Starbucks workers in Buffalo, N.Y., vote to unionize, a 1st for the company in U.S.

Starbucks workers at one of the coffee chain's locations in Buffalo, N.Y., have voted to unionize over the company's objections, pointing the way to a new labour model for the 50-year old coffee giant.

19-8 vote in favour of a union must be certified before taking effect

Starbucks employees in Buffalo, N.Y., celebrate as results of a unionization vote are read out. Starbucks workers at one Buffalo location have voted to unionize over the company's objections, pointing the way to a new labour model for the coffee giant. (Joshua Bessex/The Associated Press)

Starbucks workers have voted to unionize at a store in Buffalo, N.Y., a first for the 50-year-old coffee retailer in the U.S. and the latest sign that the labour movement is stirring after decades of decline.

The National Labour Relations Board said Thursday that workers voted 19-8 in favour of a union at one of three locations that voted on unionization. 

A second store rejected the union in a vote of 12-8, but the union said it might challenge that result because it wasn't confident all of the eligible votes had been counted. The results of a third store could not be determined because of several challenged votes.

If the labour board certifies the vote — a process expected to take about a week — it would be the first Starbucks-owned store in the U.S. to unionize.

Starbucks has actively fought unionization at its cafés for decades, saying they function best when the company works directly with employees, which it calls "partners." 

Elmwood location makes history

Starbucks workers watching Thursday's vote count over Zoom on a big screen at a union office in Buffalo erupted into cheers and chants of "Elmwood, Elmwood, Elmwood!" when the results at that location were announced. They jumped up and down and hugged. 

Starbucks employees Will Westlake, left, and Casey Moore watch as votes are counted during their union election watch party on Thursday in Buffalo. (Joshua Bessex/The Associated Press)

"It has been an unbelievably long road to get to this point," said Michelle Eisen, an 11-year employee at the Elmwood store. "As of today, we have done it, in spite of everything the company has thrown at us."

Starbucks spokesperson Reggie Borges said the company hasn't yet determined its next steps, but noted that there were close votes at two of the Buffalo stores. 

"Every partner matters. It's how we built the company and how we will continue to run the company," Borges said. "We will continue to focus on the best Starbucks experience we can deliver for every partner and our customers."

Some local baristas had decried what they said were aggressive company tactics, including flooding Buffalo locations with executives, holding meetings with employees and even bringing in ex-CEO Howard Schultz to talk to workers and extol the virtues of existing wage hikes and benefits.

Starbucks denies that any of its actions amounted to union busting.

Starbucks employee Alexis Rizzo speaks during a news conference after workers in Buffalo watched the results of their unionization vote Thursday. (Joshua Bessex/The Associated Press)

'Huge symbolic importance'

The company had several unionized cafes and a roastery in the United States the 1980s, but all eventually decertified. It beat back more recent organizing campaigns in Philadelphia and New York City.

Workers at all three stores began voting by mail last month on whether they wanted to be represented by Workers United, an affiliate of the Service Employees International Union. 

The union vote involved about 100 workers, a tiny fraction of the roughly 220,000 Starbucks employees in the U.S.

But a win in Buffalo could catch fire as baristas who have also complained about thin staffing and little control over workplace conditions enjoy more power in a tight labour market.

Since the Buffalo campaign was announced in August, three other nearby locations and one store as far away as Arizona have sought to follow its lead.

"Although it's a small number of workers, the result has huge symbolic importance," said John Logan, a labour professor at San Francisco State University.

Heightened labour unrest

The election comes at a time of heightened labour unrest in the U.S.

Striking cereal workers at Kellogg Co. rejected a new contract offer earlier this week. Thousands of workers were on strike at Deere & Co. earlier this fall.

And the U.S. labour board recently approved a redo of a union vote at an Amazon warehouse in Alabama after finding the company pressured workers to vote against the union.

Starbucks has shown a willingness to bargain outside the U.S. In B.C., workers at a Victoria Starbucks voted to unionize in August 2020.

It took Starbucks and the United Steelworkers union nearly a year to reach a collective bargaining agreement, which was ratified by workers in July.

Starbucks employees in Buffalo who spoke with Reuters said they want higher wages, seniority pay and better staffing levels.

But burnout from mobile orders and frustration with other tech systems has been an important driver in the campaign, interviews with five workers suggest.

"Technology was made for customers and not for employees," said barista and union organizer Casey Moore.

"Without a union, we haven't been able to voice how the technology could also work for us."

Roughly 100 Starbucks workers at three locations in Buffalo, N.Y., voted on whether or not to form a union Thursday. (Colin Butler/CBC)

Mobile orders a huge concern

The pandemic has created a surge in mobile orders at Starbucks and other restaurant chains. The baristas in Buffalo and elsewhere complain that they cannot limit the number of mobile orders per hour, leading to unexpected surges they struggle to fulfil.

Individual stores can turn off mobile orders completely for their locations temporarily, but that requires a manager's approval, the company confirmed, and customers can then order from other nearby locations, resulting in what baristas says is a burden at other stores.

The company said that such shifts do not necessarily lead to overflows in other stores. A Starbucks spokesperson said the company is constantly updating its app based on employee and customer feedback.

The Seattle-based chain has about 20 stores in and around Buffalo. It launched its app in 2009 but added new ways to pay and earn points in 2020 as reward memberships soared during the pandemic.

The mobile order app "completely changed what it means to be a barista," said Danka Dragic, a shift supervisor at one Buffalo area store.

Starbucks baristas are not the only workers who have balked at stores' high-tech makeovers. Five workers at a Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc. location in Austin, Texas, quit after becoming overwhelmed with mobile orders, according to media reports.

Starbucks baristas also chafe at a performance management program that rates their customer service — especially because they are under pressure by other technology that tracks how fast they process drive-thru orders.

"It's as though you are making drinks under the pressure of trying to defuse a ticking time bomb," said James Skretta, a barista at one of the Buffalo stores.

WATCH | As orders increased during the pandemic, so did waste:

Starbucks brings back reusable cups as pandemic waste piles up

2 years ago
Duration 1:55
Starbucks is the first major outlet to allow reusable coffee cups since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. And while other chains, including McDonald's and Tim Hortons, still cite health concerns, experts say the risk is minimal and environmental advocates highlight the excess waste from single-use items.

With files from The Associated Press

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