It’s become a common sight: jubilant Starbucks SBUX-Q workers celebrating after successful votes to unionize at dozens of U.S. stores.
But when the celebrations die down, a daunting hurdle remains: To win the changes they seek – like better pay and more reliable schedules – unionized stores must sit down with Starbucks and negotiate a contract.
It’s a painstaking process that can take years.
“The meat is at the bargaining table,” said AJ Jones, Starbucks’ senior vice president of global communications and a former consultant to companies during labour negotiations.
At least 85 of Starbucks’ 9,000 company-run U.S. stores – representing 7,444 workers – have voted to unionize since December, according to the National Labor Relations Board, and at least 10 stores have rejected the union. Many more elections are coming; at least 268 stores across the U.S. have petitioned the NLRB to hold union elections.
The labour board says it has officially certified 64 of those 85 elections, which means Starbucks must begin bargaining with the union at those stores. So far, just three – two in Buffalo, New York, and one in Mesa, Arizona – have begun the process; many others are talking to Starbucks about dates to begin negotiating, according to Workers United, which represents the unionized stores.
All this is happening amid tensions between Workers United and the Seattle coffee giant, which opposes unionization. Already, the NLRB has filed 56 complaints against Starbucks for various labour law violations, including firing workers for union activity. Starbucks has filed two complaints against the union, saying labour organizers harassed and intimidated workers at some stores.
Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, a long-time union foe, said during a corporate earnings call in May that the company respects the rights of Starbucks’ employees and will bargain where it’s required to. But he also insisted that employees don’t need a union to get the best-in-class wages and benefits Starbucks provides.
“Sharing success through wins and benefits with our partners is among our core values, and has been for 50 years,” Schultz said.
Schultz then announced $200 million in new investments for non-union stores, including raises for veteran employees and more training time for new baristas. The company even promised one of the union’s priorities – credit card tipping – before the end of this year.
Schultz said federal labour law prohibits the company from automatically sharing those investments with unionized stores. But labour experts say that’s a classic anti-union tactic, and Starbucks could easily offer the new benefits as part of the bargaining process.
Joe Thompson, a Starbucks worker who recently helped organize successful union elections at two stores in Santa Cruz, California, said the announcement confused and upset workers – and, for many, underscored the need for a union.
“They’re literally threatening to improve the material conditions at non-union stores,” Thompson said. “But they can take those benefits away at any point. If we have our contract, they can’t take those things away.”
Even when workers do successfully organize, there’s no guarantee it will stick, as evidenced in 1987 when Starbucks employees voted to decertify the union that represented a handful of Seattle stores just two years after voting it in.
But this time, Starbucks labour organizers say they’re determined to see the process through.
Jaz Brisack, a Starbucks employee and labour organizer who is at the bargaining table in Buffalo, said more stores around the country would like to begin negotiating, but the company has been slow to start.
Starbucks said the delays aren’t intentional, and the company is simply following the process. Spokesman Reggie Borges said the union’s insistence on store-by-store union elections – instead of regional ones, as Starbucks requested – is one reason bargaining is limping along.
Labor experts say it’s common for employers to drag out the bargaining process in an effort to take the wind out of union campaigns.
In a 2009 study, Kate Bronfenbrenner, the director of labour education research at Cornell’s ILR School, found that fewer than half of unions obtained their first contract within a year of winning an election. Bronfenbrenner is in the process of updating those numbers, but says it appears little has changed.
“There’s nothing the board can do to force bargaining,” she said.
Brisack said bargaining sessions, which began in January, are held via Zoom every two or three weeks, with Starbucks employees and a representative from the Workers United on one side and Starbucks staff – including district managers and regional leaders – and attorneys on the other.
Brisack said bargainers surveyed workers and are developing contract language based on their priorities. Among their proposals: “just cause” language that makes it harder to fire workers, annual cost of living pay increases, compensation for employees who do extra work when stores are understaffed and the ability to let customers add tips to credit card purchases.
If an agreement is reached, it will likely become a template for other stores, but with tweaks to reflect local needs. Drive-thru stores need different language, for example.
U.S. labour law doesn’t set a deadline for agreeing to a contract. In fact, it doesn’t even require that an agreement be reached. It only requires both parties to bargain in good faith.
“The overall approach with the law is to encourage the parties to reach an agreement that they both can live with,” said Risa Lieberwitz, a professor of labour and employment law at Cornell University and the academic director of the university’s Worker Institute.
If the two sides reach an impasse, they could call in a mediator or file charges of “bad faith” bargaining with the NLRB. But that process is time-consuming, and the legal penalties for “bad faith” bargaining are weak, Lieberwitz said. The NLRB may order the offender to change its tactics, for example, or require leaders to publicly admit they broke the law. There are no financial penalties.
The union does have the power to strike, which could pressure Starbucks into reaching an agreement, Lieberwitz said. But Starbucks might also successfully convince workers that the company functions best without a union.
That’s what happened at a Starbucks in Springfield, Virginia, where workers rejected unionization in a 10-8 vote in April. Labor organizer and barista Tim Swicord said his store is well run, and workers didn’t want to risk changing that.
Swicord said he’s taking some time to listen to his colleagues and won’t try to hold another election anytime soon. But he still supports the union.
“It’s a long road, but we are a piece of the puzzle,” Swicord said. “We’ll fit in somehow.”
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