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Starbucks union organizing gave labor a jolt of energy in 2022

Starbucks employees strike outside their store on Nov. 17 in Mesa, Ariz.
Matt York
Starbucks employees strike outside their store on Nov. 17 in Mesa, Ariz.

In labor, this has been the year of the coffee shop.

On Dec. 9, 2021, a group of baristas in Buffalo, New York voted yes to become the first unionized Starbucks in the U.S.

Hundreds of stores followed, spurring a nationwide campaign that saw a surge in union activity across other restaurant chains and non-food industries.

Workers at more than 330 Starbucks locations have held votes with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), the federal agency responsible for enforcing U.S. labor laws, since last December.

To date, 268 stores have voted in favor of forming a union, according to NLRB data provided to NPR. Starbucks employees are organizing with Workers United, an affiliate of the much larger Service Employees International Union.

But unionized stores still represent only about 3% of all company-operated locations across the country.

And the number of stores filing to hold union votes has dropped since peaking this March.


Starbucks has pulled in record sales this year. In the latest fiscal quarter, sales in North America were up 11% compared to the same period last year.

Starbucks has not yet signed any collective bargaining agreement with Workers United. That's largely because the process to reach a first contract can take a long time.

The union Workers United has accused Starbucks of engaging in union-busting tactics and bargaining in bad faith, drawing out the process of negotiations.

Since last December, there have been 457 unfair labor practice charges filed against Starbucks with the NLRB. Starbucks has filed 47 charges against the union, according to NLRB data shared with NPR.

Starbucks has also called out Workers United for misconduct, which the company says includes "broadcasting [bargaining] sessions to unknown individuals not in the room and, in some instances, posting recordings of the sessions online."

"While change is rarely easy, we are proud of our fierce commitment to be a partner-focused company that offers industry-leading compensation and benefit packages," said Starbucks spokeswoman Rachel Wall in an email to NPR.

Wall said the company has invested more than $1 billion over the past year toward providing workers benefits packages. But those packages might not be made available to union members.

After stepping away from the company, longtime Starbucks leader Howard Schultz returned to Starbucks as interim CEO in April at the height of the union drives.

"I do not believe conflict, division and dissension – which has been a focus of union organizing – benefits Starbucks or our partners." Schultz wrote in an April statement upon retaking the helm.

But Workers United has criticized the company for intimidating workers and discouraging them from organizing unions. Some employees said they've experienced retaliation, such as firings and shuttered stores, for their union involvement.

Earlier this year, a judge in Tennessee ruled against Starbucks after union leaders claimed that employees were unjustly fired for their union involvement. Starbucks was required to reinstate those employees.

Most recently, a three-member panel under the NLRB ruled against Starbucks for refusing to bargain with the union at Starbucks' Reserve Roastery, a megacafé in Seattle.

Starbucks had challenged the legitimacy of the union's certification, which was determined by a mail-in vote in April.

The Board is restarting the "certification bar" period to the date Starbucks begins bargaining in good faith, according to Kayla Blado, director and press secretary at the NLRB's Office of Congressional and Public Affairs.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Mary Yang
Mary Yang is an intern on the Business Desk where she covers technology, media, labor and the economy. She comes to NPR from Foreign Policy where she covered the beginning of Russia's war in Ukraine and built a beat on Southeast Asia, Asia and the Pacific Islands.

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