Starbucks employee Tiernan Low measures his day by the rising steam of freshly brewed coffee, by sticky syrup accidents and cold foam puddles, and in between the jagged spaces of usually packed customer lines.
A shift supervisor at the Starbucks on 3401 Walnut St. in West Philadelphia, Low is quickly greeted by this midday rush of sweet exhaustion. Amid an incessant drumming of names and to-go mobile orders, Low spends his shift managing baristas’ breaks and duties while overseeing an influx of cash and inventory.
Though soaked in exhaustion, these baristas are not alone; Starbucks workers across the nation are filing petitions with the National Labor Relations Board to hold elections on union representation. And in Philadelphia, four stores just won their elections. Two of them, the Starbucks on 3401 Walnut St. and the Starbucks near Penn Medicine on 3400 Civic Center Blvd., are bustling centers on Penn’s campus.
The four Starbucks stores in Philadelphia voted on unionizing on May 25, with the votes at the Starbucks on Walnut tallied at 10-0 and the votes at the Penn Medicine Starbucks at 10-1. The stores on 600 South 9th St. in South Philadelphia and on 1900 Market St. in Center City also both voted to unionize this week.
At the locations on campus, the employees are demanding protections against the corporation for what they view as unfair wages, inconsistent scheduling and staffing issues, safety violations, and harassment.
“We are forming our union because we recognize that the interests of Starbucks corporate are fundamentally opposed to our own interests,” a letter, written in solidarity from the Starbucks on Walnut to former Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson, reads. “They have shown that their true colors are green, that they understand only the language of money.”
Workers at close to 270 of Starbucks’ 17,000 U.S. stores have filed to unionize since August, according to The Philadelphia Inquirer. There are 98 unionized Starbucks stores across the nation as of May 26.
It is a historic movement that longtime service industry workers, like Low, believe marks a new, more colorful chapter in labor history in this country.
Low himself has been in the service industry since he was a teenager, working part-time and full-time jobs throughout high school and college. Now, at 26, Low is one of the many workers retaliating not only against the corporation of Starbucks, but against the very greed of the American labor system he thinks it symbolizes. He said, “It’s important to mention that just by virtue of organizing with a labor union, we're part of a much broader, much longer, very powerful tradition of organized labor.”
Like many other Starbucks employees, Low believes that employees and their companies have fundamentally opposing interests, leading workers to be treated as a labor expense and nothing more.
“They call us partners because we receive stock for our time with the company, but, you know, we're not making our living by owning Starbucks stock,” he said. “We're making our living by working at Starbucks, so we have to sell hours of our life to Starbucks — and they want to buy it at the lowest price possible.”
Low, who has been at the company since April 2021, said he gets paid $16.80 an hour. He says the store’s baristas typically get paid about $12.
“My wages don't go up by enough to keep pace with my rent, so my cost of living just goes up every year without enough of a raise in my wages to compensate. And that's just me personally, but I imagine there's many, many people in a similar position,” he said.
Similarly, Sierra Goode, a barista and one of the union leaders at the Penn Medicine Starbucks, said some of her coworkers take up second jobs because they cannot afford to pay their bills.
Goode, a Philadelphia native who has been working at Starbucks for six years, said she is the highest-paid barista in her store now. She said she gets paid just under $15 an hour, having received annual raises of less than a dollar for the last six years she’s been at Starbucks.
Although Starbucks announced in May that it would increase wages and expand training at locations across the country, the changes do not apply to stores that have recently unionized or are in the process of unionizing.
“A lot of people are just tired of accepting the bare minimum for what they do,” Goode said. “We're expected to come in, do all this work, do all this effort, our managers get bonuses, our district managers get bonuses, we’re short-staffed, then we’re getting less-than-a-dollar raises a year and then we’re told, ‘Be grateful that you have benefits. Be grateful that you have a job, and if you don't like it, just get another job.’”
But Goode doesn’t necessarily want to leave a job that she genuinely likes. “I enjoy this company and I love it, but I want us to be treated like human beings rather than emotionless robots, you know?” she said.
Starbucks has continuously maintained its anti-union position, while emphasizing it respects the rights of employees to unionize.
“We are listening and learning from the partners in these stores as we always do across the country,” a Starbucks spokesperson wrote in an email to the DP. “From the beginning, we’ve been clear in our belief that we are better together as partners, without a union between us, and that conviction has not changed. We respect our partner’s right to organize and are committed to following the NLRB process.”
But in the face of workers’ efforts lies a dark history of opposition from the multinational corporation — its attitude today mirrors that of its past, as Starbucks workers have been, albeit inconsistently, organizing in unions since the 1980s.
And the coffeehouse chain and the union campaign are now caught in the claws of an increasingly expensive legal battle.
In April, Starbucks filed two complaints with the NLRB alleging that the union broke federal labor law while organizing the workers — its first set of allegations against the union’s side. Starbucks founder Howard Schultz, who recently returned to the company as its interim CEO, has said that Starbucks is “being assaulted, in many ways, by the threat of unionization.”
Federal officials had also filed a lawsuit against Starbucks last month over claims it fired employees for their union campaigning. And the NLRB issued a complaint against Starbucks accusing the corporation of interfering with, restraining, and coercing employees who are seeking to unionize. The charges included over 200 violations of the National Labor Relations Act.
Starbucks has reportedly often challenged workers’ unionization efforts in individual stores — contesting workers’ right to vote in store bargaining units, attempting to fill bargaining units with new workers trained separately from union-affiliated workers, illegally restricting employees from talking to reporters, sending company management to locations where workers have or may file for elections, threatening to close newly unionized stores in Buffalo, and asking employees to attend mandatory anti-union “captive audience” meetings.
When the wave of unionization hit Philadelphia earlier this year, Low recounted similar anti-union responses from Starbucks management. The 3401 Walnut location was briefly closed on Wednesdays for these often sparsely-attended “captive audience” meetings hosted by the store manager and the company’s district manager to discuss the workers’ unionization efforts, he said.
At the Penn Medicine Starbucks, Goode said that management “pulled us into our trash hallway and just had like, three of us at a time sit down and tell us why we shouldn't unionize.”
In Philadelphia, members of local volunteer-driven socialist organizations like Philadelphia DSA, a local chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, and Socialist Alternative were a crucial part of the unionization efforts at local Starbucks stores. Because for them, unionizing means more than organized labor and worker solidarity — it’s also a giant leap towards building a broad coalition of support behind progressive politicians and policies.
On average, unionized workers earn higher wages and have more access to employer-sponsored health benefits than their non-unionized counterparts, according to the Economic Policy Institute. Unions are also proven to improve the health and safety of workplaces, and help reduce gender, racial, and ethnic wage gaps.
When Philly DSA’s Secretary, Harinee Suthakar, caught wind of organizing efforts in different Starbucks stores across the city, she immediately began thinking about how to support the workers and mobilize Philadelphians.
Suthakar recognized that the first step in gathering broad support for the union efforts was to build strong relationships with the workers. It helped that some Philly DSA members already had relationships with workers at different Starbucks stores and other coffee shops across the city, and also knew of employees thinking about either unionizing or simply organizing to improve their conditions, she said.
“Any sort of organizing, it's all based on trust,” she said. “It should be fun and it should be relational, kind of building on the relationships that exist or building new relationships.”
Citing Starbucks' “union-busting” activity since Buffalo, Suthakar and other Philly DSA and Socialist Alternative members were quick to organize regular meetings with a couple Starbucks workers who are on the employees’ city-wide union organizing committee. Both groups had also reached out to Workers United, the union that is currently organizing Starbucks workers across the country.
For months, members of both organizations have held ad hoc tabling events outside the Starbucks on 34th and Walnut, where they ask regular customers and passersby to come to a rally in support of the union efforts and if they would also like to write a note of solidarity for workers — a collection of which are now plastered across a wall in the store.
“People are starting to know who we are and know what's going on. It's exciting when you're handing stuff out and people say like, I did your thing yesterday or I did your thing already, or when people say ‘Union Strong,’” Philly DSA member and occasional tabler Benjamin Moss-Horwitz, who is also a junior at Penn, said.
“It's also exciting to see workers from other unions that stop by that have seen how being in a union has led to them to get better benefits and protections,” he continued.
While Starbucks workers are leading the union momentum in Philadelphia, the city is also witnessing more union campaigns than it has in decades. Workers at local coffee shop chain Good Karma Cafe voted to unionize in March. Employees at Old City Coffee also filed a petition to the NLRB in March, but narrowly lost its election in April. Workers at a South Philly bagel shop formed a union last year and are now negotiating the union’s first contract.
Suthakar recognizes tabling as more than a way to reach people curious about the Starbucks union momentum or about democratic socialism — it’s a way to spread public “awareness and consciousness” about what a union really stands for.
“A lot of people don’t know what a union is … I think it’s becoming more mainstream or sexy again,” she said.
Like Suthakar, many young organizers credit U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and other well-recognized progressive politicians, like U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-Bronx) and U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Detroit), for inspiring the revival of today’s American labor movement — and a broader global workers movement.
Suthakar, who graduated from college in Pittsburgh in 2016, said, “It was Bernie's campaign that got me thinking like, ‘Hey, I want to be a workplace organizer, or I want to learn what that even means.” Moss-Horwitz also credited Sanders for inspiring his involvement in Philly DSA and other democratic socialist organizations on campus.
“Some might call it, you know, just organizing around working class issues. Some people might call it socialism,” Moss-Horwitz said. “But something’s definitely shifting. This wouldn't have happened in the ’90s. Like, young people in the ’90s were excited about Bill Clinton. We're in a fully different era.”
And in this era, Starbucks seems to be combating a workforce they ironically created. The company tends to employ young and liberal people, many of whom are Sanders supporters, and its customers tend to be liberal and well-educated, The New York Times reported. Polls show that young adults and democrats are more approving of unions and supportive of other forms of social activism.
When asked if he sees a direct correlation between the Starbucks workers’ union efforts and social democratic and progressive politicians, like Sanders, Low said: “My values as a person from the working class, who was raised in a working class family in a working class community, is the reason why I support Bernie Sanders. He's not the reason that I am interested in working class politics.”
He sees the union efforts as a revived grassroots movement fueled by a burned-out working class, not necessarily tied to politics.
Goode agreed, emphasizing that the push toward unionization is brewing in coffee shops and other stores across Philadelphia, not just at Starbucks.
“It’s simply just because people like being a barista, but they also like being able to afford to live and not have to work multiple jobs. So it’s more than a socialist movement, it’s just that, I don't want to have to accept the bare minimum and have to live like that when I know that you can afford to pay me more,” Goode said.
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