Organizing Starbucks: Face Time with the Billionaire Boss

Sudip Bhattacharya


For two years, Mads Hall has worked at a Starbucks in Long Beach, CA, racing to meet complex orders, filling cups with ice and foam, nodding and smiling as customers hand over cash and slide credit cards. Never once did they imagine that they would one day be sitting in a circle with nineteen other Starbucks employees (sorry, “partners”)—along with billionaire Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz.

The purpose of this face time with the boss was to “rebuild trust” between “partners” and managers. The trust exercise took place in a conference room in a building by a major airport, the ideal place to hash out “partner”-manager differences.

Hall understood the meeting as yet another attempt by Schultz and his executive team to convince Starbucks employees like themselves to halt their efforts to unionize. It seemed clear that their aim was to urge their employees to view management as their “friends,” their allies—friends who were in charge of a great deal of their waking lives, and happened to enjoy incomes that were higher by orders of magnitude.

But as Hall sat and listened to Schultz wax nostalgic about growing up poor—and after having watched a video in which he described the Starbucks partners who were organizing unions as “outsiders”—their indignation and anger started to rise.

Unlike some of the other workers around them, who leaned forward in their seats, absorbing Schultz’s wisdom, Hall couldn’t stop thinking about the working conditions that they and their co-workers had been confronted with. The relentless trudge of preparing convoluted drink orders while woefully understaffed, as long lines of cars formed outside the main window. The hours that were suddenly cut, without warning. One week, there would be 40 hours to rely on. The next, they’d be halved by the store manager.

“There are days when I can’t get overtime,” they explained. “Then there are days I’m expected to come in and stay late. It’s extremely inconsistent and frustrating.”

Such issues have been simmering for a long time now. Stress and frustration have been the norm, especially in the last couple of years. “You don’t have time to breathe,” said Josie Serrano, who works at another Starbucks location, also in Long Beach.

The ideal procedure for a busy coffee place like Starbucks, Serrano explained, is to have one worker up front talking to customers, another handling the hot drinks, someone else who could focus on the cold ones, and at least one other to add foam and flavorings. But Serrano’s three years at the company have instead been a whirlwind of overwork, as Starbucks management refuses to hire or schedule enough staff for most shifts. Often, employees with limited training are thrown onto the main floor, forced to field customer demands (which can be inordinately complex and demanding) while making sure drinks are made properly, counters are wiped down, garbage is taken out, etc.

“Most times, when we go to the shift, you now need to do the cold and hot drinks and the handoff, and restock,” Serrano said. “You need to clean this urn, or start a cold brew. It’s usually a few people doing all this all the time.”

Both Hall and Serrano, like many Starbucks workers across the country, have been approaching their breaking point in the past few years—especially during COVID, when many were expected to work while understaffed and without proper protections. Pay has also been stagnant as costs of living skyrocket. Serrano described working conditions at Starbucks as having “deteriorated.”

Employees Hall and Serrano, as well as Sara Mughal (who works at a location in Hopewell, NJ) and Sydney Durkin (from Seattle, WA, Starbucks’s city of origin), all shared similar experiences in our conversations: chronic understaffing, aloof management, hours that are randomly slashed.

“How are you supposed to pay your bills that way—how are you supposed to plan your life this way?” Mughal said.

Durkin also pointed to safety issues in the workplace. One employee was punched in the face by a customer. Durkin and her co-workers have demanded more security, but until they began to unionize, such concerns had been dismissed.

Like many of their barista colleagues across the country, Hall, Serrano, Mughal, and Durkin have been at the front lines of the struggle to organize labor unions at their stores. Since last December, at least 17 other locations have unionized, including Durkin’s. According to Vox, “170 other locations in about 30 states are slated to vote in the coming weeks and months.”

Mughal’s and Serrano’s stores are among those who have filed for union elections—and both describe a growing excitement at the prospect.

“I just didn’t think it was possible,” Mughal said. “Especially against a company as big as Starbucks.” But that mindset changed once news spread of what was happening in Buffalo, where Starbucks employees first organized in a drive that began last November.

The day that Buffalo won its union election, Durkin was also called to a meeting at her store, where she and her co-workers sat in a circle with management. Yet by that point, after following—and drawing inspiration from—the news of the union effort in Buffalo, Durkin and her co-workers were no longer interested in “conversations.”

Instead, within a couple of weeks of that meeting, they contacted Workers United, which represents many Starbucks workers, including those in Buffalo. They were put in contact with Buffalo employees and others around the country. Soon after, thanks to the guidance of organizers, they filed for a union election.

“The manager was caught off guard, felt offended,” Durkin said, amused.

Mughal’s and Serrano’s locations are also currently in the process of unionization, though not quite as rapidly. In all cases, it was the victory in Buffalo that buoyed their spirits and proved, for the first time, that a corporate behemoth like Starbucks could be defeated. Mughal and Serrano were also assisted by Workers United and connected with other employees nationwide. Group chats were begun, Zoom meetings were held, and information was shared, including on the type of blowback they might expect from management: captive-audience meetings, one-on-ones, pressure tactics, or worse.

A favored strategy of Starbucks’s top brass was to attempt to delay critical votes by claiming that only workers from multiple locations in an area could vote on a union, as opposed to individual stores. This tactic was augmented by anti-union literature that was distributed across stores, with management messaging that portrayed organizers as “outsiders” who were ruining the natural harmony between managers and their “partners.”

Fortunately, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) struck down the claims that individual stores could not file. The Board resolved that the workers at a specific workplace can serve as the main unit voting on unionization, setting an important precedent for future efforts.

Armed with new information and expert advice, Mughal and others began undertaking the day-to-day work of speaking with co-workers, finding time in the middle of busy shifts to broach the idea of taking collective action. Mughal says that the process began when she asked Russ, a trusted co-worker, to join her outside as she took out the trash.

They laughed about the stresses and absurdities of their work week as they tossed out piles of cups and slid the remnants of Starbucks-branded packaged meals into the dumpster. As Mughal tells it, she casually mentioned what was happening in Buffalo. She describes how Russ’s eyes lit up, which gave her the confidence to ask, “We should unionize our store—you in?” Russ nodded. “Bet! Let’s do this,” he exclaimed.

Such were the humble origins of their organizing campaign. Soon after, Mughal and three others formed an organizing committee and were soon in contact with Buffalo workers and others across the country. They spent their free time thoroughly researching the functions of unions and the process of forming one, practicing how to respond to co-workers who may have questions or lingering doubts. Their industrious and independent efforts have resulted in genuine progress, increasingly nervous managers, and deepening relationships as they discover their underlying solidarity.

In the contemporary United States, where private-sector unionization has fallen to abysmal lows over the last 50 years, most workers have had little exposure to union efforts. That has begun to change across many industries—during strike waves like the 2018-2019 teachers’ strikes, and during the heightened organizing taking place right now. The result has been a widening comprehension of collective potential among all kinds of workers, chipping away at the ambient sense that unions were the province of those who work on factory floors and docks. Still, as the effort got underway, Mughal says, her co-workers weren’t against unions—but neither were they sure that such an effort would be possible.

Josie Serrano describes a similar process at her location—just a couple co-workers doing their own research and reaching out to workers at their store, along with others in nearby Lakewood. They would join each other for lunch and dinner or on Zoom meetings to unburden their frustrations about their workdays, make small talk, and get to know each other. A common topic of conversation was their shared experience of inconsistent hours, stress, and the sad fact that, because of understaffing and burdensome workloads, they were increasingly unable to converse with customers and have the type of interactions that they most enjoyed about their jobs.

Increasingly, they found themselves in agreement about the necessity of forging a union. In any case, what was the alternative? To continue working with low pay, cleaning and sanitizing and making drinks at a blistering pace, with the store manager nowhere in sight? As their conversations continued, they deepened their personal connections:

“Once we started talking to each other, so many baristas now at each store hang out at each other’s houses,” they said. “So many are going on trips together. Lifelong friendships have been made in this process.”

That camaraderie soon blossomed into solidarity. Bonds and relationships, as all workers expressed our interviews, were the cornerstone of their efforts: it was shared advice, commiseration, and empathy that laid the foundations of their struggle. The same has been the case at Starbucks locations across the country. Labor succeeds when the class struggle is understood to extend beyond any one workplace. It is a national—and ultimately international—fight. The crucial advantage of working people over capital is their sheer numbers, and it’s solidarity that joins those numbers together. Success, of course, demands dogged organization—but it’s the vast extent to which they are outnumbered that really strikes fear into capitalists like Schultz.

Hall described how maintaining this broader community, beyond just their store, has been critical for them in retaining a sense of self and a motivation to continue fighting—especially amidst retaliation from management, which is commonplace. At locations in Arizona and Memphis, workers have been let go or replaced for union activity; Starbucks employees now speak of “the Memphis 7” and their wrongful terminations. Hours have been further cut and schedules rearranged to split up agitating workers and delimit their communication. The bosses have attempted to isolate the organizers like a contagion.

Hall’s “circle of trust” with Schultz was, of course, a fraudulent effort to assuage workers’ concerns and insist that they were all on the same side. Notably, other employees who were invited to the event were from locations that had not seen an organizing effort—Schultz was trying to inoculate the as-yet-unaffected stores.  

But as Schultz smiled, alluded to his working-class roots, and harped on the insidiousness of the unionizers, Hall couldn’t resist speaking up. It was their contact with other workers in other locations that had proven to them that what they had been experiencing, and enduring, was far from unique.

“I had to address some of the issues,” they said. “I knew I couldn’t ignore what’s been happening.”

Throughout the event—especially when Schultz wanted to brainstorm ideas about “rebuilding trust” with marker on a whiteboard (in classic HR style), Hall raised their voice. They spoke up about the workers who’d been organizing for unions, and about how they’d been mistreated.

“He kept repeating, ‘We’re not going to talk about it,’” Hall recounted. “I felt shut down and disrespected.”

It’s evident that despite—or rather, because of—the successes of numerous union drives, Schultz and Starbucks will persist in their anti-union propagandizing and underhanded tactics. The unionization wave continues, but Starbucks has vast resources at their disposal and will undoubtedly persist in their efforts to prevent its spread. Chief among them is their hiring of a high-priced law firm, Littler Mendelson, that specializes in so-called “union avoidance.” Whether it’s Schultz dropping by in an attempt to mislead workers or managers illegally firing union sympathizers, delaying contract negotiations—or, in recent news, offering raises only to non-union stores—Starbucks will adapt, and will show no qualms about legal and illegal tactics. (In the Buffalo campaign alone, the NLRB has charged, Starbucks broke the law in over 200 instances.)

Though Durkin’s store won a union at breakneck speed, the hard work of negotiating and fighting for a contract still lies ahead.  This means preparing themselves to sit at a boardroom table with Starbucks managers and their lawyers, all of whom can obfuscate and delay until employee frustrations mount.

“I’m excited but also, a little bit nervous,” Durkin said, “We’re definitely doing our research on what to prepare for.”

Starbucks’s malicious corporate presence looms over everything. Bolstering to their army of lawyers and managers are fellow workers who have bought into the myth that Starbucks is “progressive.” As Hall explained, people like themselves and other queer co-workers were initially attracted to the company’s all-inclusive, liberal image; it was known for (marginally) higher wages and benefits like college tuition reimbursements. (In the latter program, there are, of course, hidden caveats—even detriments and risks.) For Hall and many others, over time, the “progressive” sheen has worn off, to say the least. Yet most Starbucks employees have spent their working lives in an era in which labor has long been in retreat. Compared to even more vicious capitalists, Schultz’s Starbucks has cultivated a benevolent aura that some workers believe requires protection from lurking “outsiders.”

After the “rebuilding of trust” roundtable with Schultz, Hall was distressed. Their concerns had been ignored and steamrolled by Schultz, and they felt overwhelmed by the interaction. They returned home to decompress, but couldn’t stop thinking about what had happened. Soon, they contacted other partners in their group texts and discussed the event—its sheer ridiculousness, the unreal sense of being manipulated by a billionaire who lied to their faces.

After talking with their friends and co-workers, Hall felt more rooted. They agreed that the company’s actions had become farcical, unmoored from reality. It was helpful for them to hear from others that, yes: this was fucked up.

“There have been other partners contacting me too,” they said, beaming, “to learn what happened, to learn how they can also organize and what to expect.”

At the Starbucks in Hopewell where Mughal has been organizing, customers and “partners” alike have shown up wearing Starbucks labor union pins. Members of other labor unions have stopped by to write down messages of support and pin them on the main blackboard. Supporters hand out buttons and encourage customers to order their drinks under the name #UnionStrong. Workers from Hopewell have also shown outward solidarity to other stores across New Jersey that are choosing to file for union elections of their own.

There are unknowns ahead, and moving forward, workers can be certain that there will be more retaliation, more “replacements”—maybe even “temporary” store closures (a common anti-union tactic). Starbucks’s lawyers are busy teaching management how to delay, delay, delay. High-powered executives, Schultz and others, will continue to harass workers, sometimes in person.

Propaganda and corporate messaging will be amplified to confuse workers, and bad-faith counterattacks will continue amidst NLRB disputes. Management will do everything in their power to ensure that union organizers are frustrated, intimidated and discouraged. But through it all, there is a palpable sense—in each store and nationwide—that something new is emerging.

“We’re excited for what comes next,” Mughal said, as customers took pictures of themselves with the workers sporting their union pins behind the register. Durkin echoed a similar feeling.

“This is what we’ve been preparing for.” ♦

 

 


Sudip Bhattacharya serves as a co-chair of the Political Education Committee at Central Jersey DSA and is a writer based in New Jersey, published in Current Affairs, CounterPunch, Reappropriate, and The Aerogram, among other outlets. Prior to pursuing a Ph.D in Political Science at Rutgers University, he worked full-time as a reporter across the mid-Atlantic and Northeast.

Images courtesy of Josie Serrano and Sara Mughal.

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