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Buffalo Starbucks store votes to become company’s first unionized store in U.S.

Starbucks workers react to winning union vote
Tom Dinki
Buffalo-area Starbucks workers celebrate at the Workers United office Dec. 9, 2021, after learning via a virtual hearing they had earned enough votes to unionize the Elmwood Avenue location in Buffalo.

The Starbucks store on Elmwood Avenue in Buffalo has voted to become the coffee giant’s first unionized location in the U.S., concluding a union campaign there that had gained international attention over the last few months.

Workers at the location voted to join Workers United by a count of 19-8, according to a National Labor Relations Board official who counted the mail-in ballots over a Zoom call Thursday. Pro-union workers, gathered at Workers United office in Buffalo, watched the counting via a projection screen and erupted into cheers as they realized they had earned enough votes for a majority.

“This is a monumental victory for us. This is something that is a dream come true,” said Lexi Rizzo, who is 23 and has worked at Starbucks since she was a teenager. “And the courage of all the partners standing here next to me … is incredible.

However, it was a day of mixed results for workers, who have dubbed themselves Starbucks Workers United. Victories were not earned at two other Buffalo-area stores that had originally filed with the Elmwood location.

The Camp Road location in Hamburg voted against unionizing by a tally of 12-8, while the Genesee Street location in Cheektowaga voted 15-9 to unionize, but the result could not be finalized due to contested ballots.

The defeat in Hamburg was due to the “union-busting tactics of Starbucks,” said Gianna Reeve, who works at the location. Starbucks Workers United has accused the company in a complaint to the NLRB of “threats, intimidation, surveillance,” which Starbucks has denied.

“My store was turned on its head,” Reeve said. “There was blatant misinformation spread about what a union could do for partners, I believe was a major cause of losing this election.”

Still, there remains an outside possibility the Hamburg result could be flipped. Ian Hayes, an attorney for Starbucks Workers United, said three ballots turned into the NLRB regional office never actually reached NLRB officials and were not included in the count. Those three votes, in addition to two other contested ballots, could change the final result, Hayes said.

As for the Cheektowaga location, a total of seven ballots have been contested, which could still impact the result. Six were challenged by Starbucks Workers United, who claim the workers who cast them actually work at the Niagara Falls Boulevard store. The other was challenged by Starbucks, who said it was cast by a worker who no longer works at the company.

According to the NLRB process for resolving contested ballots, a regional NLRB director could hold a hearing to determine whether the ballots count or not.

Buffalo-area workers first announced their intention to unionize in August. The effort was notable in the fact none of Starbucks’ nearly 9,000 U.S. locations are unionized and the fact just 1.2% of U.S. food service workers are unionized, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Starbucks workers react to winning union vote
Tom Dinki
Buffalo-area Starbucks workers celebrate at the Workers United office Dec. 9, 2021, after learning via a virtual hearing they had earned enough votes to unionize the Elmwood Avenue location in Buffalo.

They’ve received support from local leaders, like state Sen. Tim Kennedy and then-Buffalo mayoral Democratic nominee India Walton, as well as national leaders, like U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.

There’s also been plenty of attention from Starbucks executives. President of North America Rossann Williams has been a constant presence in Buffalo-area stores, while former CEO Howard Schultz spoke to workers at the Hyatt Regency Buffalo Hotel last month.

Starbucks has said it doesn’t feel a union is necessary given its “pro-partner environment,” which includes health insurance and free tuition to Arizona State University. The company, which has a $100 billion evaluation, refers to its employees as partners.

Just before the NLRB scheduled the Buffalo union vote, Starbucks announced it was increasing starting wages to $15 an hour and would provide pay raises to workers who remained at the company for two years and five years.

However, Starbucks Workers United members said a union contract was the only way to guarantee those benefits are permanent.

Securing a contract from Starbucks will now be the focus of workers at the Elmwood Avenue location. Michelle Eisen, who works at the store, said workers want to offer the company “an olive branch” now that the vote is over.

Starbucks workers react to winning union vote
Tom Dinki
Buffalo-area Starbucks workers embrace one another Dec. 9, 2021 as yes votes rolled in from a virtual hearing by the National Labor Relations Board.

“Let's put this behind us,” she said. “Now is the time. Let's get to the bargaining table as quickly as possible and help us negotiate the best contract with the service industry has ever seen.”

However, she also admitted workers are somewhat pessimistic Starbucks will come to the table quickly and negotiate in good faith.

“If there's anyone in the public who is asking how they can help us right now, demand that Starbucks comes and sits with us at the negotiating table and demand that they uphold our agreement to the things that they claim to be a part of their mission and values,” she said. “That kind of public pressure is really going to help us get them to the table.”

Williams, Starbucks’ president of North America, released a letter to employees Thursday calling the results “preliminary” with “no immediate changes” to their relationship with workers.

“The vote outcomes will not change our shared purpose or how we will show up for each other,” Williams wrote. “We want to protect partner flexibility, transferability and benefits across all stores in a market or a district because we know that’s important to partners. This is why we strongly believe that every partner in a district or market should have the opportunity to vote on such an important decision.”

Three more Buffalo-area stores have also filed with the NLRB to hold their own union vote; workers said Thursday they hope that vote will be scheduled soon. An Arizona Starbucks store has also recently announced its intention to unionize.

But Eisen said Starbucks Workers United’s main goal isn’t necessarily spreading the unionization effort to all the companies’ stores.

“The success of this campaign, for me, will be getting a fair contract that any store that chooses to unionize can then utilize and use as a blueprint,” she said. “Not necessarily all of them or even a majority of them. Just the ones that want to.”

Tom Dinki joined WBFO in August 2019 to cover issues affecting older adults.