Employees at two Starbucks stores in Colorado made headlines recently when they announced that they had petitioned the U.S. National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) for union representation. The store in Superior announced that it had petitioned on Dec. 30, and the Denver store followed suit a few weeks later, on Jan. 27.

The two Colorado stores join a growing push towards unionization among Starbucks employees across the country. A collective of Starbucks workers in the Northeastern U.S., 72 stores in 20 states, has filed for representation through Workers United, an international labor union serving 85,000 workers in the U.S. and Canada, according to a spokesperson for Starbucks Workers United.

Workers at the two Starbucks stores, in Denver and Superior, have cited varying reasons for their desire to unionize, but some common themes have emerged.

“The general consensus is safety concerns – pre- and post-COVID – [and] a lack of support from management,” said Trey Slopsema, a shift manager at the Denver store. “[There’s also] no form of seniority pay for partners who have been here for a long time. New partners are getting raises that senior partners aren’t getting.”

Starbucks is known for its practice of calling employees “partners,” but according to Slopsema, it’s mostly an empty gesture on the company’s part.

“It’s a nice sentiment, but in practice, it’s just not really being implemented,” Slopsema said. “We have no say in how our stores are run, or benefits, or wages. We can ask, but it’s most likely not going to go the way we want to. We just want to have more say in the company. They call us partners – we want a real partnership. We want to be able to make changes and have a voice.”

Len Harris, a shift supervisor at the Superior location, said she was inspired to lead the charge toward unionization at her store after a Starbucks location in Buffalo, New York, voted for union representation Dec. 9. The Buffalo store became the first in the nation to successfully unionize.

“I knew that the circumstances at my store – the staffing, the pay, the benefits, the training, a bunch of things – they needed improvement,” Harris told Colorado Times Recorder. “I’ve worked for the company for almost five years, and when I saw [the Buffalo store] voted to unionize, I was like, if changes need to happen, I’m going to try to make them happen. I’m going to unionize my store.”

Union membership in the private and public sectors has been declining significantly in recent decades. The Wall Street Journal reported that the percentage of American workers in labor unions hit a record low in 2019.

Now, amid a pandemic and widespread labor shortages, workers are seeing an opportunity to reverse that trend.

“I think that workers in a diverse array of industries are going to join the growing labor movement in the coming years,” said Pete Demay, the organizing director for Chicago & Midwest Regional Joint Board (CMRJB) of Workers United. He said that workers in the retail, restaurant, and service industries might be especially inclined to unionize in the near future.

“Essential workers in these professions have had to deal with angry customers, risks to their health, and greedy corporations that put shareholders before workers and their best interests,” Demay said. “The workers at Starbucks are a great example to all workers throughout the country of what you can accomplish if you stick together as a collective unit and fight back for what’s right.”

The Pathway to Unionization

For these Starbucks workers, the road ahead could be long. Petitioning for union representation is just the first of numerous steps in the unionization process.

According to MC Floreani, an organizer for the CMRJB of Workers United, after a group of employees has petitioned, the NLRB will assign a hearing date. At the hearing, a date for workers to vote on the proposal to unionize will be set. When that date arrives, the election will be held over a period of two weeks, the votes will be counted and the results certified.

Floreani said that the entire process can take six weeks to two months depending on a variety of factors. NLRB regional officials moderate each of the steps, and the process can also be subject to challenges from the employer. Legal circumstances – and potentially disputes – can draw out the process.

Harris and Slopsema said the employees at their stores have been in high spirits and are excited about the new developments. However, Harris said her workers are preparing for potential pushback from the company.

When she and her colleagues filed for union representation, Harris said, “There was a lot of apprehension because filing meant that it was public now, [and] we knew that whatever response the company would have would come after this filing. So, for the most part, we were excited, looking forward to it, but also kind of bracing ourselves for the storm that we knew would be coming.”

Starbucks’ Response to the Unionization Efforts

In response to the growing numbers of workers seeking unionization, Starbucks has said it supports employees’ right to organize, but the company simply doesn’t believe that a union should be necessary.

 “Our belief from the beginning has been that we’re better together as partners without a union between us,” a Starbucks spokesperson said. “Our success as a company is built on how we partner together and our relationship.”

Although Starbucks has agreed to bargain in good faith with the stores that have already unionized, the company has campaigned against unions and has been accused of undermining workers’ efforts to organize.

 In November, according to reporting from Bloomberg, Workers United filed a complaint with the NLRB against Starbucks, alleging that the multibillion-dollar corporation had violated federal law “by engaging in a campaign of threats, intimidation, surveillance” and other activities aimed at quashing the unionization efforts.

Harris confirmed that, in the weeks since she and her employees petitioned to unionize, corporate Starbucks managers have been paying visits to her store. The managers have been holding what they call “listening sessions” with the staff, which Harris says normally happen in groups but lately have been conducted one-on-one, which they stated was due to COVID safety concerns.

“They basically are starting meetings where they’re trying to inform people about unions, but they’ve been saying cherry-picked truths and half-truths about it, to kind of scare people,” said Harris. “The [employees’] position is going to default to, ‘They’re upper management; they must be telling me the truth.’”

While the company has publicly said that these meetings are simply meant to inform employees about unions, Harris said that some of her workers have come out of these meetings visibly upset.

“I had one barista who was literally shaking,” Harris said. “She was so anxious. I felt so bad, and of course, I talked her through as much as I could. But all the things they discussed with these other coworkers, they did not bring up with me.”

According to Harris, Starbucks managers have been warning her staff that they could receive pay cuts, lose their benefits, or face other negative consequences if their store unionizes. When questioned about the company’s reasoning for making these statements to employees, the Starbucks spokesperson said these conversations were intended to “explain what happens in collective bargaining.”

“When you begin bargaining, you have to renegotiate everything,” said the spokesperson. “What our leaders have been sharing with our partners that you could end up with the same that you have now, you could end up with more than you have now, or you could end up with less. The purpose has been to share with partners what all the possibilities are.”

Harris said that the company’s assertions about the potential risks to employees aren’t true. If her employees do vote to unionize, she emphasized, they will be able to bargain for the pay and benefits they want.

“We would never negotiate for a contract that is worse or ‘the same’ for us,” Harris said.

Slopsema’s Denver store is a few weeks behind Harris’ Superior store in the unionization process. He said that corporate management has not begun holding meetings with staff at his store yet, but the company has removed some pro-union cards that had been hung up on their community board.

In addition, Slopsema said he expects that the process of setting a hearing could be delayed because Starbucks is pushing for all stores that have petitioned to unionize within the same district to vote together. Many, including Slopsema, see this tactic as an effort to stall the election process.

“Starbucks is going to challenge the election to broaden it – they want to have everybody in the district vote to create the largest pool of voters and make it more difficult,” Slopsema said. “They’ve done it in every district so far, so I expect them to do it here.”

According to the Starbucks spokesperson, the company is not looking to delay voting, but simply to allow others within the same district to “have a voice” in whether or not a store unionizes. One store voting to unionize would impact other partners and stores in the area, the spokesperson said, noting that employees sometimes transfer stores or pick up shifts at locations other than their home store.

“The stores work in a cohesive way together,” said the spokesperson. “So given that a choice to unionize would impact all partners, we feel that everyone should have a voice in the decision and the right to have their voice heard.”

Demay, the organizing director of CMRJB, has seen businesses employ similar strategies to discourage workers from organizing, but he expressed optimism that, even if Starbucks continues to challenge the unionization efforts, the workers in Colorado will ultimately prevail.

“It takes special groups of workers to deal with an aggressive anti-union employer like Starbucks,” Demay said. “I have faith that the Starbucks workers in Colorado will prevail. They’re smart, they’re fed up, and these are strong individuals.”