As part of a renewed wave of labor militancy in America, workers at hundreds of Starbucks stores across the nation are filing to unionize their workplaces. In many instances, these organizers face harassment and thinly veiled threats of termination from management as evidenced in one recent example of a 19-year old barista, Laila Dalton, who was fired under the pretext of “violating company policies”, but in reality, was dismissed due to her unionizing efforts at a store in Phoenix, Arizona.
In addition to these more overt union-busting tactics, Starbucks is planning a softer approach to dissuade workers from joining a union. Howard Schultz, the former CEO of the company has returned to head the company and plans to introduce new benefits for workers to combat the “assault from unionization” that he claims many private companies are facing today. Schultz briefly flirted with an independent centrist presidential run in 2020, and reportedly planned to spend anywhere between $300 million-$500 million dollars of his own personal wealth to assure that a centrist candidate prevailed over the ascendant Bernie Sanders coalition within the democratic party at the time.
Schultz pioneered within Starbucks the marketing philosophy of “The Third Place”; this refers to Starbucks’ supposed space for comfort and community away from home and work. What “The Third Place” belies is that this comfort is built on the stresses and abuses inflicted on workers (referred to as partners) at Starbucks by both the customers themselves and management.
I know these abuses all too well be- cause I worked for Starbucks at two separate locations in North New Jersey and both witnessed and directly experienced first-hand many instances of these unjust practices. Like all other service workers, baristas are under constant watch by management for signs of inactivity, even when business is slow, and often have to deal with poorly managed schedules that reflect corporate imperatives rather than worker needs. I’ve seen shift supervisors beg in group texts for a third or fourth barista to come in on their off day because the schedule had two people set for peak rush hours; I’ve also seen the reverse where workers who want and need hours are dismissed because too many baristas have been scheduled for a given shift (these workers would occasionally then take double shifts to make up for lost hours, working upwards of 14 hours and in some extreme cases, both opening and closing the store).
I experienced the former myself once where one co-worker during a late night rush had a badly injured back from a recent car accident and could do no more than manage the cash register. The store closed at 11:00 PM that night, but we couldn’t leave until 2:00 AM in order to complete our work. We would have stayed a lot longer had my friend (a barista at another store) not stopped by and lent a hand. Leaving the store a few hours after closing was not an uncommon occurrence when I worked the closing shift, as understaffing created excess work for the 2-3 people on shifts.
These staff shortages are not accidental but rather by design, as the profit-motive that drives corporations like Starbucks dictates that management cut labor costs during down times and provide just enough staff to meet peak business hours. In the former scenario, this denies workers hours needed to make ends meet and in the latter scenario, it pushes workers to mental and physical breaking points.
Another knock-on effect of this profit driven time management is shift supervisors tasked with constantly maintaining counts of all inventory, to maintain just-in-time delivery shipments from suppliers. This compounded staff shortage issues at one of my stores because while supervisors were technically the “third worker” on the floor, they spent large parts of their time off it in the backroom counting. Add to this the woefully short, 10 minute break for a 4 hour shift and 30 minute lunch break for an 8 hour shift and it becomes clear how little relief is offered for stressful shifts.
Given experiences like these, it comes as no surprise to me that a wave of unionism has spread through the company, despite Starbucks’ touting of its “great” benefits for partners and family-like relationship between management and workers. Schultz recently claimed he’s not anti-union but “pro-partner” and that “we didn’t get here by having a union.” And on that last note he’s technically right, but for the wrong reasons.
The multinational coffeehouse is valued at roughly $29 billion dollars, maintains a dominant market share over its competitors, and announced in 2020 it’s plan to expand to about 55,000 stores by 2030, up from about 33,000 at the time. All of this exceptional wealth and growth was made possible by the exploitation of its employees through long hours with minimal downtime, stressful work conditions, and constant inventory restock demands needing to be satisfied. A Starbucks union would help workers fight for better working conditions, better hours and fairer pay for the labor they have put into Starbucks. It’s our labor that makes Starbucks so profitable for the stakeholders, but now it’s time for workers to fight back