On Monday, April 25, the N. Charles cafe in Baltimore’s Mt. Vernon neighborhood became the first Starbucks location in Maryland to unionize. The final election results, certified by the National Labor Relations Board, were a clean sweep: 14 “Yes” votes and zero “No” votes out of 22 eligible voters, with zero voided ballots. In this special podcast edition of Battleground Baltimore, recorded minutes after the official vote count, TRNN Editor-in-Chief Maximillian Alvarez speaks with four Starbucks partners from the N. Charles location—Violet Sovine, Nico Finol, Jennifer Clawson, and Kieren Levy—about their collective fight for an inclusive, safe, and democratic workplace, and about the larger movement to organize Starbucks partners across the country.
Pre-Production/Studio: Maximillian Alvarez
Post-Production: Jules Taylor
Maximillian Alvarez: Welcome, everyone, to The Real News Network podcast. My name is Maximilian Alvarez. I’m the editor-in-chief here at The Real News, and it’s so great to have y’all with us. So, we are sitting here at the Hotel Indigo in downtown Baltimore on Monday, April 25, where the North Charles Starbucks location just became the first Starbucks in Maryland to successfully vote to unionize. And it wasn’t even close. The final tally was 14 yes votes, zero no votes, zero voided ballots, 22 eligible voters. So that, my friends, is a clean sweep.
And I believe before this election, nationwide, we were up to 28 stores around the country that had successfully voted to unionize, with only two voting against. And I think the tally as of now is over 220 stores that have officially filed in 31 states for a union election. So this is a movement, it is unstoppable, and we’re just along for the ride. And I couldn’t be more honored to be joined by three partners from the North Charles store who have agreed to chat with us for this special Battleground Baltimore edition of The Real News podcast. Thank you all so much for joining me. Why don’t we go around the table and introduce yourselves?
Jennifer: I’m Jennifer. I work at the 1209 North Charles store. I’ve got my coworkers here.
Nico: Hi, I’m Nico. I’m a shift supervisor at the 1209 North Charles store and yeah… Okay.
Violet: I’m Violet and I’m a barista at the 1209 North Charles store.
Maximillian Alvarez: Well, again, thank you all so much for doing this. I know it’s been a wild and crazy day, so I won’t keep you for too long. I just wanted to ask for Real News listeners if we could hear a little more about you and how you came to work at this store and what your involvement is in the campaign. When did y’all get together and say, hey, let’s do this? And I guess, could you tell us a little more about what that process looked like?
Violet: I started working at the store during the height of COVID. I had just graduated out of college and the whole economy was shut down. No one was hiring. I had experience as a librarian, and the whole library system was on a hiring freeze. And so, I started working at 1209 North Charles and just getting a paycheck, but the community there was great and it was the most trans-positive experience of any workplace I’ve ever been in. But they thought that they could just take advantage of us and knew that we didn’t have any other employment options, a lot of us. And so, we had our health and safety put at risk and just said, enough is enough. And as soon as the Buffalo vote came back, it was like flipping a switch.
Nico: And it’s crazy because if you ask literally any… This could also go for people who are not trans, but most people are driven to Starbucks because you hear that the health insurance is good, and a lot of us need our own health insurance because, you know. And that’s how they keep us there. So if we’re going to be kept there, I would like to build it up with my new friends.
Maximillian Alvarez: But I mean, that’s such a crucial point. Imagine if we didn’t have to rely on our employers for healthcare, how much more freedom we might actually have to make these sorts of choices? And as you said, this is really important healthcare that you all are depending on. And so, that’s… I don’t know. I don’t want to say the word holding hostage, but there’s a similar dynamic there where you are holding healthcare hostage.
Jennifer: I myself and many others, I would say almost every single one of our coworkers, have considered changing jobs, or they’ve applied places and all of that. And we just really are sort of stuck at the store, especially during COVID and everything when there were very few hiring opportunities, and this is the most accessible way for people to get healthcare if you don’t have a college degree, which I don’t. And it’s a good long-term job, especially if you’re gay or trans. That’s the big thing at our store.
Nico: People come up, and they’re like, oh, are you guys hiring? I really want to work here. And you guys are so nice and everyone is gay. And we giggle at it cause it’s like, haha. But it’s very real.
Violet: Because even when we can get a “better job,” a lot of us can experience some other forms of discrimination or harassment that makes the increased pay or the increased benefits not worth it. And so even being able to go to a bad job, but being able to have things taken for granted about your existence, it’s a very important thing that we don’t want to lose, but we also don’t want to be taken advantage of.
Maximillian Alvarez: This is, again, like one of the really incredible things about, I think, the labor movement in general, but especially [greeting from someone passing by] –
Nico: It’s one of our coworkers.
Kirin: No worries. Thank you for coming. [crosstalk] Yes.
Nico: Is it okay?
Maximillian Alvarez: Do you want to hop on a podcast?
Maximillian Alvarez: All right. We got –
Speaker 2: …Down real quick so they can get to their next –
Kirin: Well, we just won 14-0, that’s freaking awesome [crosstalk].
Maximillian Alvarez: All right. So this is a Real News exclusive. We’ve got another Starbucks partner at the North Charles store. Could you introduce yourself?
Kirin: I’m Kirin. I use they/them pronouns, and I just got off work.
Maximillian Alvarez: Hell yeah. Well, congrats. We were just talking about the clean sweep that you all had, and we were going around the table just asking a little bit more about how you came to work at Starbucks and what made you all get together and talk about unionizing.
Kirin: I came to work at Starbucks because I moved to Baltimore and I knew someone who worked there, and I just needed a place that was going to be accepting. For the most part, Starbucks is known for that. I didn’t know anything about unionizing, really. I’ve obviously always been pro-union, but I never really thought that unionizing as Starbucks would be a possibility, because you’re taking on a huge corporation.
Maximillian Alvarez: Right. And I think one of the things that I was just hearing from you all, that I’m hearing from other Starbucks workers around the country that I think is really important and shouldn’t be lost on listeners is, because a lot of times when your manager, your boss will hear you talk about organizing. They’re like, well, if you don’t like it, why don’t you just leave? What I’m hearing from you all is that there’s something important there that you all built together. There’s an accepting workplace. There are benefits that you depend on, and you’re fighting to make your workplace better. You’re not just going to be pushed out. I don’t want to put words in anyone’s mouth, but is that…?
Violet: Oh yeah. We just, right now, have effectively no power over anything, even though we’re the ones who make the stuff and create the product that they sell. Without us, the store can’t remain open and it’s had to close just because during COVID spikes, there just weren’t enough employees to run the shop. And so, we just couldn’t abide by that. And now we’re hoping that this union is an attempt to actually have some semblance of workplace democracy going forward.
Maximillian Alvarez: I don’t want to keep you all too long. So just by way of taking the final turn, you mentioned that once Buffalo unionized, that it was like a switch had been turned on. So I guess, could you take us back to that moment and what kind of conversations were happening amongst you all and your coworkers?
Nico: This is actually so funny because I remember – This is a little bit irrelevant, so I’m sorry if it’s stupid – But I remember I saw this tweet on my Twitter that was all the Buffalo workers celebrating their vote. And I commented, I was like, us next, as a little joke because we’re discussing it. And then exactly one month later, we got to post our letter and go. And I thought it was nice. Because it really was just a joke.
Maximillian Alvarez: JK. Unless…
Nico: No, literally. Quite literally.
Violet: Because we all had talked about, oh, this sucks, we should unionize, that’d stick it to them. But it just wasn’t real until one store was able to actually get it done. And now it’s literally like a prairie fire, it’s just unstoppable across the country. So, there’s a big [fifths] in the dynamics between labor and capital, and I’m personally more optimistic than I’ve been in a while about our position in things. And this vote today was, I feel, an expression of what’s an almost universal frustration with our position right now.
Kirin: Yeah. I remember when Buffalo unionized and Violet approached me and was like, what do you think about this? And at first I was like, I mean, that’s really awesome. In my head I was like, is that even something we could do? And then, she really just kept talking about it and I was like, yeah, let’s do it. So good work.
Jennifer: Yeah. That’s a common strain where people see food service workers as… Well, they see the jobs as little, unimportant, temporary positions for people to go in to make money on the side and then leave when they get a real job later. But there’s so many people that work in food service that work there for their living. All of us do. And there’s so many more beyond people that work at Starbucks. And I think that people are just very recently realizing that these positions can be better. And the people that work in these positions are significant and important and they need to be treated with respect, because everyone just takes it for granted that people are going to be at the Starbucks to make their caramel macchiatos for them, or you can just go to a McDonald’s and people are going to serve you a burger, and things like that. But there’s labor that goes into that, and it doesn’t just magically appear at the counter. And we just wanted better things for the work that we do.
Maximillian Alvarez: Well, regardless of how long people stay at those jobs, those people are still people. They’re still human beings.
Maximillian Alvarez: So you should still be treated with respect.
Violet: A lot of us had worked food service jobs before, so we understood that we’re not treated with any sort of respect. But when COVID hit, we realized that, oh, we’re expendable to these people. They are willing to risk our life and limb to make a few cents off of our labor. And it was a wake up call. It was a wake up call to a lot of people, I think.
Nico: I’d also like to highlight specifically, the Starbucks barista experience is so like… It’s this image of, oh, the Starbucks barista. I see them every day. We’re best friends. They recommend drinks for me. They’re always filmed in TikToks. They film TikToks themselves. And it’s really strange. And it’s just created the craziest, both what people have done with it and also what the company itself presents the Starbucks barista to be. It’s just created these insane expectations for us that I feel are unique to our experience. It’s very interesting.
Maximillian Alvarez: You’re the walking billboards for the culture that Starbucks wants to present. In a way, you’re the people that people come in to see. And you have that place in people’s lives who come in all the time. But again, it’s just like, if workers do mean that much to customers and to the company, prove it. Show it. And I guess in that vein, because I know y’all have had a wild day and you’ve probably got celebrations to get to or rest to get. So I just wanted to ask by way of rounding out, what happens now? What should folks listening have their eye on, and what can they do to support you all and Starbucks workers around the country?
Violet: Now we go into contract negotiations, where we’re going to try and hopefully get some of the benefits that we’ve been talking about as well as some of the protections against the more heinous behavior of management. In terms of support, start a union at your place, get as many people into this movement as possible. Because it’s going to take all sectors to keep the pressure off and to be able to not only get better benefits for our store, but to raise the living standards and the power of workers all across the world and in all sections of the economy.