Workers at a St. Paul Starbucks have voted to unionize, making them the first store in Minnesota history to do so. Results from the union election at the Snelling Avenue store were announced today, with a final tally of 14 to 1 — elections at four other metro-area stores will follow in the coming months, as the nationwide Starbucks unionization wave continues to gain momentum. Minnesota Starbucks workers will unionize with Workers United, an affiliate of the Services Employees International Union.
“I’m elated — very happy we won,” says Marshall Steele, a barista at the Snelling Avenue Starbucks. “It feels amazing to be making that history, that we were the first Starbucks in Minnesota to unionize. Also, there’s an ‘on the shoulders of giants’ feel to it, because we have both the labor movements happening now, and a really strong history of labor movements in Minnesota that were successfully suppressed.”
Unionizing workers at Minnesota Starbucks stores are seeking better wages, including measures like adding tip options for credit cards and guaranteeing weekly scheduled hours. They’re also asking for improved diversity, equity, and inclusion training. Steele says that though workers undergo a few online programs each year, enforcing their principles is often left to the managers’ discretion. For example, Steele alleges that even after a pronoun training, they and other workers are routinely misgendered by management.
“They go for such a specific kind of employee, the way that they brand themselves — they want people that are progressive, that care about others, that care about things like the Black Lives Matter movement and the queer community,” says Kasey Copeland, a worker at a Cedar Avenue Starbucks that was among the first two to begin union organizing. Its election results will be announced May 2. “Now they’re really being put to the test on whether or not they’re going to uphold that.”
A broader goal for unionizing workers is to have store policies and practices codified into a contract: Workers say too many decisions are left to managers’ discretion. Copeland, for example, says she formerly worked at a store where she simply didn’t receive her breaks. She and Steele say Minnesota workers were inspired to organize for greater collective power by the monumental union win at a Buffalo, New York Starbucks store, which was the first Starbucks to successfully unionize in December 2021.
Starbucks has been largely inhospitable to budding unions: Last week, the U.S. labor board officials sued Starbucks over claims of union retaliation; Activist employees in both Tennessee and Arizona say they were fired due to their union organizing activity. A spokesperson for Starbucks says that the company is “listening and learning” from unionizing workers, but remains “clear in our belief that we are better together as partners, without a union between us,” though it respects workers’ right to organize, and will follow the National Labor Relation Board’s process.
Steele and Copeland say that so far, Minnesota Starbucks workers haven’t faced direct retaliation. However, Steele alleges that documents sharing anti-union messaging and misinformation have been posted at the Snelling Avenue store: One document, they say, claimed that union dues would be $10 to $15 a week. Another allegedly showed what appears to be fake pro-union tweets from the Starbucks Worker United Twitter account, with responses from a We Are One Starbucks Twitter account — which seems to not actually exist on Twitter — rebutting them. (Eater reviewed a photo of the flier.) A spokesperson for Starbucks says that “any claims of anti-union activity are categorically false.”
“I think Starbucks — with how many stores are filing for elections or in the middle of having their elections — is stepping away from direct worker retaliation, like firing members of the organizing committee,” says Steele. “What they’ve found is that galvanizes other people to pick up the cause, and ends up martyring people. They’ve switched to very heavy and pervasive myths, and misinformation campaigns.”
The nationwide unionization wave has clearly rattled Starbucks: in March, the company brought back historically anti-union CEO Howard Schultz. Schulz made headlines for confronting a pro-union barista in Long Beach in April.
Esau Chavez, an organizer with Workers United, says that the Starbucks unionization wave is among the most remarkable labor movements he’s ever seen. Chavez says the wave is part of a larger push across commercial and industrial sectors to strengthen organized labor, as corporations continue to consolidate money and power. “Starbucks — as we say in organizing, it’s hot, it’s very hot. There’s not a lot of persuasion we’re doing,” says Chavez. “Corporate profits are skyrocketing, but worker wages are stagnating for the most part, barely ticking up. It’s been a long time coming for the working class to start to rise back up from when the Powell Memorandum went out and corporations started to hone their power across the government. Unions and the working class have really taken a beating over the past 40 or 50 years.”
The Starbucks unionizations join similar efforts by other Minnesota coffee and craft beverage workers. Workers at Minneapolis-based Peace Coffee recently announced their intent to unionize, following in the footsteps of Tattersall Distilling, Stilheart Distillery, Lawless Distilling, and Fair State Brewing, which all successfully unionized in 2020. Other efforts have fallen short: In fall 2020, Spyhouse Coffee workers ultimately voted against unionization, and workers at Surly Brewing Co. came up just one vote short.
“That famous lie about fast food or coffee workers that’s like ‘It’s not a hard job, it’s not a real job,’ while simultaneously it’s one of the most constant and under strain portions of food service, where you’re dealing with people all day,” says Steele. “We can no longer both accept that Starbucks or coffee companies aren’t going to compensate us for hard work, or make the working conditions any better. It’s hitting a point where those contradictions are becoming somewhat untenable for the people working in these industries.”