Tucson, AZ

"It's a huge victory": Tucson Starbucks store becomes city's first to join growing union

Jeremy Beren

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By Jeremy Beren / NewsBreak Pinal County, AZ

(Tucson, Ariz.) — A Starbucks store within shouting distance of the University of Arizona campus voted Wednesday to join Workers United, becoming the fifth Starbucks in Arizona to vote for union representation — and the first in the city of Tucson.

Starbucks store #5505, situated at Euclid Avenue and University Boulevard, held its National Labor Relations Board-sanctioned vote count at the Teamsters Local 104 headquarters, itself a short drive from the heart of U of A's campus. The votes — 11 "yes," 3 "no," and one challenged ballot — were read out on a Zoom call that included an NLRB regional attorney, as well as other partners who logged on to show their support.

"I don't think it sank in until we started counting. Then it became really real," barista Ivan Modesto told NewsBreak. "I feel so proud of all my coworkers. I think we all feel that it's a huge victory, especially considering we're the only (unionized Starbucks) in Tucson so far. We hope that it will affect other stores around us, and hopefully it'll mark the beginning for a lot of different stores in Tucson to unionize."

Workers at this Starbucks went public with their intent to unionize in April, sending a letter with 10 signatories — Modesto and shift supervisor Matthew Harrison among them — to the company's CEO Howard Schultz. As NewsBreak has previously reported, Schultz and Starbucks corporate have gone on the offensive to break up the union drive, drawing a litany of charges from the NLRB that stem from repeated labor law violations.

Entering Wednesday, 183 Starbucks locations across the United States had voted to unionize. The company directly operates nearly 9,000 stores in the U.S. Workers at hundreds more have filed for elections that will be held in the coming weeks and months.

"A lot of our regular clientele that lives in the neighborhood, or faculty of the university in some cases, have all been very pro-union," Harrison told NewsBreak prior to the count. "We haven't heard a lot of negative (comments or sentiment). I personally have not heard anything negative from any customers as far as when the unionization comes up."

Harrison, who has worked at Starbucks for three years, described the vibe at his store as "anticipatory" and focused on forward momentum in the weeks before the vote took place. In previous months, the partners at #5505 — many college-age, owing to the store's location — found themselves monitoring events at other cafés, wondering about the tactics Starbucks's corporate arm would implement to slow the organizing roll. Partners were especially concerned after last month's revelation alleging that the company has threatened to strip its renowned LGBTQIA2S+ healthcare benefits from organizing workers.

Harrison explained the Euclid and University store received a new district manager shortly after the partners signaled their intent to hold a union election — and that was when one-on-one meetings began. He also said scheduled hours were reduced at the store, as has been the case at many Starbucks locations where workers have demonstrated an intent to unionize.

Though Harrison cautioned that business naturally slows in May and June as the school year winds down, he said hasn't always seen eye-to-eye with management on the best way to staff this particular location. He also felt management was unwilling to work with partners to maximize the location's potential, and all the foot traffic it receives during the year.

"There have been multiple times since our hours have been cut that I've watched customers turn around and walk away because we were so busy," Harrison said. "My argument was always if I had another person, I could build the business. I could ring more people up, I could get more drinks moving faster.

"If we're partners, we want to be able to tell you 'this is what we need.' The only way I can build on my business or get my customer connection scores higher is if you give me the equipment that I need in order to produce a certain product or do a certain job."

Modesto, who has worked at Euclid and University for nearly two years, said he was "elated" when Wednesday's count concluded. He explained there was a period where he worried the push to join Workers United would be divisive.

"We're all really happy at our store. We all feel super-fortunate to work at our store ... We all work really well together. It's a really unique store, everyone who goes there tells us how different it is and how the energy is so nice," Modesto said. "For the longest time, we didn't know how we would go through with it because we didn't know if there was an appetite for it."

But when Schultz rejoined Starbucks as its CEO earlier this year, Modesto and his coworkers experienced a "shift" as the company ramped up its anti-union campaign. They realized filing for an election and joining Workers United was not beyond them.

"Essentially what (unionizing) is we're asserting our rights as workers, and there's nothing really controversial about that," Modesto said. "We just hope that Starbucks would recognize that it's not an assault on the company, it's actually us hoping to improve it and have a say in it."

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Jeremy is a freelance journalist covering health, energy, labor, and local politics. Reach him at jeremy.beren@newsbreak.com.

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