May 20, 2024

On August 14, 2023, a CWPUSA member sat with a local union leader of a successful Starbucks unionization campaign in South Florida. This member was able to interview the union leader for New Worker and gather information about their experience and success. Our purpose is to inform our members and readers of the daily struggles of workers and oppressed people.

Q: Can you provide an overview of your role and your experience as a leader in the Starbucks unionization efforts?

A: In simple terms, I was a worker at a local Starbucks. I had been there for a bit, a couple of months. Through casual conversation with my coworkers, seeing mistreatment from management, and dealing with mistreatment personally from management, I felt like there was a lot of opportunity to organize my coworkers and come together to form a union and fight for a more democratic workplace—one where we have more say and work collectively against mistreatment. 

So, seeing that, I reached out to the union Starbucks Workers United, which is affiliated with Workers United, and got things going. I helped to form an organizing committee with a few of my coworkers, and we worked to start talking to the coworkers, inoculating them against what was inevitably going to come if an anti-union campaign came about. 

Afterward, we went public with our union campaign, did the work to get cards signed, and made sure we had all of our things in line to make sure there was a victory. That included daily reminders of empowerment on the job, making sure people knew they didn’t have to deal with the mistreatment, or if a particularly stressful day or shift was happening, pointing to the solution, which was becoming organized as workers and getting that collective conscious.

Q: What were the events that agitated you and your coworkers to form a union?

A: There’s a saying in the labor movement in the United States that the boss is the best organizer, and that was the case at my store. With our management, there was, for lack of a better term, abuse. He was just casually racist and sexist and would be rude to workers in front of customers. He would also yell and take advantage of the people who were under him at work. Many people were already fed up with the abuse, and that’s why I saw that there was fertile ground for organizing. 

However, even without that, the job itself and the amount of very demanding work that comes with working in the service industry, especially at a Starbucks where you’re going through thousands of orders a day both in person inside the store and through mobile ordering, even if there was good management, the people at my store were ready for that kind of agitation. They were ready to use that agitation to create something collectively.

Q: What strategies or tactics did you find yourself using to agitate your coworkers?

A: I felt like what helped a lot with my coworkers, who I don’t think at the time would have called themselves very political, was approaching with subtlety. Specifically, getting an understanding of what mattered to each individual person first, how their work life affected the rest of their lives, and sometimes magnifying that effect. That way, people can come to the realization on their own what their relation to capital is, and in this case, what their relation to this company that they were sweating and laboring for was. 

At the time, I felt that you can’t just go in guns blazing, throwing out the “U word,” and talking at workers about the need to organize. It felt like what was more useful for us was helping them come to that consciousness on their own or at least finding ways to make that happen easily.

Q: Was helping your coworkers come to this conclusion a planned, strategic move, or did it happen naturally?

A: Well, it was definitely an intentional effort on the part of the organizing committee, but that was informed by our experience of that often happening naturally. For just about every single person who worked at my store, it was a very natural conclusion that they came to. They were able to find that empowerment themselves and within themselves, and within that fact, that they were in this struggle together. They found more empowerment through that rather than in any form of despair, which wasn’t something I or anyone else had to prod them for. So, in a way, I would say it was very natural.

Q: How did you know who to involve in the organizing committee?

A: They were just people I knew from working at Starbucks. They just happened to be coworkers that I felt would be more receptive to such an idea, whether it was based on conversations we had at work, political discussions we had while closing up the store, or people that I had a particular feeling or notion of “ok they’re a more progressively minded person, they would be up for this, or they would be up for it with a little encouragement, or they’re affected by this more than other coworkers, they would see the benefit from this more than most.” Whether it was because of something with their race or ethnicity, their financial situation, or things like that, it was a matter of knowing these people very personally. By knowing them very personally and how I did, I gained a sense of who would be down, and I was right; no one said no to doing it.

Q: How long did you know these people, and how long did you work at Starbucks before the unionization efforts took place?

I want to say 6 or 7 months, I’m not really sure, but it should be something like that.

Q: What were some of the challenges you faced during the unionization process outside of pushback from coworkers or management?

A: A big challenge in any organizing drive would be the need to harness momentum. During the Starbucks campaign, things were in limbo; we had already gone public with the union, and we were waiting for the federal government to process what we filed. Management already knew everything was already put into motion, but there was a period of time where it was a waiting game, waiting around to take on the next steps. 

Overall, that was a very harmful period. Thankfully, it didn’t last very long, but I feel like it made people, I don’t know if anxious is the right word, but they would come to me like, “OK, what is going on? What happened? Did we go through with it? Did we not?” There was a bit of confusion. Personally, I blame this mainly on the process not being very streamlined with the government, but thankfully, it didn’t last long enough to wreck the whole thing.

Q: Did you face any pushback from your coworkers?

A: From my coworkers? Very little. There was really only one that gave active pushback. That person ended up being a not-very-good person anyway, but that’s beside the case. They just had preconceived notions of what a union is and preconceived notions of what a worker’s relation is to management or a company. We tried and tried to reach out to this person, but we couldn’t get through to them, and it came to the point where it wasn’t worth putting too much effort into anymore since we knew everyone else was on board and had other work to do. 

Other than that, there was one person that I always like talking about and thinking back on. She worked at a grocery store not too far away before working at Starbucks. She was in a semi-management position at that grocery store, like an assistant management position. At first, when we came to her with the issue, she responded to us with fear. When she worked at this grocery store, there was a union campaign, and everyone involved got fired when management found out about it. As the assistant manager there, she was tasked with the firing, which she said was very traumatic for her because the people she had to fire were her friends. 

When we first reached out to her, she thought unions were just another excuse to have people fired and that it would end very badly. She thought that everyone would lose their job and that everything would be worse off. This was a shame to hear, but we ended up getting through to her by having a very heart-to-heart conversation with her one day after work. We really got to the heart of the issue and let her know that we can do this (build the union and succeed) and that there is nothing stopping us from doing this. We explained that this is a point of empowerment for us as workers. We had this conversation in the store, so when I talked to her, I pointed to the floor where we were running around and making the drinks and just tried to help her understand that there were a million things I could point to that needed changing. That all of our coworkers would agree these things need changing, but right now, we don’t have a say in that when we ought to. That what we’re fighting for, and what all her other coworkers are fighting for, is to get a say. That we put our blood, sweat, and tears into this place, and as it stood then, we got nothing. We just got mistreated, and our dignity played around with. After that conversation, she came around and signed a card right there.  I’m proud to say that even though she has since left the store, she is a proud union advocate now, and she’s always checking in to see how other people at the store are doing. 

I feel like it’s important to note that all it took was a little bit of empowering, a little bit of shifting that line of view so that she saw that this is something we’re all dealing with collectively and that if we don’t approach it collectively to fix it nothing happens, nothing is going to get done: we’ll be in the same place that we’ve been at which is a place we don’t like.

Q: What were the union-busting tactics used by Starbucks management?

A: The upper management, the district managers, would come into the store a lot and loiter around. They had never visited our store before; they were there to scare us. There were also captive audience meetings that included people from upper management like HR, district managers, lawyers, and whoever. They would come and close the store down for a day to try to convince the workers there that we didn’t need a union, that they were here for us, that we’re a family, that any issues we have, we could come straight to them, that we don’t need a middle man like the union. They would lie to the workers there and try to put these things in their heads. 

It didn’t work. It especially backfired when we had a big rally outside during one of the captive audience meetings. This was very fun, and when the people from the upper management would talk, workers would hear chants and union slogans roaring from a crowd outside. The message from management definitely did not get relayed very well, not with all that happening. 

Even in the day-to-day, with the normal management, there were constant negative comments about the union. The managers would say that they couldn’t help a coworker with something because “oh, now the union campaign, my hands are tied. I don’t know if I’m allowed to do that.” Overall they were just being shitty and petty and were creating a negative atmosphere surrounding the union. None of them were very good at any of that.

Q: Before this, what was your experience in labor organizing?

A: Really none. My own political leanings as a communist definitely contributed to what I thought about unions and the benefits that could come out of them, so I was already there politically speaking; it was just a matter of recognizing the need for it at my Starbucks and helping others to recognize it as well. I really had no experience, though. It was all new to me, all of these strategies and the tactics. 

I wouldn’t say it was very hard, though. If you are committed to it and care deeply about people, especially people you see practically every day, it is not very hard to talk to them on an even level and be honest with them about how you think becoming organized would help us. Even though that was very new to everyone there, it came naturally, just people caring about each other enough to take a stand together.

Q: What have you found helpful from your experience for other SB workers trying to unionize their SB? What would you recommend they do, or what would you suggest?

A: Just get to know the people you work with and see what matters to them. Don’t be afraid to go through that process. It is a very foreign process for anyone who hasn’t already gone through it, but the worst thing you can do is not get the ball rolling. I feel like many campaigns or potential ones, fail because they either don’t get the ball rolling at all or don’t keep it rolling. 

Take it one step at a time. Form a solid committee right away; that’s one of the first things you can do. Even with your friends at work, try getting them on board and talking to people individually. The worst thing you can do is not go ahead with it and not go ahead with it confidently. Not only is building a union right, but it is within your rights in this country at the moment. There’s nothing stopping you. Management will try to make you feel like something is taboo or forbidden or that starting a union is something you’re not allowed to do, but there is nothing keeping you from securing your rights and your dignity at work.