Battling Starbucks

How Starbucks Workers United is challenging the coffee empire—and how the empire is striking back.

By Saurav Sarkar | January/February 2023

This article is from Dollars & Sense: Real World Economics, available at

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The Starbucks Workers United (SBWU) organizing drive started small and then exploded like confetti at a victory parade. From its beginning in upstate New York in late summer 2021, it quickly spread to establish over 270 unionized stores in dozens of U.S. states by winter 2022. However, in 2022, the empire struck back, and a brutal campaign—by U.S. standards—of union-busting ground new union filings to a halt. The nearly $120 billion company (which posted more than $26 billion in profits last year) provided better benefits and wages to nonunion stores, fired about 100 workers allegedly in retaliation, cut hours, short-staffed stores, and even closed some unionized outlets.

In September 2022, SBWU and its parent union, Workers United, an 80,000-member affiliate of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), started working on an escalation plan to take the momentum back. This culminated in a national strike on Starbucks’ annual Red Cup Day (which is when the company gives away free reusable red cups during the holiday season) on November 17 at more than 110 stores, followed by rallies in 10 cities across the country to celebrate the first anniversary of the union’s first election victory on December 9, and a second national strike over three days in mid-December.

Despite Starbuck’s anti-union maneuvers, there has already been a slight uptick in new stores filing to unionize in recent months, but for SBWU and Workers United to maintain this momentum, it is likely going to take all the work, creativity, and appropriate balance between traditional unionism and grassroots movement-building strategies that they can muster. The artful combination of these two organizing approaches is what got them to where they are today. Now they need to navigate the same material circumstances that spurred their initial efforts to organize workers in the face of a massive corporation that is trying to crush them. As of November 2022, Starbucks was finally willing to meet with workers at some of their stores, but the company walked out of bargaining sessions after a matter of minutes. Of the 270-plus stores that are now unionized, no contracts have been reached between Workers United and Starbucks.

“It’s gonna take like forever to get a contract, especially since they don’t want to bargain,” said Billie Nyx, a fired Starbucks shift supervisor in New Orleans, in August.

A danger for workers is that Starbucks, from behind the scenes, can illegally attempt to push workers to petition to decertify their unions. Generally speaking, workers in a given bargaining unit can, after a year of having their union officially approved by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), ask for a new vote to get rid of the election. In this case, the union must again win by a majority vote to remain the representative of the workers. Companies often rely on these “decert petitions” to rid themselves of unions. Another danger is that the company could demoralize a workforce that is already subject to enormous turnover and stress. A third possibility is that the next U.S. presidential election could severely alter the direction of the NLRB, which has thus far stepped in as a fair administrative referee.

The Backstory

“Baristas of the world, unite!” proclaimed the Communist Party of the United States of America (CPUSA) in a 2019 article. Their declaration turned out to be a little premature—or prescient—but organizing in the coffee retail industry is not new in the United States, even at Starbucks.

In the 1980s, several Starbucks stores were unionized by the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW). Twenty-five years later, in 2005, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) attempted to organize the company’s workers, leaving a lasting imprint on the current movement.

But when future scholars trace the history of the current organizing drive at Starbucks, they should look first to the work done at Gimme! Coffee, a small chain of espresso bars in Ithaca, N.Y., say sources at Workers United.

Gimme!’s baristas joined the union in 2017 with the help of the Tompkins County Workers’ Center, establishing the first barista union in the country in recent decades. It was also the first foray of Workers United into barista organizing, setting it on a course to eventually become the parent union of SBWU.

A Rochester-based employee of SPoT Coffee reached out to the Workers United regional joint board in upstate New York a year or two later, which was headed by elected leader Gary Bonadonna. Bonadonna, Richard Bensinger, an organizer with Workers United and senior adviser on the SBWU campaign, and SPoT baristas like Philip Kneitinger and Phoenix Cerny organized the regional chain SPoT Coffee in 2019—and established a strong presence of the union in Buffalo, N.Y. As Bensinger tells it, it wasn’t so much that Workers United had been trying to organize a national Starbucks drive, but that they fell into one. They set about putting together a “geographic restaurant project” in Buffalo, as Bensinger told The Progressive, where the union would try to organize the industry in a particular area rather than going company by company across the country.

New Hope for Baristas

Starbucks was Buffalo’s white whale. But by the time Workers United was getting ready to work in earnest on a campaign at the coffee megachain’s stores there in the first months of 2020, the pandemic hit, putting a halt to everything.

It was only after learning some lessons about Zoom-based organizing from a Boston coffee campaign that Bensinger, alongside workers like Jaz Brisack and others, were able to restart Starbucks organizing in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic. By the late summer of 2021, up to 50 Starbucks workers, including Brisack, were part of a citywide committee encompassing about 18 of the 20 Buffalo stores that Workers United had started organizing.

The first three stores to file for a union election with the NLRB did so in August 2021. “A lot of us were kind of unsure whether the movement could grow much beyond Buffalo,” said Buffalo barista Colin Cochran in July 2021.

Others, however, were more optimistic based on support they were receiving behind the scenes from baristas elsewhere in the country. After Brittany Harrison, a well-liked, cancer-stricken manager was fired from a store in Mesa, Ariz., allegedly for whistleblowing on union-busting, workers there filed for a union election in mid-November 2021. Workers in Austin, Texas, and two stores in Boston were also in touch with Workers United in Buffalo.

“My expectation was that it wasn’t going to go national until after we won here in Buffalo. So my surprise really came from this one store willing to take that on before we have these wins,” said barista and production stage manager Michelle Eisen, also in July. “And then there was the acknowledgement that if something went wrong here in Buffalo, and we didn’t win…that would be the end of it right there,” she added.

Importantly, the NLRB ruled in October 2021 that individual stores could be bargaining units, rather than workers having to organize on a district-wide level. Trying to win elections on the district level would have made it almost impossible for the union to win.

However, with no unionized, company-run stores as of August 2021, Starbucks was not about to concede a 280,000-person city lightly. (Thousands of Starbucks stores throughout the United States are actually licensed to, and thus run by, other companies.) Starbucks went into attack mode.

Over the fall, an intense and now-infamous anti-union drive consumed Buffalo’s Starbucks. It showed its workers in full flush that beneath the veneer of calling its workers “partners,” Starbucks is a capitalist enterprise above and beyond all else. Managers were flown in from across the country—as many as 100—to undermine union support, even as the company made missteps. For example, then-former CEO Howard Schultz compared corporate culture to Holocaust victims sharing a blanket. And, at the same company meeting with workers in November 2021, company staff deadnamed employees in the disproportionately LGBTQ+ workforce. (Deadnaming is when someone uses a transgender or gender-nonconforming person’s assigned name rather than the name they have chosen for themselves.)

The corporate bigwigs from out of town instructed workers to vote no in union elections, came into stores without identifying themselves as higher-ups and attempted to cajole workers into not supporting the union, and engaged in other illegal practices. Starbucks also hired new employees at some of the stores in an alleged attempt to cancel out the “yes” votes of other workers.

By the time of the union authorization vote on December 18, 2021, the 20 stores with organizing drives in late summer had been whittled down to just six. The first election results were announced on December 9, 2021.

Workers at the Camp Road Hamburg location lost their vote. Workers at the Genesee Street loction appeared to win, only to have enough ballots challenged by the company to throw the outcome into limbo. But workers at the Elmwood location won 19-8, making them the first unionized, company-run Starbucks in the country. The floodgates opened.

By the end of December, including the store in Mesa, Ariz., workers at seven stores around the country had filed to unionize, exceeding the number in Buffalo. By the end of January 2022, another 43 stores in 19 states had filed. By the end of February, another 45 had filed. By the end of March, it was another 46. The wheels had come off Starbucks’ efforts to stop unionization efforts.

At the same time, a new nationwide campaign had been born. These were heady days for the network of baristas now known as SBWU, a worker network of about 7,000 members as of November 2022.

The workers had definitively won the first phase of the war, setting the stage for an epic fight to win a first contract.

Starbucks Strikes Back

Starbucks continued to respond to the spread of union drives in the only way it appears to know how: with union-busting. For example, it fired seven workers at a store in Memphis, Tenn., in February. But even so, Schultz, who is often referred to as the “founder” of the company even though he did not found it, was allegedly not happy with the pace of anti-union activity.

The former CEO took his old job back in April 2022 with a self-directed mandate to crush SBWU. In April, he said at a town hall meeting with Starbucks workers that companies in the United States were being “assaulted…by the threat of unionization.”

As store after store continued to file to unionize in the spring, the company began to take strong steps to curb the expansion of SBWU’s organizing drive. Baristas say Starbucks launched an intensive and retaliatory campaign to undermine their organizing efforts, continuing the precedent set in Buffalo. This included everything from hiring new workers and short-staffing stores, to refusing to turn off mobile orders during busy periods.

And then there were the impacts of company policy. In May, Starbucks announced that it would provide new and better benefits and a raise to nonunion stores only, in most cases excluding stores that had not yet won a union but had filed to form one. The company also demanded that all workers increase the number of hours they were available, even on days when they weren’t scheduled to work.

And in some newly unionized stores, it placed managers at the helm that ranged from incompetent to actively hostile. For example, one new manager in Boston incited a nine-week strike demanding her removal. Another manager in Anderson, S.C., accused workers of kidnapping and assault during a “march on the boss” (which is when a group of employees confront their boss in an attempt to air grievances and demand resolution), a common organizing tactic. At Starbucks’s upscale roastery in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan, the company refused to provide workers with proof that a moldy ice machine that had sickened employees, or bedbugs that had been spotted, had been adequately dealt with. The company went so far as to question the veracity of the workers’ claims until a state inspection found the union was telling the truth.

Perhaps most notably, SBWU said the company refused to bargain in good faith with the 270-plus union stores. For months, Starbucks just refused to sit down with workers at stores at all.

Then, in September 2022 it suddenly reversed course and sent letters to 234 of the union stores asking them to join the company at the bargaining table. However, by late October 2022, during one day of negotiations the company walked out of bargaining rooms in Buffalo, Ann Arbor, Mich., Louisville, Ky., Chicago, and Lakewood, Calif., over the issue of Zoom use. This was despite the fact that workers and Starbucks had used Zoom for previous bargaining meetings. Starbucks and its lawyers now object vehemently to Zoom use during bargaining, arguing its initial use was due to pandemic circumstances.

Observers argue that Starbucks’ strategy may be one of several—from waiting it out until it can illegally call for the decertification of the unions after a year, to demoralizing workers and relying on turnover and other factors—that the company is using to undermine the unions. That’s assuming the company has a strategy at all, which at least one labor observer who did not wish to be named questioned. Regardless, if the empire struck back, it did so successfully.

By the middle of the year, Starbucks had largely arrested the growth of new unions. There are signs that this trend is reversing as of the end of 2022, but not nearly at the same rate as in the months after the Elmwood victory. And sales at the chain are as robust as ever, not even including the billions it makes from outside the United States in mostly nonunion environments.

At the same time, virtually everything Starbucks has done to arrest the spread of the union and undermine SBWU has been illegal, and there may be a serious price to pay. The NLRB—while limited in its enforcement powers—is not entirely toothless and has already sought five injunctions at federal court to restore fired workers to their positions, winning at least one. It’s also sought a national cease-and-desist order against Starbucks’ union-busting tactics more generally.

Having the NLRB as a neutral arbiter echoing the allegations made by baristas about the coffee giant’s illegal practices may benefit workers in the long run.

Return of the Baristas?

With the two sides at loggerheads and each having claimed one round of the fight, what happens next will determine the ultimate fate of SBWU.

Will SBWU be able to maintain itself, let alone grow into a truly all-encompassing Starbucks worker movement? Currently, it represents about 3% of the company’s approximately 255,000 U.S. workers at 3% of its company-run stores in the United States.

Externally, signs indicate that SBWU and Workers United are moving into a counterattack against Starbucks, and they’re beginning to escalate. Whereas in their last organizing phase they largely relied on scores of one-off strikes at individual stores and filing legal complaints with the NLRB, more recently SBWU and Workers United have behaved in a more coordinated, militant way. In 2022, there was the national one-day strike on November 17, rallies in cities across the country on December 9, and then a three-day strike in mid-December.

It’s possible that in the coming months and years, they won’t succeed, that the movement will wither or fold. There’s no way to deny that as a possibility, given the sad state of U.S. labor law, the improbability of organizing a new industry, and the viciousness of the company’s response.

But it’s clear that something significant has already happened through the campaign, whether in the narrative SBWU and Workers United have established, or the material gains they’ve generated in higher wages and better benefits for Starbucks workers across the United States.

Starting from just one store union in early December 2021, SBWU has now established over 270 store unions within a year, in the face of brutal union-busting. And other coffee chains like Peet’s Coffee and independent stores like Korshak Bagels and others in Philadelphia are increasingly feeling the union bug.

This should all be cause for reflection as SBWU continues to fight for a better future for its workforce.

is an independent writer based in the New York area. Follow his writing at or on Twitter @sauravthewriter.

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