In early January, workers at a Starbucks location in Eugene filed a petition with the National Labor Relations Board to form a union, the first such effort in Oregon among employees of the Fortune 500 coffee chain. After Starbucks employees in Buffalo won their unionization bid last month, workers in at least 10 other states, including Washington where the company is based, have contacted the National Labor Relations Board to seek union representation. We hear from Ky Fireside, a Starbucks barista and the lead organizer behind the unionization campaign in Eugene and Gordon Lafer, a professor at the University of Oregon Labor Education and Research Center, as a shift in public attitudes toward unions coincides with changes in service sector jobs.
The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.
Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. Two weeks ago, employees at a Starbucks in Eugene filed a petition to form a union. It is the first such effort in Oregon for workers at the largest coffeehouse chain in the world. But it follows two successful unionization efforts at Starbucks locations in Buffalo, New York and Starbucks workers in at least 10 other states are now following suit. Ky Fireside is a Starbucks barista at the Eugene location and the lead organizer behind the unionization campaign there. They join us now. It’s good to have you on Think Out Loud.
Ky Fireside: Thank you for inviting me.
Miller: Why did you want to form a union at the Starbucks in Eugene where you work?
Fireside: Well, it’s important that you understand this isn’t because of any store-specific issues that we have. We do have a lot of grievances with corporate and after seeing what Buffalo was able to accomplish, we figured we could do it too.
Miller: When you say store-specific, you mean you don’t have specific grievances at your location?
Fireside: Correct. Our store is run incredibly well. We love our store manager. He treats us all better than any other manager we’ve ever had. The company does not treat us the way that he treats us.
Miller: What do you mean by that?
Fireside: As you know, Starbucks calls its employees partners, which is a great word, but it doesn’t mean anything in this context. We are not treated like partners. We have no say in any policy that the company makes.
Miller: What are you thinking about in particular, what are examples of policies where even though on paper you’re a partner, you have no ability to control your working destiny?
Fireside: Pay is the big one that people talk about. There is not a person that… me, as a barista, I could go talk to and discuss my pay and make a case for a raise. The person that decides how much I get paid will never meet me.
Miller: What would you like the situation to be?
Fireside: All we really want is a voice. We want a seat at the bargaining table.
Miller: That’s interesting the way you put that because that’s the exact same language that I saw in a statement after the successful unionization vote outside of the Buffalo location. A shift supervisor said in a statement that, “Finally the partners feel we have a voice at our workplace.” How do you envision that working in a place that has 9,000 locations or so and hundreds of thousands of employees?
Fireside: Well, each store is working on unionizing as an individual unit, but we will still all be part of the larger Workers United Union. So we will have that power of this great number of baristas and partners. But we can also make some decisions that are store specific.
Miller: If I’m not mistaken, that is a part of the SEIU, the Service Employees International Union. You mentioned having a seat at the table in terms of pay. Are there other specific changes that you’re calling for in terms of working conditions or benefits?
Fireside: Right now, we aren’t calling for anything specific other than for Starbucks to recognize our union and give us this voice so that we can speak to them, any grievance that we have, any issue that we have is not going to be solved until we are given a fair say.
Miller: Is this a part of the broader strategy to not say these are our demands? Because you don’t only want specific demands to be met?
Fireside: Frankly, yes, if we make specific demands at this point, what corporate has been doing is trying to give in to those small things and then say, all right, you got what you wanted and now you don’t need a union.
Miller: There have been so many stories over the last two years about the challenges that service sector workers have been facing in the pandemic, people who regularly come in contact with members of the public, who may not be wearing a mask or maybe wearing it on their chin or may not be following basic social distancing or either paying attention to local public health authorities or to people in those locations. To what extent do you think your unionization effort and others are tied specifically to the pandemic?
Fireside: It is certainly a motivating factor. We’ve seen all those things you just listed and more. And again we aren’t given a whole lot of say in company policy. We aren’t given a voice and the fact that we are coming to work scared every day is absolutely motivating us to unionize.
Miller: When you say you’ve seen everything I mentioned meaning not wearing masks or not social distancing and more, what’s the more?
Fireside: For example, the Lane County Starbucks stores have had their lobbies closed recently because of the Omicron breakout and there are people coming in maskless asking why the lobby is closed, being told that it’s because of the pandemic and then kind of flying off the handle.
Miller: If you’re just tuning. I’m talking right now with Ky Fireside who is a barista at a Starbucks in Eugene and the lead organizer there behind the unionization effort. What kind of attention were you paying to the very first Starbucks location in Buffalo and their ultimately successful unionization effort? I mean, how much daily progress were you checking in on?
Fireside: I was able to tune in as soon as they filed their petition and I was watching every single day and asking them when is your vote, when is your vote counted? What happens next? And they’ve been really good about being responsive and helping us follow in their footsteps.
Miller: An employee, an organizer at a location in Seattle obviously the home of the mothership, she told the New York Times “The Buffalo folks became superheroes”. A lot of us spent so much time being afraid of retaliation, none of us could afford to lose our jobs or have our hours cut. I’m curious what message you took from that unionizing win in Buffalo.
Fireside: We watched as corporate sent everything at them that they could, and Starbucks Corporate has a lot of resources. So we watched them close stores, split up partners and send them to other stores. We watched as they talked about having 2 on 1 barista manager interviews or eight managers to a barista trying to convince them not to unionize. And that was really really inspirational because they took the brunt of it and they really did make it easier for us.
Miller: There’s an interesting question here of resources. It seems like Starbucks was able to do that when there was just one unionizing attempt at a time. But there’s more than a dozen now and if there are many dozens perhaps in the future, it’s not clear they’re going to have the managerial resources to do that, that full court press. Are you banking on that as a strategy?
Fireside: It wasn’t an intentional strategy but it has been beneficial to us that so many other stores filed when we did. We filed two weeks ago and we haven’t heard from corporate yet at all.
Miller: I should say we reached out to Starbucks and they sent us the same statement that it appears they have given to news outlets all across the country. It includes this line from the beginning, ‘We’ve been clear in our belief that we are better together as partners without a union between us at Starbucks and that conviction has not changed’. So as you noted, Ky, you haven’t gotten anybody from corporate who’s gotten in touch with you yet. But what are you expecting in terms of the messaging or lessons that you might get in terms of the corporate view of what unionizing would mean for you?
Fireside: Labeling the union as a third party is definitely a tactic that they’ve employed. And that’s really a shame because the union is not a separate governing body. A union is made of the workers. So we are the union. They will tell you that when you unionize, you don’t know what you’re going to get. Things may change. They may get better, they may get worse. You don’t know. But again, that’s really not how it works. We would not bargain for something that gives us a worse deal.
Miller: What’s the timeline now? You’ve filed your petition to call for a vote with the National Labor Relations Board two weeks ago. What’s next?
Fireside: On January 28th at 9 a.m., we have a hearing with the NLRB and that hearing is to determine who in our store will be eligible to vote. That hearing is also to determine whether a single store is a sufficient bargaining unit or if we should file as a district. And they have litigated that same thing at every single store that has filed and they’ve lost every time, they keep doing it again. But that’s our next step.
Miller: Ky Fireside, thanks very much.
Fireside: Thank you.
Miller: Ky Fireside is a barista at a Starbucks in Eugene and the lead organizer behind the unionization effort there. For a broader context on this national movement. I’m joined by Gordon Lafer. He’s a professor in the Labor Education and Research center at the University of Oregon. Gordon Lafer, welcome back.
Gordon Lafer: Thank you. It’s good to be here.
Miller: Can you put this Starbucks unionization effort, the one in Eugene and more than a dozen other locations around the country in a broader context? What do you see as happening right now?
Lafer: Well, there’s a couple of things. One is the economy has gotten slowly but steadily harder for most people over 40 years. And one of the ways you see that is jobs like at Starbucks which you know maybe 10-20 years ago, people thought either these are just teenagers, these are high school kids, these are really temporary jobs you do in the summer, have become jobs that people do for a much longer period of time and into a later stage of their life. And that’s made the condition of the jobs more important. It’s given the people who work there more incentives, more identification with the job, more time bonding with each other and more of an incentive to improve the conditions there. So I think that’s one of the things that’s going on. And then of course there’s a huge growing problem of economic inequality which is obviously not limited to Starbucks, but the Starbucks CEO makes more than 1,000 times what the average employee makes. There are places that are like mom and pop operations that don’t make enough profit to pay decently, but Starbucks is not one of them.
Miller: I’ve read that we’re also watching a new approach to union organizing that, in the past, the most effort went into locations with high numbers of workers, say a factory, because if you’ve got 1,000 workers together, you’ve got instant leverage because a car maker might only have a handful of factories, whereas a dozen Starbucks locations out of 9,000 across the country is more like a drop in the bucket. But it seems like that is the old calculus. What has changed now?
Lafer: Well, I think there’s a couple of things that are different. One is that the manufacturing has declined as a percentage of the national economy. So the number to say, well we’ll go to organize a 1,000 worker factory is less and less of an opportunity and retail and service jobs have grown and become much more dominant in the labor market. I also think, when you look at something like Starbucks, one of the reasons why the company sends in all these managers to do this heavy duty intimidation tactics to stop people from organizing is because they’re afraid that it’s going to spread like wildfire.
Miller: So in other words, even if all those people going in, even if there are 20 employees at a particular location, it’s still, from the corporate mindset, what they’re trying to prevent is this happening at 1,000 locations.
Lafer: That’s right. So that, and ultimately it probably makes sense for Starbucks to say, you know what, let’s have one contract for all the stores in Oregon or all the stores in Portland or something like that. But at this point the big companies, like Walmart also, wants to snuff out any attempt of people to organize a union anywhere. And so they have flying squads of managers with these very cookie cutter intimidation tactics who come in because you see, if you look at the fight for $15 minimum wage, which people thought was crazy at first, the first place that won that was the airport in Seattle. And then when they won it, then people said, well if you get 15 bucks for pouring lattes in Seatac, why shouldn’t we get that at LAX, or wherever and it started to spread like that. I think we’re going to see, if there are Starbucks employees in one place and they get better, fairer wages or health insurance, whatever the things are they decide to bargain for, people elsewhere are going to feel like we work for the same company, we do the same work, we should deserve the same conditions, I think. And that cuts both ways. That’s what corporate is afraid of and why there’s such a heavy handed campaign. And it’s also why even though it’s one store, it’s not one independent store unrelated to anything else. It’s the beginning of a gigantic company.
Miller: I was also struck by another thing that we heard from Ky Fireside, which is that they and not just in Eugene, but it seems like this is a pattern in other Starbucks locations as well, they’re not making a concrete set of specific demands. We want X and Y, we want this as health benefits, we want this as salary. Instead, they’re saying we want a seat at the table. Is that common in terms of unionizing efforts?
Lafer: It is common for two reasons. One is there’s really a lot of different things that people want to negotiate over in a store like Starbucks. For a lot of people, one of the key things is control over your hours. There are people who want more hours or less hours or different schedules and to work in a place where that can be arbitrarily changed every week kind of creates havoc in your life. So that might be something. So I think there really are a lot of different things to bargain over. But also I think for most people when you survey people who were involved in trying to unionize and you say, ‘what was the key thing?’ Of course there are concrete things like wages, health insurance, whatever. But a lot of people say the key thing is I felt like I was not treated with respect and I wanted to be dealt with, you could take their word, partner, and say actually like somebody who you sit down, you bargain with and whatever you agree to gets put into a legally binding agreement that can’t be changed. I think that’s also one of the things that I heard Ky say that they thought that people from corporate might come in and say, ‘Okay, you asked for, I don’t know, more N95 masks. So here you go’. One of the problems with that is that it’s not written down in any legally enforceable contract, right? So even if you took that and you said, ‘All right, well now management changes or now nobody’s doing stories on OPB anymore. Nobody’s paying attention. We’re going to take that away.’ If you don’t have that written down in an agreement that everybody agrees, if there’s a disagreement, you go to a neutral arbitrator or something, then you don’t really have that as a right. And I think that feeling of like, I want a voice, is also like I want to know that I have certain rights, that I can walk into work with my back straight.
Miller: I was struck by a recent Gallup poll that found that 68% of respondents nationwide said that they approved of labor unions, the highest level of support recorded in more than a half-century. Nevertheless, union membership in the US is pretty flat at 9%. Why is it that there hasn’t been an increase in union membership if even over the last 13 or so years, there’s been a big increase in the way Americans feel about unions.
Lafer: The answer is very simple. It’s this kind of intimidation campaign that employers run. I’ve spent a lot of time studying this. What Starbucks is doing is very standard across many industries, and because federal labor law is incredibly weak and I won’t go into details, but people here, there’s such a thing called union elections and you figure it works more or less the same way as elections to City Council or anything. But in fact they work more like elections in the old Soviet Union or something. It’s very one sided, it’s very heavy handed and ultimately, people get scared for their jobs. Most people, if you walk into work and your boss is ‘Good Morning’ instead of ‘Good Morning’, people notice that. Now you’re going to the person who you depend on for hiring and firing, for raises, for hours, for shifts, for what job you do and what the anti-union consultants do is they make those, they put people in those positions who have to push you on anti-union messaging. And so the number one reason why there’s such a huge number of people who want unions and such a small number who get one is people’s fear of losing their jobs.
Miller: Have those tactics changed in the age of social media? It seems like everything you were talking about there, it feels like that could have been done 30 years ago. Is there something new going on as well?
Lafer: Really, no. What’s new is, things are now electronic instead of handing out flyers and people are watching videos instead of, I don’t know, being given pamphlets or having somebody talk to them. The technology has changed, but the message is remarkably the same over 50 years, right? And some of this Ky said, the consultants come in and they say the union can’t do anything for you and you know you could end up with lower wages and not higher wages, which is legally true, but economically crazy, right? If the current market conditions have led Starbucks to pay whatever they’re paying, the idea that what employees can bargain for themselves, they’re going to pay less makes no sense, right? So they’ll say that, they’ll say they’re going to take you out on strike and destroy the company. They’ll say unions don’t care about you. They just want your dues money and that it’s a threat of violence. And it’s the same arguments in every industry and across many, many years. And it’s not very imaginative, but it works. And the reason it works is that federal labor law is so weak. So even if you get illegally fired for being a union supporter, the penalty for the employer is so slight that that happens all the time, even though it’s illegal.
Miller: Gordon Lafer, thanks for joining us today.
Lafer: Thank you.
Miller: Gordon Lafer is a professor at the Labor Education and Research Center at the University of Oregon.
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