Group of people stand in front of the Berkeley Starbucks carrying signs advocating for improved working conditions.
Roughly 25 workers at the 2224 Shattuck Ave. Starbucks walked off the job Friday, citing unsafe working conditions. Courtesy: SEIU 1021

More than 20 unionized employees at the Berkeley Starbucks went on a one-day strike Friday over working conditions they described as unsafe, including broken air conditioning amid heat waves and a “pitch black” storage room.

The store’s baristas and shift supervisors are also demanding that managers adhere to the workers’ preferred availability when scheduling shifts — especially given that many employees are UC Berkeley students — and fairly enforce dress codes. Some workers said they have received warnings for wearing union pins and clothing. (Workplace restrictions on wearing union insignia are generally prohibited under federal labor law.) 

Jack Miller, who has worked at the Shattuck Avenue location as a shift supervisor for two years and was on the picket line Friday afternoon, said employee concerns about safety issues and short staffing have gone unaddressed for months, and were further compounded when business picked up as the school year began in August. 

The store unionized in August 2022, but is still working without a first contract. “Our store has only had one bargaining meeting, which was last December, when we all sat down, said hello, and the Starbucks lawyers walked out,” Miller said. “Starbucks has been unwilling to meet with us and legitimately discuss our proposals.” 

Starbucks did not respond to a request for comment on the strike by deadline. 

On Sept. 28, Miller and other unionized baristas presented a petition to their managers, describing a “serious deterioration” of working conditions since July 2023 that has led to a “chaotic two months of store closures instead of permanent fixes that still result in daily phone calls from customers asking if we are open.”

In the petition, the workers wrote that management has repeatedly raised the benchmark for closing the store due to an “unsafe” indoor temperature: from 77 degrees to 78 to 80 to 82. The employees are demanding management allow them to close the store when any part of it reaches 77 degrees, and they be paid in full for their scheduled shifts if the store closes due to heat. 

Miller said he and other employees have experienced symptoms of heat exhaustion while working behind the bar, which gets hotter than other parts of the store. Using his own handheld thermometer, he recorded 89-degree temperatures behind the bar. 

The employees are also asking management to fix the lights in the storage room, which have been out since at least June. “You’re unable to see anything — it is pitch black,” Miller said, noting that employees often need to move 20-pound boxes of coffee beans and other heavy items. 

Miller said he sees a close connection between the specific problems at his location and the larger, systemic issues the nationwide Starbucks Workers United union campaign has been attempting to address through organizing. As of September 2023, employees at 358 Starbucks locations nationwide had elected to unionize, according to a map on the collective’s website.

“We are certainly not the only store that has had staffing issues [and] safety issues,” Miller said. “I think it’s really an indictment of Starbucks as a national corporation that hundreds of stores are also facing similar issues and trying to assert their rights and get the basic decency that we deserve as workers.”

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Iris Kwok covers the environment for Berkeleyside through a partnership with Report for America. A former music journalist, her work has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, KQED, San Francisco Examiner...