Starbucks Workers Win Breakthrough Promise of Real Negotiations

Starbucks workers from New York and New Jersey gather on a Manhattan sidewalk after confronting managers at the company’s regional headquarters May 1. The cumulative effect of worker actions has pushed the company to agree to bargain. Photo: Jenny Brown.

The piñata finally burst. Starbucks corporate heads agreed Tuesday to negotiate for real with the union and allow workers to organize.

“I was in shock initially, and definitely some disbelief,” said Michelle Eisen, who works at the first Buffalo store that unionized with Starbucks Workers United in 2021. As she learned more, she said, she came to believe the victory is real.

The breakthrough is the cumulative effect of actions by workers, including winning union elections, marching on the boss, petitioning, store pickets, walkouts due unsafe conditions or inadequate staffing, nationwide strikes, and relentless bad press for its mistreatment of workers.

Workers agreed it wasn’t one tactic or another that made the difference, but all the things the union has done.

A record 21 stores filed for union authorization elections last week. In November, Starbucks Workers conducted a nationwide strike on the company’s promotional “Red Cup” day, involving 200 stores.

Almost 400 stores have voted to join Starbucks Workers United, a division of Workers United, part of the Service Employees (SEIU). They now represent 10,000 Starbucks workers. The company employs around 250,000 baristas in U.S. stores.

The coffee shop chain has agreed to negotiate a “foundational framework” with all its union stores. Presumably this means there would be a national contract and local supplements, though details are unclear. “There are still a lot of things that need to be figured out,” Eisen said.

Previously Starbucks had insisted on negotiating with each café separately (typically 12 to 20 workers). However, the company stalled negotiations, and no progress was made at the table even at the earliest stores to unionize.


To demonstrate good faith, the company agreed to immediately extend credit-card tipping and raises to union stores. Starbucks had been illegally punishing its union stores by giving only workers at non-union stores raises and access to credit-card tipping. A court ordered it to include union stores, but it had been fighting the ruling.

Starbucks committed to implement tipping within 30 days, Eisen said. This will be welcome, because January through April tend to be difficult for workers due to fewer hours.

Union workers will eventually get back pay making up for the raises they missed; in some cases for longtime workers it will be “life-changing” amounts, one noted.

Starbucks also agreed to a “a fair process for organizing.” The phrase usually means that management will recognize the union if a majority of workers in a store sign a petition, rather than forcing workers into a bruising election period where managers threaten and cajole workers into rescinding their support. However, “fair process” may instead mean that the company will tone down its anti-union tactics, many of which have been illegal.


Up until the February 27 breakthrough, there had been little sign of movement from Starbucks. On December 29, the company proudly proclaimed that an internal investigation had found that it was not using an “anti-union playbook.” But workers have reported a drumbeat of threats, retaliations, and firings throughout the campaign.

In Buffalo, Victoria Conklin was put on exhausting “clopening” shifts as punishment for her union support, and then fired when she was late. She had led a walkout after six workers called in sick with Covid, leaving insufficient staff.

Conklin and other fired workers reported that the company tried to block them from getting the unemployment compensation they were due. She had worked for Starbucks for five years.

There would be a lot more union stores but for the company’s anti-union campaign. Joselyn Chuquillanqui reported that when her Massapequa, New York, store tried to unionize in 2023, management created a hostile work environment and threatened that with a union they would lose their benefits. Union supporters lost the election by one vote and Chuquillanqui, a seven-year employee, was fired two months later on a pretext.



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The company racked up a record number of Labor Board charges for a variety of illegal tactics, most egregiously for more than 100 firings in retaliation for union activity. Starbucks was ordered by courts to hire back these workers, including the ‘Memphis 7’ who were the first workers the company fired, in February 2022. They won back their jobs seven months later, but their case is going to the Supreme Court.

In addition to federal violations, Starbucks ran afoul of local fair hours and just firing laws.

In March 2023, the U.S. Senate’s HELP (Health, Education, Labor and Pensions) committee, chaired by Bernie Sanders, heard testimony from Starbucks workers, as well as founder and ex-CEO Howard Schultz. Sanders noted to Schultz that an administrative law judge had found Starbucks guilty of “egregious and widespread misconduct” and “a general disregard for the employee’s fundamental rights.” Schultz blandly claimed the allegations were false, but turned over company leadership to Laxman Narasimhan in April 2023.


New campaign elements in the last year battered the brand further. Starbucks closed all three of its union stores in Ithaca, New York. In response to this union-busting in their town, students at Cornell pushed the university to cut ties with the company. Following their lead, student groups have been campaigning to oust the company from 25 campuses, including UCLA, Georgetown, and NYU.

With public approval of unions reaching 70 percent, Starbucks’ reputation has taken a beating, while the union’s lively and appealing social media presence has made mincemeat of the brand’s claims to be progressive.

Workers United is also employing a new strategy on the corporate level that has the business press fussing. The Strategic Organizing Center, a union-aligned fund, is using 2021 federal regulatory change to put three pro-union directors up for election to the Starbucks board. The impending election at Starbucks’ March 15 annual meeting may have nudged Starbucks toward the table.

But this is no grasstops corporate campaign. The effort has been remarkable for making workers into leaders and involving members in building the union. This is partly because of the way the campaign developed. After the first stores won, the union was inundated with requests for help from baristas across the country. To cope, they developed a worker-to-worker model to build the union, teaching each other how to talk to co-workers and win elections.


That same participatory spirit has animated their preparations for bargaining, said Eisen. In 2023 the stores that were unionized held a series of regular meetings to hash out bargaining priorities.

“The big thing that was really important was getting as much feedback as possible,” she said. Workers developed bargaining surveys, compiled answers, reviewed draft proposals, and created a general set of demands as well as pinpointing specific issues they wanted addressed their own stores.

Key issues for workers have been pay and consistent scheduling. The company understaffs stores, leading to grueling shifts. But when workers ask for more hours, they are rebuffed. Then the company hires additional workers, who also have inadequate hours.

New hires take a while to get up to speed because of the vast assortment of drinks on the menu, Casey Moore, a former Buffalo barista, told Labor Notes last year. “It took me three months to feel comfortable working on bar,” she said. “In order to hit the times that they want you to hit, you have to have practice with being able to move that fast.”

Workers think they can solve these problems with a good contract, said Moore. “One idea is that if you’re understaffed, there’s time and half.”

Along with scheduling improvements and the right to organize without retaliation, they also want better vacation and sick time policies, better health care coverage (it can be expensive and minimal), and safety committees in stores.

Now they may have a chance to actually bargain those issues.

Why did this this breakthrough come now? “It could be because we’ve been fighting really hard for two and a half years,” said Eisen, “and we weren’t planning on stopping any time soon.”

Head shot of writer
Jenny Brown is an assistant editor at Labor Notes.