A wave of unionization has hit Starbucks stores across America, a major jolt to a company that has previously been celebrated for its benefits and sector-leading wages.
As labor organizing has spread to 216 stores in 30 states, Starbucks has reacted by taking a hardline approach.
CEO Howard Schultz called for workers to resist “outside labor unions” in a public letter last week. And this week, during a weekly Q and A session of a virtual meeting with store managers, he said that if the company ever moves forward with expanded benefits, it couldn’t extend them to workers at stores that voted to unionize, per U.S. labor law, which requires separate negotiations with those workers around changes relating to benefits and wages.
Starbucks union organizers told Fortune that they’re not surprised by Schultz’s latest comments. And with more and more Starbucks stores filing petitions for union elections every week, they say that the company’s aggressive approach is actually driving people to join their ranks.
“Our numbers of support are looking better than they did before,” says Page Smith, 28, a shift supervisor at a Starbucks location in Atlanta. “A lot of the people that I work with see right through the anti-union campaigning really fast.”
‘Another indefensible threat’
Smith has worked for Starbucks in different roles and different locations since 2017, when she moved to Atlanta after college with plans to pursue grad school.
She also delivers groceries for InstaCart on the side to make ends meet.
“I would love to work just at Starbucks,” she says. “I really like my job there.”
Smith says she’s been an active labor organizer since last year, helping her coworkers understand the ins and outs of unionizing, and how collective organizing can help achieve greater workplace stability.
Some of her coworkers have been ambivalent about joining the union. But since Starbucks has continued to hold educational meetings with staff that advocate against unionizing, she says those same people have come back to her in recent months to ask for pro-union t-shirts and pins.
Her location is now considering collecting a new round of union cards since more workers have expressed support after the store initially filed a petition for an election with the NLRB in January.
Workers United, the union seeking to represent Starbucks workers in the U.S., has filed multiple unfair labor practice charges with the National Labor Relations Board alleging that the company has interfered with workers’ right to organize.
“This is yet another indefensible threat from Starbucks,” said Workers United in a statement to Fortune when asked about Schultz’s latest comments. “This movement is continuing to grow, despite Howard Schultz’s threats and bullying.”
Starbucks did not respond to Fortune’s request to comment.
‘What I expected the company to do’
Maggie Carter, 28, an organizing leader at a Starbucks location in Knoxville, TN, told Fortune that she learned about the company’s unionization movement only after she received a second raise within the span of a year.
That didn’t align with her previous experience at the company, which she joined in early 2019.
“This raise indicates that there’s something going on in the company that I don’t know about, and I’d like to know about it,” she remembers telling her store supervisor. That’s when she learned about the unionization wave.
Carter says the raise taught her to be skeptical of perceived positive movement on Starbucks’ end. She sees Schultz’s latest comments as an effort to show that the company can improve workplace conditions—without union involvement.
“This falls in line with what I expected the company to do, because they’ve been doing this,” she says. “If you can add these benefits now, then we could have had them all along. So why is it so important to add them now?”
Carter believes that the idea of expanded benefits achieved without union bargaining might be enough to deter some workers from supporting organizing efforts. But she says that it’s more likely to empower workers to push for even more.
She doesn’t see the unionization wave slowing down any time soon, even if Starbucks moves to expand benefits and wages in the future—her own location voted in favor of unionizing just last week.
“Overall, the real message that’s being sent is that unionizing has driven change in this company already and will only continue to do so,” she says.
April 16, 2022: This story has been updated to reflect that Howard Schultz discussed potential new benefits not extending to workers at stores that are unionizing during a Q and A session with store managers.
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