Starbucks’ Controversial Use of Under-Staffing to Weaken Unions

Amidst the hustle and bustle of the Bath Beach, Brooklyn location, Megan DiMotta, a barista with a heavy Brooklyn accent, approaches customers with a message: “Do you want to support Starbucks workers? We’re short staffed. We’re a union store.” Together with her coworker Jennifer De Jesus Sanchez, they distribute flyers as part of a nationwide picketing action organized by Starbucks Workers United (SBWU) and its parent union, Workers United. On February 14, more than 110 Starbucks locations across the country participated in this event, aiming to raise awareness about their ongoing struggles.

One of the leaflets handed out by DiMotta and De Jesus Sanchez poses a simple question: “Why is my order taking so long?” In an effort to garner support, they encourage customers to sign a “No Contract, No Coffee” pledge or call the Starbucks customer service line to express solidarity with workers who claim they are deliberately understaffed.

DiMotta reveals that her store has witnessed a significant reduction in staffing, plummeting from twenty-seven workers when they initially filed for unionization to just twenty-one today—a staggering 20 percent decrease. This reduction in labor has resulted in understaffed stores, longer wait times, and frustrated customers who continue to pay the same prices. Jen Lenz, a barista in Peoria, Illinois, shares a similar experience, even though her store did not partake in the Valentine’s Day action.

Baristas like De Jesus Sanchez highlight the chaotic work environment caused by an influx of mobile orders, deliveries, and in-store orders. They express frustration that Starbucks blames them for the long wait times when it’s the result of inadequate staffing. SBWU argues that these staffing cuts are a retaliatory measure in response to unionizing efforts—a claim that further fuels their determination to fight for fair working conditions.

The series of actions taken by SBWU and its parent union originated in Buffalo, New York, where baristas achieved a significant victory in December 2021 by securing the first union at a company-run Starbucks store since the 1980s, with support from Workers United. This triumph sparked a labor movement across Starbucks locations nationwide in early 2022. The National Labor Relations Board reported a 53 percent increase in union filings, including those at Starbucks, in October 2022 compared to the previous year.

Despite these initial successes, Starbucks swiftly implemented union-busting tactics such as cutting hours, offering selective raises and better benefits to non-union stores, and terminating approximately 200 SBWU baristas. This crackdown led to a near halt in new union filings at Starbucks locations. Notably, the company brought back Howard Schultz, a notorious anti-union figure, as a temporary chief executive.

However, SBWU mounted a coordinated counterattack in late 2022, filing Unfair Labor Practice charges and engaging in uncoordinated strikes. The campaign culminated in two nationwide strikes, each involving approximately 100 stores, at the end of the year. While the impact on Starbucks’s revenue remains limited thus far, the company faces upcoming challenges such as a leadership transition, a Senate hearing on labor practices, and a shareholder meeting.

The Valentine’s Day action marked the beginning of a new phase in the baristas’ fight, emphasizing outreach to consumers. Baristas across Bath Beach, Buffalo, Maine, and other locations engaged customers in conversations about the repercussions of Starbucks’s hour cuts on their lives. According to reports, the response from customers has been positive, with many expressing support for the workers’ cause.

Nevertheless, Starbucks continues to refuse negotiations with baristas at the bargaining table, as reported by SBWU. Currently, SBWU represents approximately 7,000 workers across more than 280 company-run Starbucks locations, which accounts for only about 3 percent of all Starbucks locations in the United States. However, the recent upward trend in new union filings at Starbucks cafes suggests that workers’ recognition of the crucial role consumers play in their campaign bodes well for future success.

In the ongoing struggle against understaffing and union-busting, Starbucks workers are determined to bring attention to their cause, fighting for fair working conditions and the recognition they deserve. Their unified efforts and support from consumers are essential elements in this battle for workers’ rights within the Starbucks corporation.

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