On April 19, partners at the Maple Street Starbucks location in New Orleans filed a petition with the National Labor Relations Board to hold a union election, which is scheduled for June 3-4. As  the first store in the state of Louisiana to file for a union vote, the Maple Street partners are among several Starbucks locations that have recently joined the nationwide rank-and-file push to organize the country’s largest coffee chain

Starbucks Workers United, a worker-driven collective of Starbucks partners organized within Workers United, a union affiliate of the Service Employees International Union, filed an election petition on behalf of the Maple Street store. According to unionelections.org, there are currently 235 open petitions for union elections at Starbucks stores around the country, covering a total of 6,235 workers (the website also shows a tally of 53 stores that have already successfully voted to unionize, covering 1,526 workers). 

Workers at the Maple Street location in New Orleans say that low wages, limited hours, and chronic understaffing are the main reasons they made the decision to pursue a union.

“Starbucks has always had issues with cutting labor, no matter where you go or when it is,” Billie Nyx, a former shift supervisor and organizer of the union drive, told TRNN. “They started cutting labor about a week or two before Mardi Gras with the explanation that they were ‘spending too much on labor’ (absolute bullshit—without labor there is no profit) and it was really just poor timing to do that. We were breaking our backs at work everyday and telling management that we needed more people, but that was met with ‘We can only have X amount of hours and I can’t go over that.’ It was really a district manager’s decision that put a lot of pressure on all the people who actually run the stores, and they wouldn’t listen when we told them it was an issue.” 

“We were breaking our backs at work everyday and telling management that we needed more people, but that was met with ‘We can only have X amount of hours and I can’t go over that.’ It was really a district manager’s decision that put a lot of pressure on all the people who actually run the stores, and they wouldn’t listen when we told them it was an issue.”

Billie Nyx, recently fired shift supervisor and union organizer at the Maple Street Starbucks location in New Orleans

Partners in New Orleans are hoping to use collective bargaining to secure “hours security” to prevent further understaffing. They also hope a union and a seat at the bargaining table will enable them to push for better health benefits as well as a $20/hr base pay with at least a dollar raise, adjusted for inflation, for every year workers are with the company.

The union drive among Starbucks workers gained momentum in December, after two stores in Buffalo, New York, made history by becoming the first in the US to unionize. Since then, the wave of partners pushing to unionize has spread like a wildfire that the corporate office is frantically struggling (and failing) to contain. With a supermajority of stores that have already voted voting in favor of unionizing—so far, only two stores have voted against unionizing and 11 have withdrawn their petitions—Starbucks Workers United keeps racking up wins, including successful unionization votes at a store in Grand Rapids, Michigan, four stores in Portland, Oregon, as well as two Southern California Starbucks locations, one in Lakewood and one in Long Beach

As vital as it is to spotlight union victories, though, it’s also important to focus on the intense backlash workers have had to endure in response to their organizing efforts, from the firing of the Memphis 7, to the firing of pro-union partners like Cassie Fleischer and Daniel Rojas in Buffalo, to the recent firing of Billie Nyx in New Orleans. As of May 17, Billie Nyx, a shift supervisor who had been leading the charge to organize the New Orleans store, was fired for insubordination. According to their own account, Nyx decided to shut down the store early one day, against corporate’s wishes, due to short staffing. No help was offered by the store manager to cover the staffing shortage, so Nyx made the call to turn off mobile orders and deliveries; in response, Starbucks fired Nyx for being “defiant” and “disrespectful.”

“During a weekend in which we experienced an overwhelming amount of traffic due to events in the city, I made the decision to close my store early due to our lack of staff and inability to keep up with the demand,” Nyx told TRNN. “At the time I was supported by my coworkers on this decision, and I felt that it was my call to make as the shift supervisor and highest form of management present in the store. I was subsequently fired for taking this action, despite others making the same call within our district with no repercussions. I did not expect to be fired for making this decision. It is my personal belief that this was a strategic move made by Starbucks to rid themselves of the most vocal and active union leader in the district, within weeks of our store’s union election.”

Billie Nyx’s lawyer will be filing an unfair labor practice charge against Starbucks with the National Labor Relations Board on their behalf.  

“To me, it feels more like Starbucks corporate is the third party, because the union is made up of the Starbucks workers. I don’t feel like corporate actually knows what’s going on in its stores.”

MacKinnon Allen, Starbucks Partner and worker-organizer at the Maple Street Starbucks location in New Orleans

Starbucks executives, spokespeople, and high-ranking managers have repeatedly claimed that unions don’t represent Starbucks’s values, painting pro-union workers and the union itself—which is made up of the workers themselves—as an intruding “third party” that is “assaulting” the company. I asked six workers at the Maple Street location in New Orleans, “How does it feel to hear claims from corporate executives that the union is a ‘third party’ of ‘outsiders’ who don’t represent ‘Starbucks values’? If you had a chance to talk to Howard Schultz, what would you say?”

ADAM MILLER

Adam Miller, Starbucks partner and worker-organizer at the Maple Street Starbucks location in New Orleans. Photo taken by Jason Kerzinski on May 17, 2022.

It’s kind of insulting because a lot of us are unionizing because we feel like we’re not being heard, like our voice isn’t being heard. And I’ve heard that, in all the board meetings, they leave an empty chair out to represent all of the partners, but that’s what it feels sometimes: like we’re just an empty chair. We don’t have any actual representation. Everything is basically handled by corporate.

The fact is the push to unionize is coming directly from us, and it’s insulting for them to try and act like this is not what we want. And if I could talk to Howard Schultz, I would basically remind him that if we really are supposed to be partners, like they say that we are, then they need to let us actually have our voice be heard. This is the easiest way for us to ensure that happens. 

CAITLYN PIERCE

Caitlyn Pierce, Starbucks partner and worker-organizer at the Maple Street Starbucks location in New Orleans. Photo taken by Jason Kerzinski on May 17, 2022.

There is a narrative that corporate has put out about Starbucks Workers United being comprised of “third party” entities and people that are not working for Starbucks and that do not have our interests in mind. What I say to that is that it’s strictly not true. Starbucks Workers United is made up of Starbucks employees, mainly baristas and shift supervisors, working for change within our stores, the kind of change we need and want to see in our work environments. The only people who are contracted are lawyers—their job is to help us out. 

What I would like to say about Howard Schultz’s response to the union is that he really needs to go back to Starbucks’s fundamental value of community. Because our community starts within the store. We cannot serve people and broaden our horizons to help other community members outside of the store if we cannot deal with our own problems at home. And we, as the workers, need to be the ones to incite that change, because it has been clear that corporate does not want to enact these changes on its own.

BILLIE NYX

Billie Nyx, a recently fired shift supervisor and union organizer at the Maple Street Starbucks location in New Orleans. Photo taken by Jason Kerzinski on May 17, 2022.

Howard Schultz and the company saying that the union is made up of “outside” partners is really frustrating because it’s misinformation that’s meant to scare people into not joining the union. But everyone who is in Starbucks Workers United, with the exception of labor lawyers lending their help, is a current or former Starbucks partner. So, it’s really just a lie. And for him to say that I’m an outsider because I want to do this, and that it goes against Starbucks’ core values… I feel like I want to do this because I want to live up to the Starbucks core values, taking care of my coworkers and my customers, making sure that everybody who comes into our building is happy, whether they’re behind the counter or not. That’s what I’m doing it for.

And if I had a chance to talk to Howard Schultz, I would ask him why he wants to put profit over people. He says that the Starbucks union is trying to destroy the values of the Starbucks mission, but Schultz already did that. I don’t know if he was the CEO when this happened, but when mobile orders started and Uber deliveries started, it defeated the purpose of the Starbucks mission statement of nurturing the human spirit and making genuine human connections. When that happened, it really turned Starbucks from a coffee shop to a fast food place. And that’s something that I want to get away from. I would like to work in a traditional coffee shop with nice benefits and things like that. That’s why I’m sticking with Starbucks—to make it better. 

HOLLY THREETON

Holly Threeton, Starbucks partner and worker-organizer at the Maple Street Starbucks location in New Orleans. Photo taken by Jason Kerzinski on May 17, 2022.

I feel like those claims [from Starbucks corporate] are pretty empty and detached from reality. If the baristas that are unionizing didn’t represent Starbucks or didn’t respect our values or anything like that, they simply could find employment elsewhere. The process of unionizing and dealing with all of that stuff is certainly a lot harder than just finding employment elsewhere or simply dealing with the current environment at Starbucks.

If I had to say anything to Howard Schultz, I’d probably say that he needs to get a reality check. Come in, meet a lot of the people who are going through this and really communicate with them. We feel like there’s a very large disconnect between the reality of what we deal with and what a lot of these corporate individuals are dealing with.

MACKINNON ALLEN

MacKinnon Allen, Starbucks partner and worker-organizer at the Maple Street Starbucks location in New Orleans. Photo taken by Jason Kerzinski on May 17, 2022.

To me, it feels more like Starbucks corporate is the third party, because the union is made up of the Starbucks workers. I don’t feel like corporate actually knows what’s going on in its stores. And I think the union gives us the best chance to speak for ourselves about what we actually have going on and what we want. 

If I had anything to say to Howard Schultz, I guess I would say I think it’s pretty typical of a billionaire to just not let us have a voice. There’s a lot of us who struggle to pay rent and afford stuff for ourselves. To be able to do that and not have to take on multiple jobs while we’re working for this… even though Starbucks says they give great benefits—that’s not really what it is.

NYSA N.

Nysa N., Starbucks partner and worker-organizer at the Maple Street Starbucks location in New Orleans. Photo taken by Jason Kerzinski on May 17, 2022.

It’s really frustrating to hear that, honestly, because it is just a complete misunderstanding of what a union is. It’s not like a union has come into Starbucks and been like, “Hey, you all want to unionize?” It’s all Starbucks employees who have had issues with the company, have had problems with getting their voices heard on the store level. And I think that Howard Schultz often does not have a connection with the store level. I’m not really talking about the Seattle store that he visits, which is kind of a tourist attraction as well. I’m talking about your suburban stores in the middle of Mississippi, or my store in the middle of a small area of New Orleans. 

If I had anything to say to Schultz, I guess I would ask him, “Why do you think this? What makes you think that it’s not your employees? Does that make you feel better about it, acting like it’s not your employees doing this to you because that’s not how we really feel?” We’re not doing this to spite you. We’re doing this because we want to make our work life better, to not have to go a million miles an hour for two to three hours without being able to take a drink of water. We have so many orders that it’s inhumanly possible to actually fill them in a decent amount of time. You’re seeing 30-40 minute waits in stores across the country because we don’t have enough staffing. 

I think that Howard Schultz has had the ear of the customer for a very long time. There’s a lot of ways that customers are able to tell them what they want. There’s a lot of customer analytics and whatnot, which is how mobile orders and things like that came into being. I just don’t think that the same attention has been paid to what the actual impact is on the ground level. We’re trying to tell you, Howard Schutlz, what it is, so you getting defensive about it just makes it impossible to actually talk to you about the real struggle that’s going on in your stores and that’s making it unsustainable for people to continue to work there.

Jason Kerzinski

Jason Kerzinski is a New Orleans-based photojournalist and street portrait photographer. He’s published work in Capital & Main, The Progressive, Scalawag, as well as Antigravity Magazine.