As It Happens

These Starbucks workers are filing for a union vote — and they're not alone

A Starbucks employee in Washington state tells us why he's joining a unionization effort that expanded to fifty stores this week — and says labour rights shouldn't be a perk.

Starbucks in Everett, Wash., among 54 stores in 19 states that have filed for union elections

Workers at an Everett, Wash., Starbucks filed petitions to unionize on Monday, along with 14 other locations across the U.S. (Submitted by Jacob Fullerton)

When employees at a Starbucks in Everett, Wash., filed a petition for a union vote, Jacob Fullerton felt a weight lifted off of his shoulders.

The store supervisor is joining his colleagues at dozens of Starbucks locations across the U.S. who are trying to bargain with management about wages, benefits and safety at work.

"We're the boots on the ground in the stores here," Fullerton told As It Happens host Carol Off. "So having a say in what actually happens on the store level … that's huge."

About 70 per cent of his cafe's 29 employees signed cards on Monday in support of unionization. That same day, 14 other locations in New York, Missouri, Kansas, California and Oregon formally announced their intentions to hold union votes.

This wave comes after a Starbucks in Buffalo, N.Y. voted in favour of unionization last month, making them the country's first Starbucks to officially unionize.

As of this week, 54 stores in 19 states have filed for union elections with the National Labor Relations Board, according to Workers United, the union organizing the efforts. In Canada, a store in Victoria, B.C. successfully ratified a union contract last year while a location in Calgary is also organizing

The Everett employees will vote on whether to join the SB Workers United union, which represents the Buffalo Starbucks workers.

It's really about what we can do to secure our own safety because it clearly isn't the priority of management or executives- Jacob Fullerton, Starbucks employee

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

Votes to unionize in Buffalo were met with what baristas said were aggressive company tactics, including flooding local cafés with executives, holding meetings with employees and even bringing in ex-CEO Howard Schultz to talk to workers about the existing wage hikes and benefits.

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

Jacob Fullerton is store supervisor at the Starbucks in Everett. (Submitted by Jacob Fullerton)

In October, the company announced plans to increase the average wage of baristas to nearly $17 U.S. dollars an hour by summer 2022. Over the last two years, the company added benefits for mental health, family health and sick leave.

"There's already half-decent benefits, but there's a long way they can go," Fullerton said. 

Concerns about worker safety 

He says one of the impetuses behind the union drive is concern for worker safety.

"I can't tell you how many times I've had to take the window from another barista because they're being sexually harassed," he said.

"Day to day, the thing that bothers people most is just how they're treated. And I sure hope that will change."

Alexis Rizzo, a Buffalo, N.Y., Starbucks employee, speaks during a press conference after their union-election viewing party on Dec. 9, 2021. (Joshua Bessex/The Associated Press)

During the pandemic, Fullerton says there have been customers entering his store without masks and yelling at staff.

"We're actually told by management that we can't refuse them service, even though on the door it says we have the right to," he said.

Starbucks spokesperson Reggie Borges told As It Happens that customers are required to wear masks in cafés only if local county rules require them. If someone enters without the required mask, there is an alternative way to serve them.

"We believe that the right approach to serve the customer is to give a mask," Borges said. "You can [also] say, 'Why don't you wait outside and we'll get the drink for you.'

"We don't want to police people to wear masks, but give customers the choice," the spokesperson added, emphasizing that it's up to employees to make situations less tense.

Over the last few weeks, Fullerton has been preparing his fellow employees for contract talks with management.

Should the workers vote to unionize, management is required to hold contract talks "in good faith" under U.S. labour law. Still, there is no obligation to meet the workers' demands.

"It's really about what we can do to secure our own safety, because it clearly isn't the priority of management or executives," Fullerton said. 

Written by Mehek Mazhar with files from The Associated Press. Interview with Jacob Fullerton produced by Chris Harbord.

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