Seattle Starbucks workers schedule union vote amid labor shortages

Photo credit: iStockphoto/oatawa

Starbucks employees in Seattle are following the lead of colleagues in upstate New York who became the coffee company’s first employees to successfully unionize.

Workers at the Starbucks at Broadway and East Denny Way in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood filed a petition on December 20 with the National Labor Relations Board to hold a union election on January 10.

“We see unionizing as a fundamental and necessary way to participate in Starbucks and its future as partners,” wrote four employees, who the company refers to as partners, in a letter to Kevin Johnson, CEO of the coffee giant.

Seattle-based Starbucks has long opposed unionization efforts at its corporate-owned locations, but workers enjoy a stronger bargaining position amid ongoing labor shortages during the COVID-19 pandemic that has recast their job duties as an “essential” service. 

The Seattle unionization effort “is very significant because it indicates it is spreading,” John Logan, a professor of labor and employment studies at San Francisco State University, told the Seattle Times. “It’s not something Starbucks is going to be able to contain to these few stores in Buffalo.”

Following the successful unionization of a Buffalo Starbucks earlier in December, making it the company’s only corporate-owned store in the U.S. with a union), Starbucks stores in Boston, Arizona and elsewhere in New York state have launched their own union bids.

“Seeing other people around the country standing up for their rights has emboldened us to do the same,” Sydney Durkin, a member of the organizing committee who has worked at the Broadway and Denny location for two years, told the Seattle Times. “We hope doing this shows other people they can do exactly what we’re doing.”

A union would give these employees collective bargaining rights, or the ability to negotiate with Starbucks management about pay and working conditions. Organizers at the Seattle location told the Seattle Times that an “overwhelming majority” of the 15 to 20 employees at their store have shown support by signing union cards.

In reaction to the union push in Buffalo, Starbucks executives pointed out rising wages and generous benefits the company has given its workers in recent years. Benefits include subsidized health insurance, free tuition for on online bachelor’s degree at Arizona State University, as well as paid sick leave and parental leave for hourly workers.

But some argue that these perks are not in line with the growing demands placed on the workers during the pandemic.

“I suspect companies such as Starbucks got away with for a long time throwing workers a few bones and being seen as a good employer relative to the many worse employers,” Erin Hatton, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Buffalo who studies work and labor movements, told the Seattle Times. “That worked for them until this economic and public health crisis when those bones were suddenly seen as the bare bones. It wasn’t enough for how much workers were putting on the line.”

Emery Reddy helps workers. Call us if you have questions about worker protection laws, or if you have an L&I, workers’ comp, injury, or other employment law claim. You won’t get better advice.

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