overworked, underpaid, overstressed.”
Some of the Starbucks Workers United pins organizers have been wearing and sharing with supporters.Courtesy Darrow Pierce
“I love that we were able to file with 7th and K, because it shows that this is not just at our store,” Pierce said. “This is a district-wide problem, this is actually a country-wide problem that’s happening all over the United States. And we are not okay with it anymore, and we’re doing something about it.”
In response to the unionization, Starbucks said in a statement that it believes “we can achieve more together by working side-by-side with our partners.”
“We're aware that a subset of partners feel differently, and we respect their right to organize and to engage in lawful union activities,” the company said.
Joining the wave of organizing across Starbucks stores starting in late 2021, the two stores are the first in the Sacramento area to announce their intent to unionize. Workers at both Starbucks say they’re hoping a union will help them create a safer workplace where they’re supported financially, physically and emotionally, fulfilling the company’s promise of “investing in their [partners’] health, well-being and success.”
Security concerns, physical safety and higher wages among reasons for unionizing
The 7th & K and 19th & J stores are the 41st and 42nd stores in California to file for a union election; the nearest store that sought to unionize was in Roseville, which filed a year ago but withdrew its petition.
Across the state, 18 stores have successfully unionized; stores in Santa Cruz, San Francisco and Santa Clara are among the unionized Northern California locations.
Not only does the move reflect growing numbers of Starbucks workers interested in unionizing, but it follows a wave of labor action in the area — including other coffeeshop organizing at Peet’s in North Davis, of which Starbucks Workers United organizers assisted.
The increased uptick in labor organizing, said Dr. Maria Quintana, a labor historian at Sacramento State, can partially be credited to “soaring company profits” that aren’t trickling down to workers.
Across 2022, the company made over $22 billion, a 5% increase over the previous year. With a few exceptions — most noticeably in 2020 — Starbucks has increased its profits year-over-year over the past decade.
“It’s not that there’s a shortage of people willing to work today, but that there is a shortage of safe, good-paying and sustainable jobs,” she said.
One of the main people spearheading the campaign at the 7th & K store is Nick Medeiros, who started working at the location just over a year ago. He said unionization represents the ability for Starbucks partners to “create a better workplace for ourselves.”
“There wasn’t one specific event that led us to this decision, rather a multitude of severe incidents that put our safety at risk,” he told CapRadio via text.
Baristas say it took just over a month for both stores to begin accelerating discussions about unionization, leading to the public campaign announcement and filed petitions on Feb. 17.
In their letter to Howard Schultz, Medeiros and several other workers at the 7th & K store list “harassment, staring and vulgarities,” “violent and disruptive patrons” and “severe misuse of restrooms” as factors that decrease safety.
Starbucks Workers United, in a FAQ page, notes organization policies, rights on the jobs and health and safety conditions as some of the issues it can bargain to include in its contract.
The outside of the 19th & J Starbucks location, located in the heart of Midtown, as pictured on Feb. 27, 2023.Janelle Salanga/CapRadio
Rachel Holman, an organizer at the 19th & J store, has worked at the location for over six years. She says cups and drinks are among the items that have been thrown at her, and she’s had poop smeared on her while at work.
“We’re not allowed to have any form of self-defense on us, including pepper spray or pocket knives, anything like that,” she said. “When a customer comes in who starts throwing stuff at us, we're supposed to just politely smile and ask them to leave.”
And while shift leads at the store are undergoing de-escalation training, Pierce, the other lead organizer at 19th & J, noted that it just adds more workload on people who are expected to be both barista and manager, all in one.
“They then also have this additional security guard position put on them,” they said.
Last August, the Starbucks on 15th & Broadway became the first Northern California location closed in response to “safety concerns” from the company.
Workers said they would also like to see a contract with guaranteed hours, under which part-time workers will not earn less than 20 hours, full-time workers will not earn less than 35 hours, and wages tied to cost of living in Sacramento, added Holman.
“Our wages would be increasing because baristas can’t afford rent,” she said. “If they can’t schedule you for more than 17 hours, you will still get paid for 20 hours, so your benefits are also protected.”
Medeiros, the 7th & K organizer, said he himself lives in low-income housing.
In Sacramento, a living wage is $19.20 an hour for a single adult working full-time; according to a company job posting, baristas at the 19th & J store make anywhere in the starting salary range of $16.00 to $18.16 an hour.
The company said in a statement that over the past year, it had announced “nearly $1 billion in partner-focused investments, which have been implemented broadly.” Those include “bringing the average wage for a partner in the U.S. to $17.50 per hour” and new credit and debit card tipping options.
However, those investments have only been implemented at non-union stores, leading to the company being charged by the National Labor Relations Board last year for illegally discriminating against workers.
In emails obtained by CapRadio, Starbucks sends weekly updates that, among other things, detail upcoming and current changes to benefits and wages — with the bullet-pointed caveat that those don’t apply for union stores. The company insists that it’s unlawful for any employer to change wages and benefits in any way after a company announces intent to unionize or successfully unionizes.
But Holman cites the practice as one way the company dissuades people from unionizing.
“Starbucks has been relying on their excellent image that they have cultivated over the years — they act like this progressive company, but progressive companies don't let their partners live on food stamps, they don't let their partners live in low-income housing,” she said.
What’s next for the stores
After filing petitions to their regional National Labor Relations Board for unionization, the stores must wait to hear back about an election date, as the NLRB checks whether the union is qualified and has no existing contracts or recent elections, within 6 months.
Starbucks said in a statement to CapRadio that it has “fully honored the process laid out by the NLRB for single-store union representation elections, has encouraged partners to exercise their right to vote and has recognized the outcome of properly conducted elections.”
“Should partners at our 7th & K and 19th [&] J Street stores vote in favor of union representation, we look forward to meeting Workers United in-person to begin the single-store collective bargaining process,” the company statement said.
As they wait for a confirmed election date, baristas at both stores say they’ve already received an outpouring of support from the community. Elected officials stopped at the stores this week to show support, including Assemblymember Ash Kalra, a Democrat who represents the San Jose area.
“There have been people who, [when] I’ve told them, they’ve just started yelling a bunch of expletives — which I will not repeat — really joyfully,” Pierce at 19th & J said.
Darrow Pierce and Rachel Holman, the lead organizers at the 19th & J Starbucks. Both don Starbucks Workers United buttons.Janelle Salanga/CapRadio
Medeiros said he expects the election to be scheduled within four to seven weeks, and is “very confident” in both the success of the union drive and Starbucks coming to the negotiation table.
However, “their history of union busting does have us concerned,” he said.
Despite the union’s founding in Dec. 2021, at a Starbucks Buffalo, NY location, Starbucks Workers United doesn’t yet have a contract.
In Dec. 2022, the NLRB found Starbucks guilty of illegally refusing to negotiate at 21 unionized locations across Washington and Oregon, and unionized Starbucks baristas have leveled hundreds of unfair labor practice charges against the company.
On its end, Starbucks has filed over 40 unfair labor practice charges against Starbucks Workers United; among them, NPR found, are claims that bargaining teams went against rules by recording negotiation sessions and sharing recordings online.
Holman said as of Monday, she and others at 19th & J are working on filing two unfair labor practice charges of their own against the company.
A simple majority vote is needed for unionization.
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