By Brandon Hill
In 2022, 12 Starbucks stores in Massachusetts have unionized, joining over 200 stores nationwide. The service sector is the latest component of a surge in union membership and activity alongside Greater Boston educators in a new labor movement.
Read the previous story: “Massachusetts’ teachers unions rally for fair contracts after tough years”
The fastest growth of union membership is in the private sector, led by the rapidly spreading unionization of service industries. In April of this year, the first Amazon warehouse voted to unionize in Staten Island, New York. At the end of July, a Trader Joe’s in Hadley, Massachusetts passed the company’s first successful union vote and is likely to be followed by other stores. In December of last year, the first Starbucks coffee shop voted to unionize in Buffalo, New York. As of June, It has since been followed by over 230 other stores in the chain petitioning for a vote.
On a chart, this spike in unionization efforts would closely resemble individual industries of the early 20th-century labor movement, but Starbucks’ unionization is younger, more diverse and driven by broader causes than just the economic condition of the laborers. Just as with Greater Boston’s teachers’ unions, the primary catalyst for the surge in activity comes from the working conditions of the COVID-19 pandemic and its handling by employers.
“I think COVID really emboldened us to make a change,” said Kylah Clay, a 24-year-old barista and union organizer at the freshly unionized Starbucks in Allston. “For the first time in a while, I think we were really questioning our workplace. We’ve all been desensitized from our working conditions and we’re disconnected from the fight that really took place for us to have rights in our workplace.”
As union membership has steadily declined by more than half in the last 80 years, worker’s rights have gained little ground in the rapidly evolving workplace, and income inequality has grown exponentially. Even the 2008 financial crisis had little effect on overall rates of union membership.
“When we had them, we actually made some advances, you came to accept those advances as a given right,” said Brian Obach, author of “Labor and the Environmental Movement” in an interview. “Unions took a beating throughout the ‘70s, ‘80s, ‘90s. Now, we don’t have them anymore, and now we don’t have those rights anymore. You know, it’s as straightforward as that. You need to be organized to fight for these things or you’re not going to have them, and we don’t. We haven’t, and we don’t.”
Many of the rights that were earned by unions over the last century have slipped away, such as the ability to sustain yourself, let alone a family, on the 40 hour work week, or to have affordable access to healthcare and job security if struck by sickness or injury. The rights that Obach was referring to are taken for granted on a wide scale by those who have them but bluntly and painful absent for those who don’t. At some point during the decline of union membership and the U.S. economy’s transition from industrial work to service work, public opinion slowly shifted to the point where we’re again debating whether 40 hours a week at a minimum wage job should earn someone the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
But the working conditions of the COVID-19 pandemic have sparked a change.
“We are some of the people who get put through the most shit every day. Honestly, people like to shit on service jobs,” said Ash O’Neil, a 22-year-old barista-organizer from the Allston Starbucks in an interview. “With the pandemic, with everyone calling service workers essential workers… we should have more rights and more of a say in our workplace.”
With rapidly changing COVID store policies and a surge of irate customers posing a health risk, such as those who would refuse to wear a mask, baristas felt the corporate chain didn’t have their back. When Starbucks stopped enforcing mask mandates, because they weren’t federally mandated, many of the workers requested the mandate be brought back and were ignored.
“I had a coworker who was on the fence when I first started talking to her about union stuff,” said Willow Montana, a 29-year-old shift leader at the Coolidge Corner Starbucks, which unionized the same day as the Allston Starbucks. “She’s a very COVID cautious person, and when she learned that one of the things we would have a better say in is the policies and possibly being able to enforce masks again, that’s what got her on board. I think that was true for a lot of people.”
The pandemic suddenly gave many workers a unified reason to exercise their rights to their clientele, but also to their employers. Part of that battle starts with understanding your rights in the first place. Something that the younger, more digital-savvy generation that makes up the bulk of the Starbucks workforce may have better access to than previous generations. All three of the barista-organizers interviewed for this story turned to online barista groups at some point during the pandemic.
“I didn’t know what some of the new rules were at work, so I’d look on Reddit to see if there’s any clarification,” Clay said. “That was where I saw a lot of conversation actually about unionizing. Or like early conversations about the frustrations of work and really getting to see what is happening on a more widespread level.”
Once the Buffalo store won its union vote, the digital groundwork was already laid for the movement to spread. The Allston store announced its petition for a vote on the same day. The Coolidge Corner store soon followed. The digital connectivity of the Starbucks baristas took advantage of two corporate-side ironies. The first, a follow-through on the ever-popular “we’re a family here” corporate lingo, and the second a reversal of Starbucks’ attempts at union busting.
“How often have you fired a family member?” Obach said. “How often have you denied healthcare to a sick family member?”
“I hate the whole, ‘oh we’re all a family so therefore we should be able to grin and bear whatever shitty thing is happening that day,’ or understaffing and all that. That’s not the mentality I want when I think of my coworkers as family,” Montana said. “Calling yourself a union is a lot better than calling yourself a family, is what I’m trying to say. We’re there for each other the way that a ‘family’ would.”
Montana’s Coolidge Corner store went on strike earlier this year to protest unsafe working conditions after management failed to address a ceiling leak that left standing water on the floor and in the prep area. Solidarity between baristas extends beyond the reach of each individual store, however. Seeing how the Starbucks corporation responded to the Buffalo store’s petition for a union vote was actually a major contributor to the Allston store’s move to unionize.
“We had been talking about it a bit at work,” O’Neil said. “Like, ‘did you hear what’s going on in Buffalo? Isn’t it so messed up?’ Hearing about, the listening sessions and all the backlash they were getting from corporate was making all of us very mad. And we kind of got the sense that pretty much all of our co-workers, because we were already so close, we’re on the same page about it.”
Because the baristas in Buffalo had already gone through the anti-union push from corporate and succeeded in unionizing, they were prepared to help the Allston and Clevland Circle stores through the same process. Clay said that during the mandatory listening sessions, where the corporate chain divided the employees into groups to discuss their grievances and the pitfalls of unionizing, the baristas were already equipped with counterpoints and the confidence to speak up. They were more inclined to stick together than go along.
“It’s simply because we have the green aprons. We’re workers,” Clay said. “They wear those aprons, they clean the floors, they make the drinks, they do all that shitty stuff that we have to do as workers. And I think there’s that’s class solidarity that’s just like, innate in us.”