Labor Notes | March 05, 2022
Starbucks Workers United (SWU) won its third store election February 28 in Mesa, Arizona. The vote was an overwhelming 25-3, with three additional contested ballots, despite heavy anti-union pressure from the company and in a state with only 5.4 percent union density.
“We led with kindness and care and just did our jobs in the face of union-busting from upper management,” said shift supervisor Liz Alanna, who helped lead the effort. Shift supervisors coordinate the day-to-day running of a store but are eligible for union membership because they don’t have hiring and firing power.
The Mesa store at Powerline and Baseline Roads became the first U.S. company-run store outside Buffalo to be unionized in the recent organizing wave.
Starbucks Workers United is now three for four in the elections held so far—and workers at more than 110 more locations have filed or announced their intention to unionize. A Canadian Starbucks also filed to unionize separately with the Steelworkers (USW) in January.
In Mesa, the company’s retaliation against a cancer-afflicted manager drove workers into the arms of SWU and Workers United, the Service Employees (SEIU) affiliate that has been supporting these union drives nationwide.
COLLAPSED ON THE FLOOR
‘It was just a huge slap in the face that our manager has leukemia, we never got support from another assistant store manager, and it was holiday season and we were getting slammed,” said Alanna.
The manager, 29-year-old Brittany Harrison, had been diagnosed with leukemia in October. Harrison requested paid leave, which was denied, and asked for an assistant manager to help at the store, which was also denied. She wanted to be able to make medical appointments and take care of herself as she coped with both the diagnosis and the illness.
But in November, when Harrison became aware of Starbucks’ planned union-busting strategy in Buffalo through a corporate meeting, she blew the whistle on the company. Harrison spoke anonymously to the media about a plan to send hundreds of managers to Buffalo Starbucks. She also made contact with Starbucks Worker United members in Buffalo.
Higher-ups stopped communicating with her. “I was getting ghosted by my supervisor and that sucked,” Harrison said. “My health was deteriorating.”
Starbucks company-owned stores are run by managers like Harrison, who have hiring and firing power and are not eligible to join barista unions. Above them are district managers who are responsible for multiple stores in the same area. Below them are assistant store managers, shift supervisors, and baristas, all of whom have been eligible to vote for the union. (NLRB regional directors so far have deferred the question of whether assistant store managers will ultimately be included in the bargaining unit to post-election proceedings.)
A bronchitis outbreak hit the store on November 10 and multiple workers called out. Harrison felt unwell November 11 and called out sick; the district manager told her that night she was not allowed to call out even though there were multiple shift supervisors present, and questioned her leadership ability.
The district manager went so far as to order Harrison to work the next day even though she had not been scheduled.
That night at 3 a.m., Harrison called her again to tell her she was too sick to work, but the district manager didn’t pick up her phone. Harrison even texted her photos of the temperature reader that showed she had a fever, but got no response.
The store was already short-staffed, and Harrison was forced to come in.
She ended up working until she collapsed to the floor after six hours. Unable to get up, she defecated on herself. Even then, she was forced to stay another hour because her district manager failed to send someone to cover for her in a timely way.
“This company will not be happy until I work myself to death,” Harrison remembers thinking. She put in her two weeks’ notice that day at the corporation she had once expected to retire at.
Starbucks fired her three days later, citing an “open investigation”; the charges were not disclosed to Harrison. Her Starbucks health benefits were cut off on November 16.
The coffee giant made $816 million in profits from roughly October through January and expanded by 484 stores in the quarter.
DON’T QUIT, UNIONIZE
Starbucks eventually tried to walk back the firing, claiming in a mass email to partners that it had never happened. By then, though, the cat was out of the bag.
When word spread through a group chat, “we were all really upset,” said Michelle Hejduk, a shift supervisor and worker leader. “People were talking about quitting. Somebody said ‘unionizing’—and everybody knew I was the main one that would talk about it with everybody.”
Hejduk had previously been an IATSE member in custodial work at Universal Studios in California and an SEIU member doing costuming at Disneyland.
She called Alanna that night; the two had talked politics before. Alanna remains a member of the American Guild of Musical Artists from her past work as an opera singer.
“Both of us were scared at first that we would get fired or lose our jobs,” Alanna said. She was pregnant and nearly due; she didn’t want to risk losing her family’s health insurance and owing thousands of dollars in hospital bills.
But after the pair talked with Workers United organizing adviser Richard Bensinger about legal protections for workers trying to unionize, they felt reassured enough to move forward.
By November 16, just four days after Harrison had collapsed in the store, the workers had enough cards to file for a union authorization election.
SWU raised $30,000 through crowdfunding to support Harrison, the uninsured and cancer-stricken whistleblower, in a striking display of reciprocal solidarity.
The Mesa store is not the only one where workers allege a retaliatory firing. In February, Starbucks fired seven unionizing workers in a Memphis store. Cassie Fleischer, a bargaining committee member, was also terminated from the Buffalo Elmwood location that was the first to win a union.
UNDERSTAFFING AND DISCRIMINATION
Like other Starbucks workers organizing around the country, Mesa baristas were motivated by understaffing, pressure to come to work sick, the company’s reluctance to stop accepting mobile orders when a store is overwhelmed, and a lack of worker voice.
“People who sit behind a computer do not know how to make a latte, do not know how to clean a toilet—we need to have a say,” said Alanna.
Many Starbucks workers around the country said that people tend to underestimate the amount of physical labor they’re required to do in an environment where there’s pressure to be efficient and customer-pleasing at all times. This includes everything from heavy lifting to being on your feet all day—in some shifts, for almost six hours with only a ten-minute break.
Another concern at the Mesa store was religious discrimination. Harrison, who is Jewish, filed a complaint against the district manager for anti-Semitism.
For example, when Harrison had a swastika painted on her house and the mezuzah torn off, the district manager suggested she should try to understand where the person who did it was coming from.
Harrison and workers in the store say that the district manager, whom Alanna described as “very Christian,” regularly prayed in meetings at which they were present.
“I’m Christian and even I find it very off-putting to have her reading a Christian story at the holiday meeting—I just think it’s weird,” Alanna said.
STALLING AND INTIMIDATION
There were 25 workers for the Mesa store the day they filed for election. But in a union-busting move, Starbucks started hiring. The number of eligible voters ended up at 43.
“They hired half the store just to say ‘no,’” Alanna said.
The company also flooded the store with management—another tactic it has repeated around the country.
Whereas when Harrison was diagnosed with cancer Starbucks wouldn’t add a single assistant manager to help the workers in Mesa, now it added three, plus two managers.
“We called them the babysitters,” Hejduk said. “We were not allowed to be there without them.” One day she was scheduled for the morning, but because a new manager couldn’t come in, the store did not open until 1 p.m.
The managers held captive group meetings (“listening sessions”) and one-on-ones to pressure workers over the union. One manager cried as she told a worker, “I want you to vote ‘no’.”
Hejduk found the episode “totally bizarre.”
“They’ve done so much wild stuff,” she said. “We’ve been desensitized to everything that’s happened.”
As it has done around the country, Starbucks argued to the NLRB that the appropriate bargaining unit would be the whole district, not just one store.
The company lost on this issue in a regional director’s ruling, but then filed an appeal with the NLRB’s head office. A ruling on the appeal was not made by February 16, the day the Mesa votes were to be counted, even though Starbucks had already lost on this issue at the NLRB in Buffalo.
As a result, the final vote count for the Mesa store was postponed pending a decision by the Board’s head office. It was eventually held on February 28.
The NLRB’s decision against Starbucks set the size of the bargaining unit at the store level rather than the district. This is expected to allow the Board to more quickly stop the company’s procedural delays on this issue moving forward.
As the organizing drive continues to build, SWU is building worker-to-worker contacts nationwide.
The day the Mesa workers filed their cards with the NLRB, they met over Zoom with Colin Cochran, a Buffalo-based SWU member, who told them what union-busting tactics to expect.
“Starbucks uses the same playbook everywhere and we know the ins and outs of it,” Cochran said over email. “It’s really fulfilling to be able to help other stores.”
And among the Mesa workers themselves, Alanna said the process of organizing has forged a new sense of community.
“Previous to this, night workers might never talk to day workers,” she said. Now they’re all on the same group chat, and are going out for food and attending parties together.
“I’ve worked in four different stores and I’ve never felt this kind of camaraderie before,” Alanna said.