It has been over two years since the first set of company-owned Starbucks stores, located in Buffalo, NY, won their vote to unionize. Their story of struggle and solidarity inspired workers across the US and led to a wave of unionization campaigns in Starbucks locations all over the country. In that time over 245 stores have joined the union.1 Starbucks workers, suffering from low staffing, high turnover, productivity quotas and much more, have begun to realize the power they hold as a class. All this to the dismay of the capitalist class, which has attempted to kill these efforts since the very beginning. Their union busting methods are neither new nor surprising. After all, with diametrically opposed interests, a win for the working class is necessarily a loss for the capitalists, and Starbucks knows this. In war, one of the most basic principles is to study your enemy’s tactics, not only to understand what to expect but also to devise countering plans, mitigating their successes and, with enough planning, rendering them useless. The class struggle is very similar in this way. So what has been Starbucks’ union busting strategy? We only need to look at its response to the unionization efforts in Buffalo to see.
Almost as soon as workers went public about their desire for a union, Starbucks flooded their stores with managers. One store, which before had operated without an assistant manager, was quickly inundated with dozens of corporate executives and even two support managers.2 So many out-of-town managers were sent in that, as one barista noted, the managers outnumbered those who voted in the first three elections.2 For their part, Starbucks has claimed that the increased manager presence is part of standard company practices intended to help improve training and staffing. Of course, this is a lie meant to obscure their real aim: intimidation and surveillance. Managers are there to watch everything the baristas do in order to subvert any and all efforts to unionize. This fact is not lost on the workers either. They see this as a clear union busting tactic, one which only adds to the issues they are facing. As Michelle Eisen, a Starbucks worker of over ten years, explains, “It is not an easy job. It should not be complicated further by feeling like you’re having everything you’re doing or saying watched and listened to.”3 The surveillance is so bad that, in some stores, workers report months where any conversation between baristas happened no more than ten feet from a manager.4
These new managers quickly began to hold captive audience meetings. A common union busting tactic, these mandatory meetings are called by employers for the sole purpose of pushing anti-union rhetoric onto employees. In an attempt to obscure the anti-worker character of this tactic, Starbucks has taken to calling them “listening sessions, a silly and underhanded maneuver, painting them as an opportunity for baristas to voice their concerns so that they can be addressed, when really Starbucks has no intention of doing so. For the most part, managers spend most of these meetings attacking the union, attempting to cast doubt upon organizers, or otherwise sowing distrust between the workers and the union. One barista described how they felt that management was trying to “indoctrinate” them and other new hires into distrusting those organizing.4
To make matters worse, when workers air out their grievances at these meetings (e.g. issues with staffing or lack of training), these grievances are later used against them. Starbucks uses these complaints as justification for closing stores, either temporarily for remodeling, or permanently for training. Of course, the stores chosen just so happen to be stores with major union support. In this way, the anti-worker character of these “listening sessions” is completely exposed. It is not uncommon for these meetings to see a single barista isolated and surrounded by multiple managers. This was the experience of Will Westlake, a barista from the Buffalo area. Will recounts how he was the only one called into an offsite meeting with six managers. They urged him to reject the union, taking turns to praise the benefits provided to them and insinuating that should the store unionize these benefits could be taken away.2
Related to this is the abundance of manager-worker one-on-ones. Baristas are pulled from the floor, often during peak hours, for these meetings, all so that managers can further spread anti-union talking points and sow distrust. These meetings only exacerbate the existing issue of understaffing, since workers are constantly being pulled for one-on-ones regardless of how busy it is. One shift supervisor, Angel Krempa, recounts, “It’s been really stressful, especially when there are times when they come in a group of four or five of them to talk to every single person on the floor. It’s 10am, peak coffee time, and we’re trying to keep up business while they’re trying to do one-on-one meetings with people to gauge what’s going on with them, and that’s been frustrating.”2
Another part of Starbucks’ union-busting strategy has been the closure of stores. Only a few months after the union campaign in Buffalo went public, Starbucks closed two of its stores, one in Elmwood village and another in Cheektowaga. The closure in Elmwood was, according to Starbucks, temporary and due to scheduled renovations. The timing of these renovations are more than a little suspicious, especially since they had previously been repeatedly postponed. As one barista notes, it was not until they had close to 100% union support in their store that Starbucks decided to close it for renovations.5 The store in Cheektowaga was permanently closed and turned into a “training facility” for new hires. The company claims that training stores like this are “one of the more common tools we use when supporting partners in a market.” But for workers in the area, not only is this practice unheard of, but it also makes no sense. According to them, individual stores are so different from each other that it makes no sense to train new hires in a store other than the one they will be working at. To them, it is clear that these training stores are nothing more than a way for Starbucks to vet new hires, check for pro-union sympathies, and push an anti-union narrative before they even step foot in a normal store.5
Starbucks claims that these closures are not a union-busting tactic at all, but rather an example of them listening to their employees, a response to complaints of understaffing and lack of training. As Reggie Borges, a Starbucks spokesperson, says, “The listening sessions led to requests from partners that resulted in those actions.”5 This is how worker complaints are used by Starbucks as a smokescreen for its union busting. They take legitimate grievances and twist them for their own nefarious aims, while claiming a moral high ground by feigning concern for their “partners”.
Regardless of what they say, the fact remains that these closures only serve the interests of Starbucks as a company. These closures are how the company is able to intervene in the union campaign, by disrupting voting units. Baristas from closed stores are transferred to another store, which increases the number of voting workers. For example, the store in Cheektowaga, which had all 21 employees sign a union election petition, saw its voting unit expanded to 46 with its closure. Another store had 80% of baristas sign union authorization cards when Starbucks closed it and transferred them to other stores.2 Stores which were well on their way to holding elections and, given the level of support, likely to unionize were disrupted, the organizers forced to continue campaigning, all under the cover of helping their “partners.”
Terminations are another part of Starbucks’ union busting strategy. Since its first stores began to unionize, Starbucks has employed this tactic regularly across several stores. The firing of organizers has been a common practice by the capitalist class since the inception of the labor movement. Workers who have gained the confidence of their fellow proletarians, rallying them in confrontation with the bosses, are dangerous to the capitalists. Understanding this, they make every effort to isolate these leaders, including by firing them. Over a hundred baristas have been fired for organizing by Starbucks, many of them from the Buffalo area.1 One of the fired was Sam Amato, a shift supervisor and worker for thirteen years before being terminated. His store, along with others in Buffalo, was one of the first Starbucks in the country to unionize. Sam, as a union leader, was instrumental to this effort. According to his termination notice, he was fired for allegedly closing the store lobby without notifying management. The notice also notes a prior warning issued, but does not go into detail about it. Three things are purposefully left out of the notice: that the incident in question happened over a month before Sam was fired; that the decision to close early was made by another supervisor, and was due to understaffing during a busy holiday; and that the prior warning was for an unrelated communications issue.6 By mentioning this prior warning, the notice is attempting to establish a pattern of violations where none previously existed. All to justify his termination as “legal.”
Across stores, the pattern remains the same. Starbucks identifies union leaders and begins targeting them. Suddenly, obscure and previously unenforced corporate policies become major infractions when violated. Arriving at work just a few minutes late now constitutes tardiness and is grounds for termination. This is what happened to another shift supervisor, Alexis Rizzo, who was fired under claims of “egregious” absences, when really she was only one minute late to work.8 At another store, when Sam Larson, a member of the organizing and bargaining committees, stepped up to replace two recently fired union representatives, she was quickly fired herself. As with its other union busting tactics, Starbucks claims that all of them were fired for violating company policy. According to them, the fact that these workers were all union organizers is merely a coincidence. To lie so obviously, to obscure reality in such a shameless way, shows just how little Starbucks thinks of workers.
The Workers Fight Back
Starbucks workers have not taken all of this laying down. They have pushed back against these actions from the very beginning, fearlessly exposing them for what they are: attacks on workers for organizing. From social media to newspapers, organizers have stood up for their fellow proletarians, showing that they will not be intimidated by the bosses. With a spirit of internationalism, organizers like Angel Krempa have even gone to trade union meetings hosted by the World Federation of Trade Unions (WFTU) to share their experiences and learn from those of workers from around the world.9
The firing of organizers particularly has been met with a strong response from Starbucks workers themselves. Through walkouts and strikes, they have condemned the firing of their leaders. For example, when Sam Amato was unjustly fired during his shift, all of his coworkers walked out in protest. Shortly after, they picketed the store, carrying signs that read “Rehire Sam!,” and continued to do so for several days.6 In another case, the city of Ithaca, NY, saw all of its Starbucks go on strike in response to the firing of union organizers.10 These kinds of actions by the workers are not only inspiring and powerful, but also necessary. Individually, workers cannot hope to struggle for better conditions, as even if they were to withhold their own labor, the bosses could simply fire them, knowing that the rest can be made to “pick up the slack.” Collectively, however, they have the power to wage an effective struggle to win concessions from the bosses. The bosses fear strikes because they know that an entire workforce cannot be replaced easily (or, many times, at all) and thus are forced to take the workers’ demands seriously
Workers United, the union under which Starbucks baristas are now organizing, has responded to all of these attacks by filing over 500 charges of unfair labor practices against Starbucks. These charges were filed with the National Labor Relations Board, who, finding merit in over half of the charges, issued 83 complaints against Starbucks.11 The struggle in the courts is a part of the working class struggle, though we have to be clear about the bourgeois character of these courts under capitalism. Of course, workers must use every means available to them, including the capitalist legal system, to assert themselves, but they must do so without any false illusions. They must not for a second believe that the capitalist courts or government will side with the working class over the capitalist class. The fact is that, under capitalism, both the state and its courts are instruments of the capitalists, ultimately serving the interest of the ruling class, the class of the monopolies. For decades, we have seen how easily labor rights, hard won by the working class through militant struggle over decades, have been steadily eroded. It was not that long ago that captive audience meetings were illegal and included under the NLRB’s definition of unfair labor practices. So why were they made legal again? Because they are a powerful tool in the hands of the capitalists. According to a study done by the Economic Policy Institute, such meetings have a significant effect on the success of union drives. They found that union drives held without these meetings had a 73% win rate, while in drives where captive audience meetings were used, this win rate dropped to 43%.12 This is why Starbucks floods its stores with managers and holds these meetings, they know that it is effective. This is also why it was made legal again in the first place, it is just another example of the state defending the interests of the capitalist class. We, as workers, cannot put our faith into bourgeois rights or laws. When the working class movement is at its lowest, they will be repealed and taken away.
The Economic Basis for Union Busting
With everything we have seen Starbucks do to stop its workers from unionizing, it raises the question: why do capitalists like Starbucks fight so hard to keep the working class unorganized? It is because they are motivated by the same economic laws that all capitalist enterprises are motivated by. All companies are faced with the need to increase profits by, among other things, maintaining complete control over their workers in an attempt to counter the tendency for the rate of profit to fall. In their vain attempt to counter this ironclad economic law, we find ourselves ever more exploited.
The primary objective of capitalist enterprises is to generate profits. In this pursuit, they are confronted with the inherent contradictions of capitalism, which necessarily lead to an ever decreasing rate of profit. This is known as the tendency for the rate of profit to fall. As companies invest in technological advancements, replacing workers with machines, their expenses become fixed, resulting in a cheaper product. While this may enable them to undercut their competition and increase profits in the short term, widespread adoption of these advancements leads to a general decrease, in the long term, of the rate of profit.
There is no real solution for the capitalist, no way for them to stop this process. They can only temporarily counter it by increasing the exploitation of workers. Even if it is only a momentary relief, they will do anything that maintains or increases their rate of profit. The capitalist only has a few options for increasing exploitation: either increase the intensity of work, or cut wages and benefits. In the case of Starbucks, they have done both.
One of the ways that the company has increased the intensity of work is through productivity quotas. In recent years, Starbucks has promoted “drive-thru” stores as the future of the company. This is not surprising, since in the first quarter of 2021 drive-thru stores accounted for more than half of their net sales.13 This emphasis on drive-thru has resulted in the implementation of quotas, wherein baristas are being pressured to improve “out-the-window” times, as the more drinks per hour, per minute, per second, that Starbucks can get out of a single worker, the more profits they will receive. Thus they install timers and set metric quotas that weigh on baristas constantly, pressuring them to work faster and produce more under the threat of write-ups and, if they can’t keep up, firings.
As they have increased exploitation, Starbucks has not been satisfied with only raising the intensity of work, they have also cut benefits. During the economic crisis, accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic, Starbucks saw itself forced to provide a litany of benefits to workers just to retain its workforce. As soon as the company was no longer in such dire straits, they cut many of those benefits, which by that point had become a necessity for the workers. One such benefit was PTO for COVID-19 related absences, which is no longer offered.14 It seems that, to Starbucks, COVID-19 stopped existing on October 2nd, 2022. Of course, the truth is that providing these benefits to baristas was cutting into their precious profits, so they had to end.
As we see, this increased exploitation is not an individual or personality-driven issue, but rather stems from the inherent economic laws governing capitalism. Companies find themselves compelled to exploit their workforce to remain competitive in the market and secure profits. They do this by cutting wages, reducing benefits, or wringing more productivity out of the workers.
Further, keeping the working class divided is a prerequisite for this increase in exploitation. By keeping workers fragmented and disconnected, companies can pursue these profit-boosting strategies with less fear of organized resistance or backlash from them. Starbucks knows that if it allowed baristas to unionize then their ability to exploit them would be severely hindered. With a union, they could withhold their labor power through strikes and other forms of collective action. This would pressure Starbucks to make concessions and meet their demands, which they know would reduce their profit margins. Without a doubt, Starbucks sees the union as a significant obstacle to their profit-driven objectives, and this leads them to resort to union-busting tactics to maintain their control over workers.
A Weapon for the Working Class
Throughout this struggle, we have seen how, at every turn, Starbucks has fought tooth and nail to keep the working class disorganized. They have resorted to lies, threats, false promises, and even terminations. Their anti-union actions are so egregious that even the bourgeois courts have taken notice. These savage attacks against the workers expose the contempt this company has for us. But it also exposes something else: fear. They fear unions, what they represent and what the proletariat will do once organized. For how vicious their attacks have been so far, they are nothing compared to what they will start to inflict as they see more and more of their stores unionize. This is how they responded when less than 4% of their stores won their union vote. What will they resort to once that increases to 5%, 20%, or maybe even 90%? We should not expect their opposition to ever soften. On the contrary, we should expect it to intensify and take on even more militant forms. This is a fact of the class struggle. Likewise, the working class will need to develop itself in kind to be able to confront the bosses. If we are to have any hope of waging an effective struggle against Starbucks, and the capitalist class they represent, we will need to build a militant, class-conscious trade union, the likes of which this country has not seen since the Great Depression.
There are many trade unions in this country whose histories stretch back decades. Early into their history, many were militant and class-conscious, but over the years they have degenerated into yellow unions, that is, unions that serve the bosses and, in promoting labor peace, betray the workers at every turn. These unions thought that they could wage a purely economic struggle, one detached from all other aspects of working-class life, including the political aspect. In seeking to appease the bosses, they would go on to purge all of the communists, the most militant workers, from their membership. With these workers went the anti-monopoly, anti-imperialist stance of the unions. They would soon after go on to abandon working-class politics and begin to make deals with the monopolies, in support of imperialism.
The kind of union that we need now is one oriented towards the class struggle, embracing anti-imperialist and anti-monopoly stances as the core principles of its struggle. A truly working-class union deals with all aspects of working-class life, from education and health to politics and even culture, educating the workers in their daily struggle against capital. Trade unions, in their struggle for everyday issues, must become centers of organization and education for the working class in its fight for socialism. This fight is not only economic, but political. The union must not stand aloof from politics, but engage in a class-based way, while at the same time standing independent of bourgeois parties. For trade unions to solely struggle for economic reforms under the capitalist system is a betrayal of the working class, condemning the workers to endless wage slavery, only haggling for better or worse prices for its labor. No, the end of exploitation, once and for all, must be the goal.
Part and parcel with this political work is the need for all unions to break away from the capitalist parties. Both the Democratic and Republican parties are thoroughly bourgeois parties, and therefore are hostile to the working class. These parties, and the capitalist government that they manage, would see the collective, militant expression of the workers replaced with endless discussion and debates, with pure talk. In the place of strikes, mobilizations, demonstrations, and assemblies (which secure real victories) would be meaningless talk that always results in the same thing, the loss of rights for the workers. Unions must break away from these parties and demonstrate to the working class that social progress takes place through social struggle, not through social dialogue, as these parties would have us believe. It must be understood that whenever we, as workers, sit and talk with the government and the employers, we must never forget that the power of the trade unions at the discussion table is in the mobilization and fighting action of the employees themselves.
The fact that one of the leaders in the Starbucks movement attended the 18th Conference of the WFTU, a model for truly class-conscious trade unionism, inspires a great deal of hope that Starbucks workers can build this kind of union. Those struggling within Starbucks, and all other workers, should study their writings and activities, starting with their “Theses and Priorities”.15, 16 This document is the culmination of years of experience and study by militant trade unionists around the world. The workers in Starbucks should continue to foster their relationship with the WFTU and affiliate with them, as such a move would be a positive development towards the building of a more militant union movement in the US. Through the solidarity and assistance of the international working class, coupled with a militant and class-conscious trade union, the workers of Starbucks will be ready to not only organize every last store, but to defend them all against the attacks of the capitalist class.