'Milk Was Still Steaming, We Just Walked Out': Scenes from a Summer of Strikes in a South Carolina Starbucks
Starbucks barista was Aneil Tripathi’s first job, at 17. Now 19 and a shift supervisor, he helped organize a union in his store in Anderson, South Carolina. He and his co-workers, whom Starbucks calls “partners,” have been on strike twice this summer—an experience Tripathi calls emotional and fun.
Since the Starbucks Workers United campaign launched last fall, workers have won union authorization elections at 220 stores, and struck at least 60. The company has retaliated harshly—closing some stores, firing dozens of union leaders, claiming interference by the National Labor Relations Board, and calling for a moratorium on mail-in elections.
Starbucks also barred union stores from receiving long-awaited benefits to be implemented August 1, provoking several strikes.
Jonah Furman from Labor Notes spoke with Tripathi about the joys of the picket line, Starbucks’ retaliation, and how a store manager got so rattled by a collective action that she accused the workers of kidnapping her. This text has been condensed and edited for clarity. –Editors
We had our vote count May 31. I remember everything because I was so excited. I was expecting maybe two or three no votes, but we were the first unanimous store in the South.
It was fine for a week. We were proud. We were wearing our Starbucks Workers United shirts; we put up a sign saying “Welcome to your unionized I-85 Starbucks.”
Our store manager said. “You can’t wear those shirts, it’s against Starbucks dress code.” I said, “That’s illegal. Under the National Labor Relations Act we’re allowed to wear union apparel.” She says, “I’m just telling you what I was told. The next person to wear one will be written up.”
So we stopped wearing them for a while; we were unsure of the write-up process. I said, “What do you think of a direct action?” We went on strike June 10.
A DRAMATIC WALKOUT
We held a store meeting to get everyone’s opinion on walking out. They were nervous, but I said, “Look, striking’s a protected act. We’re allowed to do this. They can find temporary replacements, but once we come back to work they have to give us our jobs back.”
We were the first store to use the Workers United strike fund; we got 70 percent of our checks covered. Workers United had our back, so no worry about that. That was the big hang-up.
We walked out at 9 o’clock, in the middle of Saturday peak. We wrote up a strike letter, and everyone signed it. Our plan was to meet at back of house; I was told this is very dramatic and not how most strikes go. We met up, got signs together, and walked out saying, “Union busters, you’ve got trouble.”
Shots were still pulling. Milk was still steaming. We utterly just walked out, left the store manager in the store to deal with customers. That’s what she does with us. If you want to do that to us, we’ll do that to you.
We immediately started picketing around the stores. Around 10 o’clock Starbucks brought in two people to cover drive-through. But we were pretty loud. Customers were like, “What are you doing?” We said, “We’re striking because they wanted to break the law and Starbucks is not above the law.” They wanted to close at 1 but they had to close at 12 because they couldn’t serve customers.
We had a fun time. We had music going, we were yelling at the road. The store closed Sunday, and re-opened on Monday. Based on our sales, our store probably lost $15,000. Our motive right now is to hit Starbucks with a monetary loss, because that’s what they’re going to listen to.
We had a conversation with our store manager on what we wanted to see from her on Monday. You want to hold us accountable, so we’re holding you accountable. We want you to be more present in the store. Two weeks later she went on a leave of absence.
WE RAN THE STORE
We were basically without a store manager for half of June and all of July—the store was basically run by us.
Our shift team is really strong; two of our shift supervisors have been here for eight years and nine years. We knew exactly what needed to be done.
Our drive-through times actually went down when we didn’t have a store manager, and our “customer connection” went up. Basically it is a 1-7 scale for “did the employee get to know you”; Starbucks only counts the 7s. Those are the two most important metrics for Starbucks.
We went on another strike July 22-24. Starbucks cut a lot of hours and tried to change the operating hours, which they’re not allowed to do. They wanted us to open an hour earlier, at 4 a.m., and close half an hour earlier, at 8:30 p.m. Closing at that time is really hard to do, because there’s a big rush when people are getting off of work. We’re the last Starbucks before a 40-minute drive to Commerce, Georgia.
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And they were significantly cutting hours, which is an unfair labor practice. One partner has 5 a.m.-10:30 p.m. full availability and they only scheduled him nine hours every week; I got dropped to 25. We were both getting scheduled 35-40 before. So we said, “Let’s go on strike. Let’s make it known they can’t push us around.”
We enjoy striking. We have a lot of fun out there. We have a strong bond, and a strong community vibe. We hang outside of work; all of us went to a partner’s high school graduation, we all went to another partner’s play. So it makes us emotional sometimes when we see each other fighting for our rights, fighting for each other.
A BATTLE OF WILLS
Our new manager started July 31. We also wanted to send her a message: whatever you’re going to try to pull, you better think twice.
First day, we did not like her. She came in very militant: y’all are going to do it my way. Measurements of success: I want low drive times, low out the window times, and high customer connection scores. And us partners who had been basically running the store for the past month and a half did not appreciate that.
August 1, the day of raises [which were being denied to unionized workers], we decided to do a march on the boss.
Starbucks has an employee website called Partner Central, and there’s an option where they can go in and just change our rate of pay. It shows that store managers have ability to change compensation.
We decided to approach our store manager: “We know you have the power to make the changes. This is the website you can use.”
She gets on the phone immediately with the district manager and brushes past us. She says she does not have the power to change our compensation; I ask if I can speak to our district manager. The new store manager said, “Can you call her?” and she asked if she could leave the building. We all said “Yes,” and she grabs her laptop and leaves the building.
I call our district manager. She says I have to call our H.R. line—they have control over the company-wide raises. I have all 12 partners in the store call at once, shut the store down for 45 minutes.
Partner Resources told us the district and store manager have complete control over storewide raises. So effectively our managers were aiding and abetting Starbucks breaking the law. I said, “See you in court. If you don’t want to answer to us, you have to answer to the NLRB representatives.” Then we all went back to work.
Thursday rolls around. I’m the shift manager on duty. The Anderson Police Department comes in, asks, “Can we speak to the store manager?” They say someone has reported assault and kidnapping at the store on August 1. Immediately I think it’s our store manager, because who else would it be?
I gave them all the details: the doors were unlocked, she could leave at any time. This was a legally protected activity. The police were kind of inferring the whole time these charges were ridiculous.
Saturday morning, 11 of us get a call from Partner Resources, saying, “We have to put you on paid time off, you can’t enter a Starbucks store.” If we asked questions they effectively just hung up on us.
We got all our Workers United lawyers involved. Even if Starbucks does fire us—shoot, we can do sip-ins, protest inside the store, outside the store. If they want to fire us, we’ll keep fighting.
Aneil Tripathi is a shift supervisor and member of Starbucks Workers United in Anderson, South Carolina.