Soon after news broke in December 2021 that Starbucks workers at a Buffalo, New York, location had filed paperwork to form a union, Jake LaMourie, an employee at the Willamette Street Starbucks store, remembers hearing whispers about other unions forming, but nothing was happening at his location.
It wasn’t until Sen. Bernie Sanders held a press event for the Buffalo workers that LaMourie felt like it was time to get serious. He invited coworkers from the store to watch the press event at his home and start the conversation about unionizing. After that, things went quickly.
The Willamette Street store workers would become the first in Oregon to file paperwork to form a union. The unionizing, LaMourie says, would go on to be a bonding experience for the workers.
“In other stores, it’ll be a slow underground process for a little bit where you’ve got a core team of organizers working. And then eventually you start talking to all the other workers and building support for it, getting ready to file your petition,” LaMourie says. “But in our store, I think we had a good sense that support was really strong from the start.”
For the first time since the 1980s, when some Starbucks stores were unionized but later broken up under CEO Howard Schultz’s leadership of the company, there’s been a wave of workers unionizing at Starbucks stores throughout the U.S.
Filing with the SEIU-affiliated Workers United, 38 locations have unionized, according to data from the Union Elections website, five of which are located in Eugene. But many “partners” at local Starbucks locations are alleging that they’re experiencing union busting tactics from higher-ups in the company, making it difficult for them to operate and advocate for unionizing.
Workers at some of the Eugene Starbucks locations that have voted to unionize say they’d like to see more reward for their work.
Starting a union is a long and arduous process. First, workers must agree to form a union, then talk to an organizer, create a committee, sign union support cards, vote and negotiate a contract. It can take more than a year, especially negotiating a contract with a larger company like Starbucks. And some workers have experienced resistance from the Seattle-based company during the unionizing process.
All of Eugene’s brick and mortar Starbucks locations filed petitions to vote to become a union, but only four out of the five voted in favor of unionizing; workers at the Oakway store rejected it. According to NW Labor Press, the four stores in favor voted overwhelmingly to unionize, two unanimously. None of Springfield’s stores filed petitions with the National Labor Relations Board to start the unionizing process.
Political economist and University of Oregon associate professor Gordon Lafer says workers are often too intimidated to start unions because they fear threats, firings or even personal retaliation.
Most companies, Starbucks being one of them, will often run aggressive campaigns to stop workers from unionizing, Lafer says. And those companies don’t often face many consequences because of how long the process of reporting can take. For example, he says it can be difficult to prove that employees were fired because they’re union supporters. Even then the maximum the company owes the employee is their job back and money from lost wages.
LaMourie says that corporate-level employees with Starbucks started holding one-on-one meetings with local employees and managers in an attempt to persuade partners to vote against unionizing. Despite that, LaMourie says the Willamette Street store manager has maintained a positive store-wide attitude and cuts the tension between employees and Starbucks.
“He’s been really great, which I think really helped sort of morale and anxieties at our store,” LaMourie says.
Union busting behavior isn’t uncommon for Starbucks. Schultz released a cryptic statement in an April 10 open letter to Starbucks employees regarding how “labor unions are attempting to sell a very different view of what Starbucks should be,” before promising new initiatives to come.
But new benefits for employees, including a new “partner app” to encourage collaboration, increased hourly wages to $15 at all locations in the U.S., pay increases for tenured employees and the introduction of pay on debit and credit card,” will only apply to stores that are not unionized or seeking to unionize.
And LaMourie says that although Starbucks claims to make these choices with a “one big happy family” mentality, that feels far from the truth.
“They call us partners, not employees or workers,” LaMourie says. “But in reality, I think more and more people have come to realize, whether or not it’s because things have actually changed, that we don’t have a voice. We’re not partners in anything but name.”
Meddling with the Workflow
Ian Meagher decided to apply for a job at the Starbucks on Franklin and Villard after a recommendation from a family friend who was working there.
And for the most part, after nearly four years as a barista at the store, Meagher says he likes his job. Even when he took about a year off for pandemic safety, he returned in September 2021 because of the community and the energy of the job.
“I really appreciate the people I work with, for one, which is specifically why I decided to come back to this Starbucks,” Meagher says. “I like that they give you a lot of leeway to interact with customers.”
But as the movement for unionization began for Starbucks locations throughout Eugene, the cheerful workplace atmosphere that Meagher knew started to feel a bit different. District managers, leaders of multiple stores in an area, have been coming into the store frequently to manage the location, which Meagher describes as “meddling” with regular workflow.
Meagher says he thinks the increase in managerial presence resulted from the vote for the Franklin Boulevard location to unionize.
He says he and other employees have been under stress while performing regular job duties because of district interference and that the intimidation is overwhelming sometimes. He compares it to being under a microscope.
“We see them very, very regularly,” Meagher says.
And all the tension compounded when a district manager told him to go home and change out of his Starbucks Workers United T-shirt just two hours after a unanimous vote for the Franklin Boulevard location to unionize.
Meagher was out on the floor, tending to customers and cleaning the store during his typical closing hours when he was given an ultimatum to either go home and change or leave for the evening.
The NLRB states that employees have the right to “wear union buttons, T-shirts, or other insignia” while organizing a union. Employees also cannot be “fired, disciplined, demoted, or penalized in any way for engaging in these activities.”
Meagher says there have been several Unfair Labor Practice charges filed with NLRB on behalf of unionizing Starbucks workers in Eugene regarding these practices during the union drive, some of which pertain to the targeted enforcement of dress code to curtail display of union apparel. Meagher says he “filed a complaint in order to persuade Starbucks to cease its unlawful union busting activities” and to protect himself in the event of retaliation for union support.
Another Franklin employee, Jessica Jaszewski, echoes Meagher’s experience with the district managers. “I know a lot of the things that Starbucks has been disseminating, whether that’s public printouts or announcements, are obviously anti-union,” she says. “A lot of the language they use is very ‘treating us like children.’”
Starbucks has been public about its position on unionization and how it thinks employee issues can be resolved. According to the Starbucks website, “We believe we can build a better experience working side-by-side than by sitting across a negotiation table.”
But local employees like Meagher and Jaszewski feel differently.
Although the company boasts of benefits like health coverage, a 401K retirement plan, paid time off, parental leave, free online secondary education through Arizona State University and what’s called “partner assistance” — which is funding for employees who are dealing with extreme circumstances – Jaszewski says that these benefits are not always easily accessible.
“They sort of set themselves up with this beautiful image, which is initially what drew me to want to get this job,” she says. “But I know a lot of partners are not making enough money to afford the health care that Starbucks provides. They’ve been priced out of the health care that Starbucks touts as this magical benefit.”
First Half of the Battle
Workers at the Franklin location won their vote to unionize, so the next step is contract bargaining with Starbucks.
But bargaining with Starbucks might prove to be difficult. Schultz said in a June 9 interview with The New York Times that he will not embrace the union. Schultz said that the company is “centered around exceeding the expectations of the people and our customers,” and that adding a third party would be disruptive to that vision.
Jaszewski says that the push to unionize isn’t personal to those in the store, but rather it’s about the company and its unfair working conditions.
“It’s not us versus store managers. It’s not us versus our district managers,” she says. “It’s about the systemic exploitation of laborers because we make the millionaires money. And what can they do without us? Quite literally nothing.”
This story is a part of Eugene Weekly’s reporting series on the labor movement in Oregon, funded by the Wayne L. Morse Center for Law and Politics.