Baristas operating in the Baltimore area have started joining a rapidly evolving national movement to unionize the coffee chain on a shop-by-shop basis amid worsening working conditions as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Meanwhile, the retailer has firmly objected to all petitions filed by stores across the United States and taken significant steps to inform workers that they will suffer from a union standing in between.
Starbucks employees in North Charles Street, Mount Vernon and Linthicum, Anne Arundel County strongly desire to unionize and join well over 120 Starbucks workforces in the United States that have filed documentation for elections.
For the cafe based in North Charles Street specifically, the business has ramped up significantly, and workers have stated that they too often run out of supplies, are short-staffed for shifts, and feel heavy pressure to come in sick and work late hours. What's more, many have observed a perception that their company is ignoring their concerns and is instead spending resources to fight unionization instead of focusing on tackling day to day problems affecting operation.
Kieren Levy, a 21-year-old resident of Bolton Hill who works two jobs as a tattoo artist and barista, issued a personal statement on the situation.
"The people making the decisions don’t know what it’s like to work as a barista at a store...It’s just difficult, and we deserve to have better working conditions and better pay." - Levy
Despite the protests, Starbucks proudly advertises its benefits including Bean Stock, which represents stock shares that employees can earn. Furthermore, the company has said that in addition to raising wages to greater than or equal to $15 per hour by the summer, hourly employees, known as "partners", are set to average $17 per hour.
Growing tensions between workers and Starbucks are not uncommon for disputes seen in labor management. Still, in general, workers feel they have substantially more bargaining power given the shortage of laborers and the sea of resignations that have emerged as a result of the pandemic.
"Workers feel empowered to take the step now...If there is a time when workers had more bargaining power, it’s probably now." - Jeremy Schwartz, Loyola University Maryland Associate Professor of Economics
Unfortunately, things remain in an uphill battle for employees. Unionization has weakened across the entire labor force for many decades, with less than 11% of employees in the United States under representation as of 2020, a figure that is 20% lower than rates in 1983, according to federal data. In the event that more people decide to go back to work, bargaining power will prove even more challenging.
"Unions in the U.S. have been completely decimated in the private sector...it is hard to believe that's going to reverse course." - Jeremy Schwartz, Loyola University Maryland Associate Professor of Economics
In Baltimore, both shift supervisors and baristas alike have claimed to be inspired by others working in Buffalo, New York, in which the Starbucks unionization movement began in 2021. Since this time, the company has failed to willfully recognize unions at any store in which workers made requests.
One of Service Employees International Union (SEIU) affiliates, Workers United, has filed a multitude of petitions on behalf of various store workers with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) in order to tally votes on the creation of bargaining units.
Consequently, Starbucks has completely objected to these demands and instead filed requests for review under the argument that it is completely inappropriate to establish bargaining units on an individual store basis rather than across an entire district as part of a collection. Generally speaking, the NLRB has allowed elections to remain.
Still, as of the moment, only three stores that are corporately owned have unionized. These include two in Buffalo beginning in December 2021 and one based in Mesa, Arizona in February 2022. This is in comparison to just about 9,000 other stores in the United States who do not have unionization.
Employees in the Baltimore area watched carefully as the Arizona vote was announced, which was originally scheduled to occur in early February but was delayed at the request of Starbucks for a review. This was denied by the NLRB, who allowed the workers to vote. Store workers in Mount Vernon now await a decision for their election upon attending a hearing where objections were raised by Starbucks to the NLRB.
In a letter to employees, a Starbucks executive stated that vote outcomes fail to change the shared purpose between the company and its workforce as well as the manner in which they will show up for one another.
"We will keep listening, we will keep connecting, and we will keep being in service of one another because that’s what we’ve always done." - Rossann Williams, North American President of Starbucks
Even the small victories secured by the workforce have been enough to inspire local employees to take drastic action, creating an organically spread movement via social media.
"For me personally, it’s ideological...it would allow us to hash out disagreements we have between ourselves then speak to Starbucks with one unified voice." - Violet Savine, Mount Vernon Starbucks Barista
Similar to the above statement, Sovine believes that unions have the capacity to solve even greater problems permeating the service industry, including and especially the idea that employees aren't paid enough money to live comfortable lives.
According to Levy, the workplace environment of the various coffee shops is extremely fast-paced, as workers are expected to quickly whip up delicious beverages in addition to washing dishes and working the register in a single shift.
"For the work that me and my co-workers do, we are underappreciated and underpaid and also understaffed, and it’s something that’s been frustrating to me since I started...it's high stress. People need breaks, and people work through breaks to get things done." - Levy