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The Starbucks Strike Is Working

Starbucks workers on strike in Austin, Texas.
Photo: Laura Wagner|

Starbucks workers on strike in Austin.

AUSTIN, Texas — On a chilly Thursday morning, passing drivers beeped cheerfully at a group of about a dozen people standing in front of a Starbucks store and holding signs that said "Union busting is disgusting" and "We're on strike." It wasn't just Starbucks workers, either. Others, including unionized nurses from a nearby hospital and a member of the local carpenters union, stopped by to lend their voices. One woman leaned out the window of her SUV and yelled "I support you." One guy named Chris showed up to pass out hand warmers and joined the picket line for a while. A gaggle of teens approached the storefront, clocked the signs that said, "No contract, no coffee," and turned around. The chief of staff for Austin City Councilwoman Vanessa Fuentes showed up to snap a photo, which was posted on Twitter. A technician from the neighboring nail salon wandered over, asking how to contribute to the workers' strike fund. The vibes were very good.

"We've got community support coming out of the woodwork," said Roisin, a supervisor at the north Austin Starbucks location, which in June became the first Starbucks location in Texas to unionize. Roisin, who did not want their last name used, is one of thousands of workers from more than 100 Starbucks stores in 25 states to walk off the job today in protest of the company's union-busting tactics.

Starbucks is facing hundreds of unfair labor practice accusations, which include firing workers involved in union efforts, cutting the hours of union leaders so they don't qualify for healthcare, promising workers better benefits if they refrain from unionizing, and intimidating workers by closing certain stores. Workers also say the company purposefully understaffs union stores to make shifts more difficult for unionized employees.

"Workers across this campaign are also calling for the company to fully staff our union stores, because we know that Short Staffing = Venti Wait Times," said Starbucks Workers United, the national group which represents nearly 7,000 workers.

Workers timed Thursday's strike to coincide with Starbucks's annual "Red Cup Day" promotion, in which stores distribute travel mugs to customers who order special holiday beverages. Workers said it's usually a hectic day, especially at understaffed locations. "Starbucks is trying to protect their bottom line at the expense of workers and customers," Roisin said in a TV hit with a local news station that showed up to cover the strike.

The Starbucks national union renamed the day "Red Cup Rebellion," and created their own red union-branded cups to pass out to would-be customers.

As the Washington Post reported:

Union officials said more than 2,000 workers will participate in 25 states, covering 112 stores in dozens of cities, including Seattle, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Eugene, Ore., and Ann Arbor, Mich. Employees will picket outside store entrances and hand out the union’s red cups to passersby, union officials said.

At the Austin location, the striking workers delayed the store's opening for two hours.

"We sent the strike notice at 4:59 a.m.," barista Atlas Danger said, explaining that salaried area managers had to come in and staff the store.

The striking workers were successfully turning away customers at the door when a manager named Tim came out and asked the workers to move away from the door and onto the grass abutting the sidewalk. Tim declined to speak with Defector and passed along contact information for Starbucks' corporate media relations team, which responded with boilerplate language about remaining "committed to all partners" and the bargaining process.

Workers at the Austin location were also calling for the store to implement credit card tipping, so workers can more easily receive tips from customers who don't have cash on hand.

"Starbucks has promised to implement card tipping at all locations by the end of the year," Roisin told Defector. But "we have been informed that we are not eligible for this because of our union status."

Anthony Munoz, a business student at the University of Texas, said he was just driving by when he saw the commotion and decided to stop.

"I've never seen anything like this," he said, and took a selfie with the workers on the picket line, who explained how the company had promised benefits to workers who were not unionized. "That's fucked up," he said. "Especially when you look at the profit margins for coffee."

Two nurses from local hospital system Ascension Seton Medical Center were on the picket line as well.

"A lot of our nurses probably stop by this location on the way to work, and we want to support," Kellen Gildersleeve told Defector, adding that their nurses union is currently bargaining a contract with the hospital. "It's all connected," she said.

Since the first Starbucks location in the country voted to unionize in December 2021, hundreds of stores around the country have followed suit. It's not an exaggeration to say Starbucks workers have built their own labor movement from scratch, and in an astonishing amount of time. But the company has yet to ratify a union contract with any of the 264 unionized stores, and the slow progress on negotiations has frustrated workers, who say management's foot-dragging is intentional.

"Starbucks is betting on the fact that there is high turnover," said former Austin Starbucks employee Dani Glover, who was on the picket line Thursday to support the strike. "They think if they keep putting it off, they can delay indefinitely."

In October, company lawyers walked out of a bargaining session because some workers joined the meeting via Zoom. The company has said it will not bargain virtually, and will not participate if Starbucks workers silently observe bargaining via video conference calls.

Workers say it's their right to observe negotiations, and they're hoping the strike will convince the company to speed up negotiations.

"We just want them to bargain in good faith," Roisin said from the picket line.

A one-day strike won't be enough to get the company to cease union busting and take the union seriously at the bargaining table, but it's not meant to be. Labor power is built over time. It accumulates, one store, one strike, one grievance, one informed customer at a time. A year ago, there were zero unionized Starbucks stores. There are now hundreds, many of which are currently participating in a nationwide strike and building alliances with other labor unions. It's not inevitable that Starbucks workers will be successful in winning a fair contract, but if they are, it won't have happened without actions like the Red Cup Rebellion.

A woman named Janet parked, stopped to chat with a worker in the parking lot, and then headed back to her car. She stopped to answer a question from Defector: What does she think of the walkout?

"I was just coming to get a cup of coffee and I see they're striking for better working conditions," she said. "So I'll go somewhere else to get my coffee."

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