The next time you hand over five bucks for a Starbucks Frappuccino, there is a fair chance a union barista will call out your name. Thousands of people working behind a Starbucks counter are covered by a union contract. Today! Not after the revolution, but right now.
How can this be, given all the money and effort top Starbucks management have put into fighting off unionization at a handful of their Buffalo coffee shops?
Most of the unionized Starbucks workers are employed in the large kiosks Starbucks has licensed at hundreds of hotels, grocery stores, hospitals, airports, colleges, and similar high-traffic locations. They look almost identical to a regular Starbucks coffee shop, with the same signage, the same range of coffees, the distinctive green aprons on youthful baristas, and assorted Starbucks mugs and packaged goods on sale. Its the rare customer who can tell the difference between a corporate-owned Starbucks and one of these licensed locations.
As of 2018, over 40 percent of the 14,000 Starbucks outlets in the U.S. were run by another firm. Starbucks controls the store design, menu, equipment, food, and promotions. The Seattle-based company puts all of these kiosk workers through a multiday training program and then makes periodic inspections to ensure brand standards and quality.
Starbucks also deploys the same languageto inspire and nurture the human spiritdescribing the delivery of a beverage experience that consumers have come to know and love. And we know this can all be done with union baristas, because its happening in thousands of locations across the country.
Where a union contract governs, baristas can be certain that their wages will rise with their seniority and that benefits are superior to those offered at corporate Starbucks locations.
In Colorado and other Mountain States, Local 7 of the United Food and Commercial Workers represents 150 grocery stores, with about 125 hosting Starbucks kiosks. That comes to something like 600 or 700 unionized baristas. Likewise, in Seattle and the Pacific Northwest, UFCW Local 21 represents 1,200 Starbucks workers out of some 25,000 under contract. (Thats right, there are unionized Starbucks workers in the home of Starbucks, Seattle.) Nationwide, UFCW contracts cover thousands more.
These unionized coffee servers are employees of Kroger, Safeway, and other chains, so collective-bargaining agreements codify their wages and working conditions. But in every other respect, they work for Starbucks, behind Starbucks counters, wearing Starbucks uniforms, and selling Starbucks coffee. Unionized hotels also employ Starbucks baristas, as do airports and hospitals, where the Service Employees International Union represents many workers.
Not all firms that license Starbucks are unionized, so employment conditions vary widely, but where a union contract governs, baristas can be certain that their wages will rise with their seniority and that health and retirement benefits are superior to those offered at corporate Starbucks locations. In Colorado, starting pay is $12.35 an hour, moving up to $17.93; in Seattle, health insurance kicks in for individuals working just 16 hours a week; if the barista is employed for 20 hours a week, the whole family is covered. One barista reported that in Las Vegas, her base wages doubled when she moved from a corporate Starbucks to a kiosk run by a hotel, where the citys powerful, progressive Culinary Union held collective-bargaining rights.
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In Southern California, where UFCW contracts cover more than 600 supermarkets, union baristas are guaranteed at least 20 hours a week employment, enough to qualify for an inexpensive but high-quality health insurance plan. At corporate Starbucks, 20 hours a week is also the eligibility requirement, but their health insurance is more expensive, and coffee shop managers offer baristas no assurance that they will have the work hours they need to stay eligible, a chronic grievance among employees.
Aside from wages and benefits, two other features of working in a unionized grocery are notable. For those who want it, a well-defined promotion ladder beckons. Working under a contract, baristas can seek better-paying jobs in other supermarket departments, thereby making an actual career with the same employer, something the constant churn and limited advancement opportunities at a corporate Starbucks makes highly unlikely. With 12 years service, grocery workers under a UFCW contract get a month vacation each year, something rarely achieved at Starbucks, where the turnover rate is 65 percent per annum. Moreover, no grocery store manager calls the baristas who work at the Starbucks kiosk partners, the faux communitarian appellation conjured up by founder Howard Schultz to mask the power of the boss. In grocery, they are simply called employees.
Indeed, these unionized Starbuck kiosks are entirely subversive of the saccharine partnership culture projected by all those corporate managers who flocked to Buffalo last month in hopes of stanching the union drive. Starbucks executives seek the common culture that has made us strong, wrote former CEO Schultz in his 1997 autobiography. Our baristas understand the vision and value system of the company, which is seldom the case when someone elses employees are serving Starbucks coffee.
But today, in more than 6,000 locations, that is precisely what takes place, with many of those non-Starbucks coffee servers unionized to boot. What all this makes absolutely clear is that Starbucks anti-unionism rests entirely upon an authoritarian, pecuniary impulse entirely divorced from the quality of the product and service offered in Starbucks coffee shops, whether corporate-owned or not.
In Buffalo, a few dozen heroic baristas have made this point, exemplifying much courage in the face of overwhelming corporate power. They are an inspiration, but so too are the thousands of other young people who simply walked into a union job with no struggle at all. Although a sizable number are probably unaware of the role played by the UFCW and other unions in winning the work standards and protections they now enjoy, these union baristas demonstrate that labors capacity to organize the nations vast retail and fast-food universe is without limit. Indeed, we can glimpse a future in which it has become an entirely normalized part of workaday America.