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Meet the Gen Z workers pushing for the first unionized Starbucks

November 22, 2021, 3:00 PM UTC
Starbucks union meeting
Starbucks workers organizing in Buffalo earlier last month.
Carolyn Thompson—AP Photo

The first unionized Starbucks store in the United States may be brewing.

Employees of six Starbucks stores in the Buffalo, N.Y. area are voting on whether they’d like to be represented by Workers United, an affiliate of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). More than 100 employees will be eligible to cast a ballot; a majority-yes vote at any one of the locations would make it the first of the chain’s 8,000 U.S. stores eligible to bring Starbucks corporate to the bargaining table.

Starbucks, which is ranked 125 on the Fortune 500, amassed more than $29 billion in revenues during its fiscal 2021, with nearly $5 billion in profit. Workers supporting the union effort say the company owes more support to its retail employees grappling with understaffed stores, shoddy equipment, insufficient training, and low wages.

The union’s list of demands include seniority pay for longtime partners, improvements to the sick leave policy, collaboration with upper management on day-to-day decision-making, just cause employment for all workers as opposed to at-will, and improved working conditions.  

Starbucks has said that about a third of its retail staff earns $15 an hour. Last month it announced that, by summer of 2022, its U.S. hourly partners will earn nearly $17 per hour on average, and baristas will earn between $15 and $23 per hour. It currently offers all employees medical, dental, and vision insurance plans, 401(k) matching, and paid parental leave, among other benefits.

The organizing in Buffalo got the attention of Starbucks’s corporate offices in Seattle almost instantly. Since early September, a smattering of executives have decamped to upstate New York to hold “listening sessions” with the partners, inspect the storefronts, and assist with day-to-day work. Among these executives is Rossann Williams, executive vice president of Starbucks North America.

“Operational challenges … like staffing, training, call outs, or repairing equipment, can only be solved by us, from within Starbucks,” Williams wrote in an open letter last month. “We are asking partners to vote ‘no’ to a union – not because we’re opposed to unions but because we believe we will best enhance our partnership and advance the operational changes together in a direct relationship.”

Company founder and chairman emeritus Howard Schultz visited Buffalo earlier this month. He held an “open forum” with local employees where he spoke about the chain’s history, ambitions, and his personal background and commitment to workers.  

“We’re not a perfect company. We’re not perfect people. I’m not a perfect person. Mistakes are made. We learn from them and we try and fix them,” Schultz told the room, according to a transcript.

The Buffalo office of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) approved the workers’ vote last month, mailed ballots earlier this month, and is scheduled to count the votes on December 9. This is despite Starbucks’ efforts to delay the process. In early November, the company requested a postponement of the election while it waits for the NLRB in Washington State to review the case, Bloomberg reported.

The Starbucks workers’ unionization effort comes as scores of other workplaces across the country, including workers at Google, Amazon and Nabisco, have made efforts around unionization, demanding better working conditions, fair hours and living wages. 

Over the years, union membership in America has fallen precipitously. Last year, just shy of 11% of American workers were unionized, compared with 20% in 1983, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

But even as union membership has dropped, public perception of labor unions has reached its highest peak since the mid-1960s. According to data from Gallup, nearly 7 in 10 Americans said they approve of labor unions this year. And, per the Center for Economic and Policy Research, in 2017, over three quarters of new union members were 35 or younger.

It’s perhaps a sign of the times that the Starbucks effort is led in large part by Gen Z: workers born in 1997 and later.

Many millennial and Gen Z workers, who comprise 40% of the workforce but less than 6% of household wealth, are vocal supporters of the Protecting the Right to Organize Act, which passed in the House in March but is unlikely to advance in the Senate. The PRO Act outlines protections for workers to organize a union and bring their employer to the bargaining table without fear of intimidation or retaliation. 

Fortune spoke to three of the Gen Z Starbucks workers leading the unionization efforts in Buffalo about what drew them to the cause, the frustrations they’ve felt, and how their parents, teachers and mentors have responded to their ambitions.

Angel Krempa, 23
Shift supervisor
Transit Commons Starbucks, DePew, NY

Angel Krempa.
Courtesy of Angel Krempa

Krempa, who started at the Transit Commons Starbucks about a year and a half ago, says she’s the youngest manager at the DePew store. When the chatter about the unionization effort started up this summer, she says interested coworkers reached out to her “because they know I’m kind of Marxist.”

She comes from what she describes as a “union family.” Both Krempa’s father and stepfather work for Tops Distribution, a large regional wholesale grocer, and both are represented by the Teamsters Union. Her grandfather, now retired, was a unionized employee at Buffalo-based Dunn Tire Company. 

“The only time I ever had health insurance was when my parents were in unions,” she said, noting that she currently gets her coverage through her family’s plan. “Starbucks’ plan is not very accountable for people who suffer from chronic illnesses like I do.” Krempa suffers from polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), treatment for which she says Starbucks’ plan does not adequately cover.

Krempa and her pro-union colleagues say their principal demand is a more robust healthcare package. Starbucks offers its partners mental health sessions through a third party called Lyra Health; each partner is allotted 20 sessions, which Krempa finds insufficient. She says the health insurance she was offered by the company had a minimum deductible of about $2,000, which was more than she could afford.

A spokesperson for Starbucks says partners choose their health coverage through an open marketplace, which varies by state, region, and health history. The company also offers resources for partners unfamiliar with the enrollment process, including phone calls with professionals who can provide tailored guidance.  

Krempa struggled with the presence of corporate employees who appeared at her store earlier this fall; she believes this is because, when they first arrived, she was the only partner at her store wearing a union button. 

“The corporate workers would ignore my presence, and they’d go around to all the other partners and talk to them,” she says. “When we had these listening sessions, I finally had a chance to voice my concerns, but any question I put out was one hundred percent ignored.”

The Starbucks spokesperson says Williams has conducted “more than 175 listening sessions across the country” in 2021, with the sole intention of hearing partners’ concerns. 

“When our leaders hear concerns, we listen to what they have to say, and then each follow-up session starts with, here’s what we heard from you last week. Here’s how we’ve addressed those issues; what other things are you concerned with?” the spokesperson said. “The changes that were made in those stores is because we’re listening to those partners.”

In early November, Krempa says she counted four corporate execs in her store at once, including her new district manager. 

Krempa, who holds a bachelor’s degree in political science, says she’s studied unions and collective bargaining agreements, and believes she’s better versed in the dynamic than most. “This union effort has really forced me out of my shell, and made me not care about seniority,” she said. “I wouldn’t be as vocal as I am with anything right now if not for the effort.”

“My grandfather has been very vocal with me about unionizing, and keeps me in a positive mindset, because he went through strikes with his company years ago,” she said. “He says ‘it’s crazy to see you doing this, and you’re so young!’” 

LaRue Heutmaker, 19
Barista
Elmwood Ave. Starbucks, Buffalo, NY

LaRue Heutmaker.
Courtesy of Tori Bogacki

Heutmaker moved from a Rochester Starbucks to the Elmwood Avenue location in Buffalo just two weeks before the union campaign went public. She moved to the area for in-person classes at the start of her junior year at Buffalo State College. Shortly after, she says one of the union’s earliest planners, Jaz Brisack, approached her, union card in hand.

“I was immediately supportive of it,” Heutmaker said, adding the proliferation of corporate reps in Buffalo has only bolstered her stance. “The more [the company has] pushed against it, the more I’m thinking, there has to be a reason they’re so scared of this union.”

As media attention has ramped up, Heutmaker hasn’t shied away, doubling down on her supportive stance and speaking with various media outlets as they’ve come to Buffalo.

“I’m not only a young worker and a college student, I’m also paying my own rent right now. I live alone in an apartment off-campus,” she said. “I don’t think most 19-year-olds want to be paying rent, buying their own groceries, and working 30 hours while taking 12 credit hours. But I took that on this semester.”

Heutmaker’s family tries to help her with bills, she said, but they’re “not much better off” than she is. “We’re all low-income workers,” she said. Her parent, also a Starbucks employee, referred Heutmaker to her first job at the Rochester store.

For Heutmaker, the presence of Starbucks EVP Williams is equal parts intimidating and insulting.

“These corporate reps are playing pretend when they come in to help,” she said. “They think it’s a fun activity to come in and sweep the floors.” 

The corporate employees often will ask to help out on the coffee bar, she says, the area of the store where Starbucks staff craft drinks, which Heutmaker says is “extremely annoying.” 

“Bar is very fast-paced, and they haven’t done it possibly ever,” she said. “They try to help you, but instead, you’re kind of trailing behind them and fixing their mistakes. They mess up the entire rhythm of the store.”

(“All Starbucks leaders spend time in their local store working behind the bar, including [CEO] Kevin Johnson,” a company spokesperson told Fortune. “There is no such thing as the idea that a leader hasn’t worked behind the bar in a long time, or that they’re slowing things down.”)

Heutmaker says her coworkers have a great deal of respect for her commitment to the union, but her family, some of whom have had negative experiences with unions, has voiced concerns.

While Starbucks marks Heutmaker’s first firsthand union experience, she recalls seeing union efforts depicted in the media. 

“There’s an episode of Superstore, an NBC sitcom, where two employees are calling corporate and asking what can be done about an issue they’re having,” Heutmaker recalled. “They ask, ‘is there a union we can contact?’ And everyone at corporate scrambles.”

The scene is supposed to be satirical; an exaggeration of how corporations react to even hearing the word ‘union’, she said. “But now I know it’s not an exaggeration; it’s exactly like that.”

Maya Panos, 17
Barista
Elmwood Ave. Starbucks, Buffalo, NY

Maya Panos.
Courtesy of Maya Panos

The Elmwood Ave. Starbucks hired Maya Panos in July, shortly before the start of her senior year of high school. Her coworkers told her about the unionization efforts about a month later.

“I went home, looked into it, and decided I wanted to help support it,” she said. “The more I worked, the more I saw the flaws in the work system and how much they work us for just $15 an hour. They expect us to bend over backwards for customers, and if we don’t, our job is on the line.”

Most of Panos’ time at Starbucks has been clouded by the union drama. “It’s not surprising anymore to walk into work and see someone from corporate there,” she said. “Because I’m younger, I think they want to be my friend more. Maybe because I’m new to the company and haven’t even graduated from high school yet, they think I’m impressionable.”

Starbucks is Panos’ second job (she was a restaurant hostess before the pandemic), and her first experience with unions. At her public high school in Buffalo, she’s found support from her teachers, who are unionized too. 

“A lot of people in the teacher’s union ask me about it, give me insights and encourage me to keep going,” Panos said. “They’re definitely on the sidelines cheering for me and everyone else who’s involved.”

Panos found Schultz’s speech last Saturday, which received widespread blowback for its use of Holocaust analogies, uninspiring.

“I left there so aggravated,” she said. “We sat there for an hour listening to his life story. He basically said, ‘I used to be poor just like you.’ It was hard to hear a billionaire try to empathize with us.”

Schultz, whose net worth is just shy of $5 billion, told the employees how his father, a blue collar worker, sustained a workplace injury when Schultz was seven years old. As his father spent several months bedridden, the family suffered without insurance, compensation or benefits. The experience is what formed the basis of Starbucks’ health insurance policy: it provides benefits to even part-time workers.  

Schultz “probably thought everyone would say, ‘that’s so inspiring,’” Panos said. “But it felt like a huge smack in the face. I feel like people of my generation are just sick and tired of the way wealth and power in this country are held by the one percent.” 

Another reason for Gen Z’s reinvigorated passion for unions, Panos said, is that her generation is entering the workforce in significantly worse shape than its predecessors.

“I feel like the baby boomers started at the start line, and now we’re farther and farther behind. Gen X are a mile behind, millennials are two miles, and my generation is now like five miles behind,” she said. “We’re just sick of them saying we have equal opportunities; we have to make up those five miles.” 

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