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Starbucks workers in Buffalo vote to form first union in company history

December 9, 2021, 7:57 PM UTC

Starbucks has long prided itself on the benefits it offers employees. But workers at a store near Buffalo took a different view on whether that was enough, and on Thursday they voted to form a union, the first-ever successful attempt to unionize a U.S. store in the coffee chain’s 50-year history.

A spokeswoman for the National Labor Relations Board told Fortune that workers had voted 19–8 in favor of a union at the store in the town of Elmwood. And the move may not be the only one: The NLRB is still counting votes for two other Buffalo cafés. The board still has to certify the Elmwood vote, a process that could take a few days.

The organizing effort has won the union national attention, and the support of prominent Democratic politicians, including Senators Chuck Schumer and Bernie Sanders, as well as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. The NLRB improved the union effort’s odds of success by allowing the 20 or so stores in the Buffalo area to vote as individual units rather than as one entity, which is something that typically favors the employer.

If the vote inspires workers at other Starbucks stores, or other chains for that matter, it could spell a massive change for the restaurant industry, which is used to operating without unions. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 1.2% of workers in the industry last year were unionized. (In retail, the rate of unionization is about 4.5%, not even half the national average.) What’s more, the labor market for quick-service restaurants is very tight right now, meaning companies will have to tread carefully in moves to fight back union efforts.

Starbucks was among the first employers to offer benefits such as tuition assistance and higher starting wages, well ahead of many retail and restaurant peers. The coffee company has long argued that Starbucks has actively fought unionization at its stores for decades, saying it’s best for employees and the company itself when there isn’t an intermediary like a union in their discussions. But the pandemic has worsened staffing shortages and added more stress to employees already dealing with many caustic customers angry about anything from delays in getting their cappuccino to being told to wear a mask.

A few weeks ago, Starbucks said it would raise pay for workers, lifting its pay floor to $15 an hour, and its average hourly wage to $17 an hour, up from $14 an hour. Macy’s also recently announced a wage increase, the latest of many in the retail and restaurant industries desperate to attract or at least retain workers increasingly inclined to leave. Starbucks isn’t the only company contending with unionization efforts: Amazon workers in several states have launched efforts this year as well.

Starbucks did not immediately respond to a request for comment. But CEO Kevin Johnson earlier this week told CNBC that though he expected a handful of stores to unionize, it would not turn into a wider movement: “I really believe when I talk to over 7,500 of our store managers just in the last two days, and there’s strong support for the heritage and history of Starbucks in the fact that we’re a partner-centric company.”

Three other stores in Buffalo and another in Mesa, Ariz., have filed petitions with the NLRB for their own union elections. There are about 8,000 Starbucks stores in the U.S.

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