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Starbucks workers confident ahead of key union vote count next week

·5 min read
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The clock is ticking for Starbucks (SBUX) workers looking to unionize in upstate New York, with a critical vote looming in the effort to organize the coffee giant's first U.S. labor union.

In the midst of a broad push nationwide for worker rights, Starbucks' baristas sounded a confident tone that the wishes of employees will prevail. 

“We are still completely confident that come next Thursday, we will have the first unionized Starbucks out of almost 9,000 in the United States, which is very exciting,” Michelle Eisen, a member of Starbucks Workers United’s (SWU) organizing committee, said in a press conference on Wednesday.

On November 10, the National Labor Relations Board mailed ballots to workers at three local stores — Elemwood Avenue in the Elmwood Village, Genesee Street in Cheektowaga, and Camp Road in Hamburg. 

Votes will be tallied on a store-by-store basis on December 9, but due to voting by mail, but union organizers don’t have a sense of how many have submitted ballots.

Starbucks workers accuse the company for employing intimidation and union-busting tactics, including sending high-level executives to stores and trying to flood the stores pushing to organize with new employees. Meanwhile, the company has asked workers to vote against the effort.

“It's really on that individual. The company certainly has not been shy about telling people to get those votes in and to make sure that they check the ‘no’ box,” Eisen said.

About 100 employees are eligible to vote; however Eisen blames the company for “padding” the vote count, which should be lower.

“It should be around 70, I would say they've actually padded the boat with an additional 30 people who they say should be able to vote in these units when they really should not be able to,” Eisen added.

Starbucks grapples with prospect of wider effort

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - SEPTEMBER 29:  People wear protective face masks outside Starbucks in Union Square as the city continues Phase 4 of re-opening following restrictions imposed to slow the spread of coronavirus on September 29, 2020 in New York City. The fourth phase allows outdoor arts and entertainment, sporting events without fans and media production. (Photo by Noam Galai/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NEW YORK - SEPTEMBER 29: People wear protective face masks outside Starbucks in Union Square as the city continues Phase 4 of re-opening following restrictions imposed to slow the spread of coronavirus on September 29, 2020 in New York City. The fourth phase allows outdoor arts and entertainment, sporting events without fans and media production. (Photo by Noam Galai/Getty Images)

According to a message to Starbucks employees from North America Vice President Rossann Williams, the company has acknowledged the current operational challenges within the company. 

Williams explained that it "can only solved by us from within Starbucks," but still urged its workers to vote down the union proposal. Starbucks insists that it's not opposed to a union in principle, but believes it can effect changes via a direct relationship with employees.

Meanwhile, the push to unionize has spread beyond the Empire State. The SWU's organizing committee signaled that they’re already fielding queries from other Starbucks locations about organizing. For example, a store in Mesa, Arizona that has filed a petition to hold a union election.

“We're lending our support to them in any way possible,” Eisen said.

During Wednesday’s press conference, committee members indicated that if they win the vote, their goal is to get to the bargaining table to negotiate a new contract as soon as possible.

However, the victory across all three stores could result in three separate employment contracts, since employees are voting on the unionization of their individual unit. Those contracts could differ substantially based on different unit-level working conditions at each store.

Still, Eisen insisted the effort was pushing for “more seniority pay. We're looking for a bigger voice in the company."

With the pandemic causing unprecedented levels of burnout, workers have expressed their frustration. Eisen said that Starbucks gave them “little to no hazard pay” and “very little support” in terms of what the company was handing down to keep them safe.

“The only way we're going to do that is if I have some sort of say in those policies, the only way to get a say is to have the union negotiate that contract,” she added.

Support from both the Buffalo community and elected officials have rallied behind them in their efforts to unionize. In recent weeks, the group has met with U.S. Senators Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Bernie Sanders of Vermont. 

“The entire country is excited to see this play out and are rooting us on,” Eisen said.

However, workers face daunting odds, as many union organization attempts in food retail have failed over the years. According to 2020 data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the industry is the least unionized, with only 1.2% of employees represented by unions.

Some observers are wary that the group will get the victory it seeks. “I mean, based on history, the answer is no, but based on the moment the answer might be, yes,” Cathy Creighton, director of ILR’s Buffalo Co-Lab, told Yahoo Finance in an interview.

Three other local Starbucks stores are also seeking to unionize, though they are not as far along in the process.

“[This] signals to employees who feel powerless, that they don't have to be powerless,” Creighton added, but noted that it's unclear whether the pressure to unionize is a moment in time, or a glimpse into a pro-labor future. 

Dani Romero is a reporter for Yahoo Finance. Follow her on Twitter: @daniromerotv

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