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Starbucks Unionizes in Buffalo—Will Other Baristas Perk Up Organizing?

Jan. 14, 2022, 9:00 AM

Workers at the Elmwood Avenue Starbucks in Buffalo, N.Y., officially voted on Dec. 9, 2021, to unionize through Starbucks Workers United, affiliated with the Service Employees International Union. Upon certification by the National Labor Relations Board the following week, the Elmwood Avenue vote represented the first time in its 50+ year history that a Starbucks corporate store had been unionized.

Though representing a single location covering only approximately 35 employees, the fact that workers voted to unionize a Starbucks—one of the world’s largest multinational brands—could have major implications for the trajectory of union participation across the country.

First Corporate Starbucks to Unionize

Baristas are an unlikely group to lead the unionization charge. Historically, U.S. restaurant workers are among the least unionized labor markets in the country, with only 1.2% of U.S. restaurant workers who are union members. Indeed, union membership across the U.S. generally has been steadily decreasing for decades.

At a peak in the 1980s, nearly one in five American workers were union members. Today, approximately one in 10 working Americans belong to a union (including the heavily unionized governmental sector), while that number stands at one in 16 workers in the private sector. Moreover, unionization rates are highly regionalized, with more than half of all unionized workers living in just seven states—California, Illinois, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, and Pennsylvania.

Starbucks, which does not franchise its business, has more than 8,900 corporate-owned locations in the U.S. and, through this centralization, had effectively fought off unionization efforts for more than five decades. One reason the Elmwood Avenue vote has garnered so much national attention is that it could be the canary in the coal mine indicating organized labor’s efforts directed toward retail and restaurant workers are gaining steam.

Indeed, on Jan. 10, 2022, the NLRB confirmed that a second Starbucks location in Buffalo had also successfully voted to unionize.

Starbucks Workers United, the union representing Starbucks partners (Starbucks’ term for employees) indicated that more unionization is percolating. Already, we have seen workers at Starbucks locations from Boston to Chicago to Mesa, Ariz., and even Starbucks’ hometown of Seattle, petition the NLRB to hold union elections for their stores.

These efforts, tied to the Starbucks name, will keep the buzz of unionization in the national spotlight for the foreseeable future. What’s more, they will make the concept of unionization more relatable to today’s worker who may previously have thought of unionization as something for coal miners in Ohio, not retail workers in Texas or hospitality workers in New York.

Moreover, any success Starbucks workers have in unionizing more locations or in bargaining for better wages and working conditions could create momentum for other unionization efforts across the hospitality industry.

Already, we have seen partners at the Elmwood Avenue Starbucks location walk out over safety concerns. Because of the exposure Starbucks’ name lends to these activities, employers have a unique opportunity to learn over the coming months from how Starbucks manages such union activity and communicates and engages with its unionized partners as compared to its non-unionized partners at other Starbucks locations.

This exercise may be particularly instructive if Starbucks’ efforts to create an open and ongoing dialogue with its non-union workforce result in reducing the unionization activity that is brewing.

Impact of Labor Shortages on Unionization

The recent Starbucks vote is also important because, over the last few years, employers have struggled through staffing shortages occasioned by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Since March 2020, workforces have been stretched or broken by outbreaks of Covid-19, employee fears of contracting Covid-19 by returning to the workplace, worker burnout, and the “Great Resignation"—the phenomenon in which record numbers of workers are leaving the daily grind of their jobs. Indeed, many of these issues were a catalyst for the unionization effort in Buffalo.

Through these staffing challenges, many employers across the country have increased wages, benefits, and safety protocols, as well as offered incentives ranging from free food and communal ping-pong tables to paid parental leave to attract the necessary workers to keep their businesses running. As a result, workers previously earning minimum wage are now often earning more and receiving additional perks and benefits, all without unionization.

It remains to be seen what impact unionization will have in a climate where employers are increasingly focused on labor retention in a tight hiring market. Indeed, the vote to unionize at Starbucks comes at a time when Starbucks has already announced a plan to increase partners’ minimum wages to $15 per hour and raise average wages up to $17 per hour by the summer of 2022.

Starbucks also already offers its partners benefits not widely available across the hospitality industry, including health care, 401(k) with company match, paid parental leave, and the opportunity to earn a college bachelor’s degree with 100% tuition coverage.

At the same time, it is notable that unionization votes were held at three Starbucks locations in Buffalo, but only two out of the three stores elected to unionize. These inconsistent outcomes demonstrate that the momentum for unionization is not universal.

What Can Employers Do?

Employees generally seek to unionize in instances when they feel that their voices are not heard, or that they are not being treated fairly in terms of compensation, benefits, or discipline. Employers hoping to avoid unionization can and should work directly with employees to address any issues affecting the morale of their workforce, whether that be compensation, staffing levels, work schedules, or safety concerns.

Federal law restricts the efforts employers can take in opposing unionization efforts. To defeat these efforts while complying with the law, employers should start by listening to their concerns, followed by concrete action that clearly demonstrate those concerns are being addressed, to the extent the employer is willing and able to meet the employee’s concern.

Tangible results, such as beneficial policy changes or increased employee benefits, are likely to lessen employees’ desire to unionize, because the perceived benefits of unionization are already being realized.

The Starbucks vote has been closely watched by labor and management alike, particularly in sectors and brands without similarly robust employee benefits. In the era of viral videos, it does not seem a far stretch to imagine the next Tik Tok challenge being “unionize your store.”

While it is too early to tell whether this victory for unions at a pair of Starbucks stores in Buffalo will reverse the decades-long decline of unionization, it is hard to deny the brewing potential for this to be a watershed moment in the evolution of unionization in America.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. or its owner.

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Jessica Glatzer Mason is a partner with Foley & Lardner LLP based in Houston. She is a trial lawyer with a focus on trade secret and non-competition disputes, and represents employers and executives in their labor and employment litigation pre-trial, trial, and appellate matters.

Michael Ryan is a labor and employment associate in Foley & Lardner’s Houston office. His practice focuses on management-side labor and employment litigation and counseling on a wide-range of employment matters.

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