Staff at roughly 220 Starbucks stores across the US have voted to unionise, making unexpectedly successful inroads at the popular chain of coffee shops. But the movement is facing a precarious moment, as the economy slows and the company mounts a furious response.
Joselyn Chuquillanqui had worked for Starbucks for nearly seven years when the company fired her last month.
She had been waiting for the decision. Though she liked her job as a barista, which gave her flexibility to care for her young niece, this winter the 28-year-old had tried to rally her co-workers in New York to join a labour union, frustrated by the company’s stance on sick leave during the pandemic.
Soon after, she says her boss started punishing her for infractions overlooked in others, like arriving a few minutes late for her 5:30am shift.
When she misplaced her key to the store in July, it appeared to be the last straw, though she told her manager immediately. The key was ultimately found inside the shop, which opened and closed as scheduled despite the incident.
On her notice of separation, Starbucks cited a pattern of tardiness and the key incident.
But Joselyn, who had worked for Starbucks since 2015 and was a shift supervisor earning more than $22 an hour, says: “It was definitely some type of retaliation. I’ve never seen anyone be fired for being under five minutes late.”
Union organisers say Joselyn’s clash was part of a national crackdown in which more than 75 union activists have been fired and some stores closed as the company, which has touted itself as a progressive workplace, tries to stop the labour movement troubling its ranks.
Starbucks, which owns nearly 9,000 stores in the US and licenses thousands more, denies retaliation. The firm says it respects workers’ right to organise, and closed stores based on safety records.
But there is little doubt that it sees the union as a threat.
“We don’t believe a third party should lead our people and so we are in a battle for the hearts and minds of our people. And we are going to be successful,” boss Howard Schultz told a conference in June.
Born into a working-class family in Brooklyn, Mr Schultz has already seen off several labour movements during his tenure with the company, which he served as chief executive from 1987 to 2000 and again for roughly a decade after the 2008 financial crisis as it transformed from a small Seattle chain into an internationally recognised behemoth.
When the company’s CEO Kevin Johnson retired in April this year amid the union drive, Mr Schultz returned as interim head for a third time, promising to repair the firm’s relationship with its staff and “reinvent the role and responsibility of a public company”.
Senior management have hosted dozens of meetings about the issue, aimed at airing complaints and convincing staff the firm can respond better without a union.
The company has also announced more than $1bn in investment in higher wages, additional training and other improvements, lifting the firm’s minimum wage in the US to $15 an hour and the average to about $17.
When pay increases came into effect on 1 August, the company pointedly did not extend the raises to staff at unionised stores, saying a change in benefits has to be negotiated as part of a bigger contract.
“Sharing success through wins and benefits with our partners is among our core values, and has been for 50 years,” Mr Schultz said in May. “Our values are not and never have been the result of demands or interference from any outside entity.”
Globally, unions represent a tiny fraction of the company’s staff, most notably in Chile.
Campaigners in the US maintain that the recent improvements Starbucks has announced are a result of their efforts, which include some 60 worker strikes across the US.
Their cause has been bolstered by an unusually tight labour market, which is credited with empowering workers to speak out at companies across the US, including Apple and Amazon.
But as the economy shows signs of slowing down, those conditions may be shifting, just as Starbucks’ response intensifies and organisers face pressure to deliver a strong contract.
Evan Sunshine, 20, worked at a Starbucks store in Ithaca, New York that voted to unionise in April and was recently shut by Starbucks, which cited difficulty fixing a trap for cooking grease that had overflowed.
Evan credits the union with helping him transfer his job to another location, but he says: “A lot of workers are starting to get tired and workers at other stores that haven’t unionised might want to but are afraid because of all of this backlash.”
The Starbucks Workers United union has accused the company of violating labour law, filing dozens of charges against the firm with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), the government’s labour rights watchdog.
The NLRB has filed 16 complaints of its own after investigating the claims and in some cases sought court orders to reinstate fired staff immediately – an unusually proactive step.
Starbucks, which is fighting the charges, has filed its own complaints accusing the union and regulators of misconduct.
It has asked for the dozens of pending union elections to be suspended while its complaints are investigated. It also recently defeated an NLRB request to reinstate workers on an emergency basis in Arizona.
However the disputes are resolved, Risa Lieberwitz, professor of labour and employment law at Cornell University and director of its Worker Institute, says companies in the US often push the boundaries of the law, since protections and penalties for violating them are notoriously weak.
She says the more serious risk to the firm may be that the fight affects its brand, as polls suggest Americans’ approval of organised labour has climbed to the highest level in decades.
This spring, a group of socially conscious investors sent a letter to Starbucks asking the company to adopt a more neutral stance, noting that the firm has a long history of courting progressive customers by allying with causes like Black Lives Matter.
“Public opinion is always important, particularly where you have a very large, well-known corporation that would like to present itself as [progressive],” Prof Lieberwitz says. “If you see this sort of contradiction… that can really hurt the company’s reputation.”
For now, it appears Starbucks is willing to run that risk.
At Joselyn’s store, staff elected not to join the union in May by a vote of 5-6, even though a majority of staff had signed cards in support of holding an election just a few weeks earlier.
The union is contesting the results, alleging unfair practices. Joselyn said her manager spread rumors that she was getting paid for her union work, cut her hours and warned staff they would be denied promotions and other benefits.
“It was really disappointing,” she says. “They poked at people’s vulnerabilities and vilified me and that’s really how they won.”