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Washington Times

Why Starbucks workers are rejecting unionization

By November 27, 2023No Comments

(This column originally appeared in The Washington Times)


If you worked at a Starbucks, would you be so eager to join a union? Despite the aggressive actions of Workers United, which is part of the Service Employees International Union, and the heavy-handed support of the National Labor Relations Board, a large number of workers at the coffee chain are just saying no.

In July, half of the employees of the Mall of America’s Starbucks near Minneapolis filed a petition to get rid of their union. Last December, the baristas at an experimental Starbucks-Amazon Go store in New York voted down unionization. In August, the employees at the Starbucks Reserve Roastery — a five-story building in Chicago known as the largest Starbucks in the world — rejected union membership. In May 2022, workers at a Wichita, Kansas, location turned down the opportunity. The same with a store in Lafayette, Louisiana.

According to The Associated Press, as of this past January, employees at the chain had voted to unionize at 274 stores, or just 3% of the company’s 9,000-owned U.S. locations. Sixty-three stores have voted not to unionize, and the number of petitions to unionize had already fallen from 358 at their peak to less than a dozen in a month.

According to the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation — whose mission is to “eliminate coercive union power and compulsory unionism abuses through strategic litigation, public information, and education programs” — Starbucks employees just this year have sought free legal aid from the foundation in filing or defending their decertification petitions in Oklahoma City, Manhattan, Buffalo, Pittsburgh, Salt Lake City, Greenville, South Carolina, and Oklahoma City, in addition to the locations previously mentioned. Even in my very blue, very unionized hometown of Philadelphia, employees at one of the company’s eight locations submitted a petition to decertify themselves from Workers United.

Meanwhile, the National Labor Relations Board is campaigning hard for unions by contesting these petitions and fighting the very workers they are supposed to protect by siding with the unions, which are among the largest donors to President Biden’s reelection campaign.

The reality is that many workers don’t want to be unionized. Why not?

Despite the National Labor Relations Board and its union supporters accusing Starbucks of violating labor laws and “purging organized workers,” Sen. Bernie Sanders’ statement that the company is using union-busting tactics, and The New York Times’ condemning the company for fighting a “dirty war” against workers, Starbucks is a pretty good company to work for. It has won a number of “best places to work” awards. It is one of the world’s most admired companies. It ranks high among the Fortune 100’s best companies to work for.

The benefits at Starbucks are generous. The pay is competitive. The company accommodates flexible schedules and is committed to the career advancement of its people.

This is what good companies do. They understand that it’s a tight labor market. They know that they need to compensate well in order to hire and retain the best talent. In Starbucks‘ case, mistakes or bad decisions made by an employee can result in an expensive public relations nightmare (for example, my local Starbucks in Philadelphia in 2018), so they invest heavily in training and creating an inclusive and diverse workforce.

The company is far from perfect. It frequently makes mistakes. It’s also understandably fighting back against the unions by offering better benefits and paying out tips only to nonunionized employees.

Most importantly, it’s the employees at Starbucks who — like the rest of us — are questioning the value of a union. And for good reason.

Unions can be an excellent resource of training, except that Starbucks‘ unions don’t train — because it doesn’t know the first thing about making a latte — so the company does all this. Unions can be a good place to collectively bargain for fair wages. But Starbucks knows the market and understands the importance of paying well lest they lose valuable talent to the countless other competitors looking to hire hourly workers. Union benefits are worse than Starbucks‘, and their dues are high.

Unions can provide safety protections, except that Starbucks — facing pressures from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and state workplace regulators — has all the reasons in the world to make sure their workplaces are safe and their employees are taught best practices.

And what leverage does a worker at Starbucks have? They’re not coal miners, schoolteachers, bus drivers or factory workers building cars or essential machines. They’re not critical. They make and serve coffee. People can buy coffee in a lot of places. We can make coffee at home. The world will continue to function whether Starbucks is open or not.

This is why unionization at Starbucks doesn’t make sense to many workers. Why rock the boat? Why fight the very people who can help you grow in your job, succeed in your career, or provide a good reference if you leave? Why create headaches for your boss and your customers? What is it accomplishing, apart from creating ill will and increasing the probability of nonadvancement in the years to come?

The National Labor Relations Board has more than 1,300 employees working out of 30 offices around the country and provides money to countless lobbyists, consultants and public relations firms. The Starbucks attack keeps them very busy. These people don’t want to lose their jobs, even if it means the very workers they represent lose theirs.

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