Though pundits and analysts say that a drive to unionize workers at chain giant Starbucks has slowed in recent months, workers at an Oakland location of the ubiquitous coffee shop are seeking to disrupt that narrative. According to a statement from workers at the Estuary Cove Starbucks, staffers filed a petition with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) last week stating their intention to join Starbucks Workers Unite (SWU), the New York-based union that’s organized over 300 outposts of the company to date.
The drive to organize Starbucks shops is a relatively recent one. In Dec. 2021, a Buffalo, New York Starbucks voted in favor of a union, the first such agreement at a Starbucks since workers at some Seattle shops joined the United Food and Commercial Workers union in the 1980s. This generation’s union, Starbucks Workers Unite, moved swiftly after that first vote, and by early 2023 there were 358 Starbucks locations across the country that had joined its effort.
In the East Bay, unionization has moved more slowly. Last August, the Starbucks at 2224 Shattuck Ave. in Berkeley joined SWU, but that’s been the extent of the effort in the region thus far. According to workers who spoke with the Associated Press in January, there are a number of reasons the once-booming Starbucks unionization movement has slowed: For example, the company has shuttered unionized stores for what management said were “safety” reasons, while organizers say the closures are thinly-veiled acts of retaliation against unionization.
In another case, pro-union workers at a Memphis, Tennessee Starbucks were fired last year for alleged violations of company policy, but the NLRB — which oversees U.S. unionization activities — claimed that the act was retaliation. A federal judge agreed the retaliation allegations had enough merit to require Starbucks to reinstate the workers while the case was investigated; and earlier this month an NLRB judge said that Starbucks had engaged in “egregious and widespread misconduct” when it fired workers in other stores with unionization efforts.
Starbucks has a longstanding opposition to unionization, with soon-to-depart CEO Howard Schultz saying repeatedly that organization is unnecessary. In an interview from February, Schultz said that “I don’t think a union has a place in Starbucks.”
“File for a petition to be unionized, they have a right to do so,” Schultz said. “But we as a company have a right also to say, we have a different vision that is better.”
According to the statement sent by workers from the Starbucks at 1211 E. Embarcadero Cove, the Oakland workers’ vision includes joining “the fight against Starbucks’ hour cuts, inadequate staffing, disregard of partner safety, and refusal to bargain with the union in good faith.”
However, no specific allegations of issues like these are made in the statement about the location at which they work, which has been in business since at least 2006. Instead, a Starbucks worker identified as “Nick R.” is quoted within the statement as saying that “Starbucks loves to talk about the progressive values it holds … Unfortunately, it does not always live those values, especially when it comes to supporting its partners.” Nosh reached out to “Nick R.” via the contact information provided in the statement, but did not receive a response as of publication time.
The petition filed with the NLRB is just the first step toward a possible unionization of the Oakland Starbucks shop. Next, workers will hold a formal vote to unionize, which is by no means a sure thing: As of January, unionization votes have failed at over 60 Starbucks across the country, with some workers saying that they fear organization might lead to fewer benefits, not more.
According to the comments attributed to “Nick R.” in the Oakland workers’ statement, however, the local effort entertains no such fears. “I’m voting for the union,” he said, “because it’s a way for us partners to hold Starbucks accountable.”