NYC Starbucks Workers Start Union Drive

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Employees at four Starbucks outposts across Manhattan, Brooklyn and Long Island — including the coffee company’s massive roastery in the Meatpacking District — have started their own union drive after Buffalo-based staffers formed the first union in Starbucks’ history earlier this year, according to union organizers.

Workers filed petitions Thursday morning with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), asking to hold a vote on March 3 to join an affiliate organization of the Service Employees International Union Workers United, the first Starbucks staffers in the city to start a union drive, The New York Times first reported. 

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“The future of labor in America is democratized,” Sam LaGow, an employee at the Manhattan roastery, told Commercial Observer. “The roastery is a gigantic store, the biggest one that Starbucks has on the East Coast. … If we can organize here anyone can organize at their store, be it Starbucks, be it anywhere else in our industry.” 

The worker organizing committees at each location sent a letter to CEO Kevin Johnson about their campaign outlining concerns over workplace safety and staffers at a Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, Starbucks complained of receiving harassment from customers without proper training on how to respond. Employees at the Meatpacking District roastery listed COVID-19 precautions as a “paramount concern.”

LaGow didn’t want to talk too specifically about issues he’d experienced as a worker at the roastery for almost three years, but he said his reasons for pushing for the union were similar to what other unionizing Starbucks employees have complained about: low pay, understaffing stores, worker retention and worker safety during the Covid-19 pandemic. After two stores in Buffalo successfully unionized in January, more than 60 out of the more than 9,000 Starbucks-owned outposts in the country followed suit, the Times reported.

A spokesperson for Starbucks said that the company has gone “above and beyond” to prioritize staff safety, letting locations close their seating area if employees feel uncomfortable, offering paid time off for workers to get a vaccine dose and providing isolation time for those exposed to COVID-19. The spokesperson also said Starbucks allows staffers to modify store hours and install security cameras when employees feel unsafe.

Starbucks has reportedly pushed back against similar campaigns and LaGow, who is on the organizing committee at his store, expects the same. In Memphis, Tenn., Starbucks fired seven employees attempting to form a union at a store, saying they had violated company policies, the Times reported. In 2019, the company did the same to two employees at a Philadelphia location. Workers in Buffalo, N.Y., also complained of “union-busting.

Starbucks said the Memphis employees were fired for violating safety and security policies and denied attempting to stop unionization efforts. A spokesperson for the company said that it supported a union vote, but would not voluntarily recognize the union.

“We want all of our partners to be able to express what they want in a manner that is anonymous, confidential and democratic so that the vote outcome accurately reflects the perspective in that store,” said the spokesperson when asked why the chain would not recognize the union. “We just want to make sure everyone feels comfortable in that process”

LaGow said that filing with the NLRB after a months-long process was so emotional it brought him to tears and he’s optimistic about the movement.

“Even a year ago, this did not seem possible, and now it is happening. And I have never been prouder to be a partner than I am today,” LaGow said.

Celia Young can be reached at cyoung@commercialobserver.com.