As the worker-led unionizing effort at Starbucks cafes has grown since the first drive in Buffalo, New York, won its election in 2021, university students across the country have reconsidered their school’s financial relationships with one of the most prolific union-busters in modern history.
Strikingly, many young, queer-identifying workers are leading the unionization effort. Starbucks self-reports that the average age of a barista is 24 years old, and most are either students or individuals who plan to attend college. Starbucks works hard to cultivate a progressive image, advertising its health care and education benefits to full- and part-time employees.
Yet, the company has been accused of over 1,100 violations of federal labor law in recent years, including terminating union organizers and refusing to bargain in good faith.
Starbucks, like Amazon and Apple, has conducted its union-busting effort with the help of the world’s largest management-side labor and employment law firm, Littler Mendelson. Littler’s strategy utilizes the intricacies of labor law to block organizing efforts and, when unions still succeed in winning elections, to delay bargaining indefinitely. Littler’s lawyers make the case that individual stores should not be allowed to hold union elections but rather that all stores in a geographic region must vote together in a single election. So far, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has rejected this argument as case law has usually presumed a single-store bargaining unit in the retail food sector. Delaying bargaining allows Starbucks to drive up union costs and intimidate workers.
Since 1955, union membership in the United States has steadily declined, settling at just 12 percent despite sustained approval for unions, which has never fallen below 48 percent, according to a recent Gallup study. Rick Fantasia and Kim Voss, in their book Hard Work: Remaking the American Labor Movement, trace the start of this decline to the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act, which eroded union security by prohibiting secondary boycotts and jurisdictional strikes, enabling “right to work” laws, granting presidential authority to intervene in strikes, and rigidifying the union certification process. Widening the gap between leadership and rank-and-file members, Taft-Hartley introduced formal labor board elections, standardized grievance procedures, and implemented automatic dues deductions. These measures, followed by the financial deregulation of the 1980s, secured the dominance of conservative “business unionism” over egalitarian rank-and-file unionism, discouraging the expression of any solidarity seen as a threat to the existing order.
The service sector is built on the three pillars of high sales volume, low labor costs, and high technology, necessitating high levels of labor “flexibility,” which is easier to achieve with a nonunion part-time labor force. According to a U.S. Chamber of Commerce report, workers in accommodation and food services have had the highest quit rate among all industries since July 2021 amid the COVID-19 pandemic. These often low-paid jobs require in-person attendance, posing health risks to workers and elevating stress levels in the workplace.
Decades of stagnant wages, the pandemic, a surplus of service job openings, and a dissatisfied young workforce have urged workers to grow more assertive. As of August 2023, 337 Starbucks stores and over 8,500 workers in the United States have voted to unionize with Workers United, a Service Employee International Union affiliate. Their success can be partially attributed to the campaign’s emphasis on worker-led organizing that seeks to engage as many workers as possible in organizational decision-making and contract bargaining.