As Starbucks workers seek union, company officials converge on stores

BUFFALO – During her decade-plus at Starbucks, Michelle Eisen says she’s endured her fair share of stress at work. It highlights the company’s increased use of productivity targets, insufficient attention to training, and periods of understaffing or high turnover.

But she had never encountered a change made by the company after workers at her store and two other Buffalo-area sites applied for a union election in late August: two more “support managers” from outside the state, who often work in the field with the baristas and which Ms. Eisen says has created unease.

“For a lot of new baristas, this is an awesome force,” Ms. Eisen said. “It is not an easy job. It should not be complicated further by feeling like everything you do or say is being watched and heard.

Workers and organizers involved in the organizing drive say the imported managers are part of a company counter-offensive aimed at intimidating workers, disrupting normal operations and undermining support for the union.

Starbucks says additional managers, along with increasing the number of workers in stores and the arrival of a senior manager from out of town, are standard company practices. He says the changes, which also include the temporary closure of stores in the area, are meant to help improve training and staffing – longstanding issues – and are not a response to the campaign. union but to the contribution of the company solicited from the employees.

“The listening sessions led to requests from partners which resulted in these actions,” said Reggie Borges, spokesperson for Starbucks. “It’s not a decision where our leaders stepped in and said, ‘We’re going to do this and that. We have listened, heard their concerns.

None of the approximately 9,000 company-owned Starbucks locations nationwide are unionized. The prospect of workers being able to form a union appears to reflect a recent increase in union activism nationwide, including strikes in various industries.

According to the National Labor Relations Board, union elections are supposed to take place under “laboratory conditions”, in which workers can vote in an environment free of intimidation, as part of an electoral process that is not controlled by the employer.

Former labor council officials have said the company’s actions could result in an election being quashed on these grounds if the union loses.

“You could say that this is part of a larger series of events that seems to create a tendency for people to be chilled or inhibited,” said Wilma B. Liebman, chairman of the board under the Obama administration. .

A labor council official recently recommended that a union election at an Amazon warehouse in Alabama be called off for similar reasons, but Mr Borges said Starbucks didn’t think anything he had done would justify the annulment of an election.

Starbucks has faced union campaigns before, including in the early 2000s in New York and in 2019 in Philadelphia, where the dismissal of two employees involved in unionization was ruled illegal by a labor council judge. Starbucks appealed the decision.

While none of the campaigns were successful in this country, one Starbucks-owned store in Canada recently unionized and some stores owned by other companies that have licensing agreements with Starbucks are unionized.

Most of the reactions from Starbucks in Buffalo – where union supporters seek to join Workers United, an affiliate of the giant Service Employees International Union – are typical of employers. The measures include holding meetings with employees in which company officials question the need for a third party to represent them.

Starbucks is also seeking to persuade the labor council to require workers at 20 Buffalo-area stores to participate in elections, rather than allowing stores to vote individually, arguing that employees can spend time in multiple locations. (Union organizers generally prefer to vote in smaller units to increase the chances of gaining a foothold in at least some places.) The board is expected to vote on this issue and set an election date in the coming weeks.

But some of the company’s actions during the union campaign are unorthodox, according to labor law experts. “Huge staff increases, store closures, all of this is unusual,” said Matthew Bodie, a professor of law at the University of St. Louis and a former lawyer for the labor council.

A recent visit to a Starbucks near the airport, where workers applied for a union election, revealed at least nine baristas behind the counter, but only a handful of customers.

“This is insane,” said Alexis Rizzo, a longtime Starbucks employee who spearheaded the recruiting campaign at the store. “Even if you’re just trying to run backwards to grab a gallon of milk, now you have to run an obstacle course to accommodate anyone who has no real reason to be there.”

Ms Rizzo said the sheer number of employees in the store at one time – which she said had reached teenagers – made those predating the union elections to feel overwhelmed and demoralized. “It’s intimidating,” she said. “You go to work and it’s just you and 10 people you don’t know. “

Starbucks said the additional staff were intended to help the store after an increase in sick workers.

Some of the additional employees came to the airport from a nearby store that Starbucks recently turned into a training facility. This store does not have a pending election petition, but many of its employees have pledged to support the union effort, and some also feel separated and disoriented.

“Initially, people thought our store would need a little reset,” said Colin Cochran, a pro-union employee at the store that has been turned into a training center, which has been primarily assigned to other locations. since then. “As things are dragging on and we’re being sent to more and more other stores, it’s frustrating. We want to meet again.

Workers said their anxiety was exacerbated by the sudden appearance of new directors and managers from out of town.

In a video of a meeting in September, a district manager in Arizona tells his colleagues that the company has asked him to spend time in Buffalo for the next 90 days. “There is a huge task force out there trying to resolve the issue because if Buffalo, NY is unionized, it will be the first market in Starbucks history,” the district manager says in the video, provided by someone at the meeting and seen by The New York Times. When someone asks if the task force is a “last ditch effort to try to stop it”, the district director replies, “Yes, we are going to save it”.

Will Westlake, a barista in a Buffalo suburb called Hamburg, where workers have also filed for a union election, said a store newspaper showed several company officials from outside the area of Buffalo had visited the store in the past six weeks. At least seven visits from Rossann Williams, Starbucks President of Retail North America, have been included.

Officials sometimes work on laptops in front of baristas, sometimes join them behind the bar to work and learn about the store, and sometimes perform menial tasks like cleaning the bathroom, Mr. Westlake said. He said many of his colleagues felt intimidated by these officials and found Ms Williams’ presence “surreal”.

Starbucks said many of the managers were regional leaders and coaches who were helping solve operational issues and reshaping stores, and were part of a company-wide effort dating back to May, when Covid-19 infection rates have declined and stores across the country have become busier.

“The upturn in business came so quickly that we weren’t prepared,” Ms. Williams said in an interview.

The company says it has added staff in a number of cities beyond Buffalo, particularly in the Midwest and Mountain West, and has recruited an additional recruiter in each of its 12 regions this spring. to speed up recruitment. He said he had turned around 40 stores across the country into temporary training centers.

One Saturday in October, Ms Williams visited the training store, saying little as she stood behind a group of workers as a trainer gave them instructions at the bar.

Later, sitting outside the store to discuss her work in Buffalo, she dismissed the idea that a temporary store closure or other significant changes could jeopardize the lab conditions of the union election.

“If I went to a market and saw the state that some of these stores are in and didn’t do anything about it, it would be so against my job,” she said. “There is no way I can come here and say I won’t do anything.” “