Workers at a Starbucks coffee shop in Baltimore City’s Mount Vernon neighborhood recently announced that they were organizing their workplace, joining a swell of labor action in different sectors by workers who have been emboldened amid worsening workplace conditions during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The workers are demanding better wages, better working conditions, and scheduling stability from the corporate giant, which markets itself as a pioneer in corporate and social responsibility. They have sought representation through Workers United, an affiliate of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) that’s helping to unionize Starbucks workers around the country.
“There wasn’t a soul out that wasn’t looking for some way out of the situation that COVID put service workers in,” Violet Sovine, a worker-organizer at the unionizing Starbucks, told Battleground Baltimore. “And Buffalo has given us a clear path for organizing ourselves and pushing back against those deplorable conditions that we’ve been put into.”
Sovine has worked at Starbucks since October 2020.
Organizers say the unionization drive has support from the majority of the store’s staff. On Jan. 15, 15 workers at the store signed a letter, which was then posted on social media, calling on Starbucks President and CEO Kevin Johnson to halt the company’s “anti-union” campaign and voluntarily recognize their union by Jan. 19.
“We’ve run ourselves ragged in increasingly stressful working conditions without reaping any of the benefits, and the only way to improve these conditions is to organize as a unified working class and assert democratic control over our workplace,” the letter reads.
Starbucks has not yet responded to the letter, so Mount Vernon Starbucks workers plan to file for an election with the National Labor Relations Board.
In 2021, after Starbucks learned many of its workers were organizing for better pay and working conditions, the company announced a $15 minimum wage that would go into effect at its stores this summer. For Baltimore Starbucks workers like Ngaire Philip, a supervisor who has worked there since Sept. 2019 and is helping organize the union, that’s not enough.
“The $15 minimum wage should have been the minimum wage 10 years ago. It’s seriously outdated,” Philip told Battleground Baltimore.
Staffing shortages are another major concern for Starbucks workers.
“There are times when there aren’t enough people to operate the store,” Sovine said. “If there’s not enough people to do your job the store shouldn’t be open.”
Some workers also report having to work multiple jobs because they are not scheduled for sufficient hours at Starbucks. Workers hope the union can push Starbucks to adopt better labor practices across its supply chain.
“This is just not unionizing my store, this is helping contribute towards the greater goal that every workplace has the option to unionize,” said Philip.
Starbucks workers at a Buffalo store became the first out of 9,000 corporate-owned US stores to unionize in December, and a second Buffalo-area Starbucks officially unionized on Jan. 10.
Despite a sustained anti-union campaign from Starbucks, workers in locations around the country have announced campaigns to unionize—and more announcements are coming every week, including from Starbucks’ hometown. “On Monday night,” As Motherboard senior staff writer Lauren Gurley writes, “two Starbucks stores in Seattle filed for union elections with the National Labor Relations Board, the latest in a nationwide flurry of more than 30 Starbucks stores to petition for union elections with Starbucks Workers United.” Voting is currently underway at a Mesa, Arizona, location, although Starbucks is trying to pause that vote or stop it altogether.
According to Recca Hess, organizing director for the Mid-Atlantic Regional Joint Board of Workers United, the union drive among Starbucks workers is “an organic movement.”
Hess helped the Baltimore Starbucks workers organize after they reached out and is also preparing the workers for Starbucks’ inevitable anti-union campaign.
“Nobody is giving anyone hearts and flowers here, they know. These workers are talking to each other across the nation,” Hess said.
Similarly, Sovine is focused on solidarity.
“Spread the movement, organize in your own workplace and community,” Sovine said. “Help us build the infrastructure we need to push this as far as we can take it.”
Workers have accused Starbucks of using aggressive tactics to stifle their unionization efforts, including holding captive audience meetings and shuttering two other Buffalo-area stores that tried to unionize. Company executives even swarmed stores in Buffalo in a tactic workers called an attempt at intimidation.
The union drive at the Baltimore Starbucks is part of an energizing upswell of union activity among frontline workers across the city during the pandemic. Workers at the Walters Art Museum and the Baltimore Museum of Art, for instance, have also moved to unionize in recent months.
Nationally, coal miners at Warrior Met Coal and John Deere factory workers have gone on strike to secure better pay and working conditions, while workers at tech companies like Amazon are organizing despite extreme anti-union campaigns by bosses. Still, despite the recent visibility of collective actions by workers across all these industries, the sobering reality is that union density in the US has continued to decline. Union membership fell by 2% in 2021, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, bringing overall union density to 10.3%.
Although the Baltimore Starbucks workers are continuing their unionization effort, the store was closed on Thursday, Jan. 20, and reopened Tuesday, Jan. 25. A sign on the door said “Sorry we missed you” and noted that “store hours have been temporarily changed.” The reason the Starbucks closed, according to workers, is because of COVID-19 infections among the staff.
For the workers, this effectively proves their point about their working conditions: Serving coffee during the pandemic is dangerous, and workers should have more of a say over what constitutes safe operating conditions and staffing levels.
One Starbucks worker in Baltimore, who did not want to be identified, emphasized the treatment workers have received during the pandemic.
“We are considered ‘essential workers,’ but have only been shown how disposable we are,” they said. “There needs to be a change in how we as a society treat our service workers who go through hell and back every day to keep businesses like these alive, and that starts with our worth at a company and our rights as working-class citizens. We are reclaiming our right to be treated as human beings with wants and needs that corporations have stripped away from us for years.”