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Even in labor-friendly Canada, Starbucks workers had to wait nearly a year for first contract

Starbucks works in Victoria, British Columbia
United Steelworkers
Starbucks workers at a drive-thru location in Victoria, British Columbia went through ten months of bargaining before reaching their first contract last June.

The reasons that Starbucks workers at a drive-thru location in the capital of British Columbia unionized in 2020 are not all that different from the ones that motivated Buffalo workers.

“Partway through the beginning of the pandemic, we were just realizing that we needed better safety language and better communication, and more accountability from management,” said shift supervisor Sarah Broad.

The Douglas Street store in Victoria, British Columbia is Canada’s only unionized Starbucks store, part of the one million-member United Steelworkers, and has a three-year contract that includes raises of up to $2.47 per hour and 10 days paid leave for workers experiencing domestic violence.

Broad’s advice for workers at Buffalo’s Elmwood Avenue store, who started to negotiate their own first contract last month after voting to become the first U.S. unionized Starbucks store in December, is to “stay patient.”

“It will take a long time and it'll be frustrating, but it's worth it in the end,” she said.

And Buffalo workers may in fact be bargaining for a long time. It takes U.S. unions on average over a year — 409 days — to reach their first contract agreement, according to a Bloomberg Law analysis last year.

Starbucks Worked United
Tom Dinki
Starbucks Worked United material sits out at the offices of Workers United at the Tri-Main Center building in Buffalo.

It even took Victoria workers 10 months to reach their contract agreement with Starbucks last June, and that was in a country where over a quarter of the workforce is unionized and there’s labor law advantages that Buffalo workers simply don’t have under U.S. labor law.

“They're playing in two different universes,” said Cathy Creighton, director of Cornell University's Industrial and Labor Relations School Buffalo Co-Lab, and a former attorney with the National Labor Relations Board.

First, British Columbia — each Canadian province has their own labor laws — mandates that bargaining begin within 10 days of a successful union vote, while U.S. labor law has no such deadline. Workers at Buffalo’s Elmwood Avenue store didn’t start bargaining with Starbucks until Jan. 31, 53 days after their successful vote on Dec. 9.

But Creighton said the biggest difference is an arbitration process. British Columbia labor law allows unions and employers negotiating their first contract to apply for a government mediator if they can’t come to an agreement themselves. If the mediator is unsuccessful, an arbitrator may be appointed to decide the terms of the contract for them.

“Of course, that's going to provide Starbucks with an incentive to reach an agreement between itself and the union, rather than put it in the hands of a third party,” Creighton said.

One study published in 2015 found Canadian provinces with first contract arbitration saw 20-37% less union decertifications than provinces that had none.

The arbitration process is what ultimately got Victoria workers their contract. They applied for a mediator after getting hung up on compensation about eight months into negotiations.

Without arbitration, Broad said they “would be stuck in bargaining still.”

That may not be hyperbole. Creighton said without an arbitration process, U.S. employers can essentially bargain forever, or at least until union leaders have quit or been fired.

“There’s no incentive for the employer to reach an agreement,” she said. “In fact, there's an incentive for the employer to just continue bargaining forever, until the employees go away. That is often what happens.”

Buffalo workers at the Elmwood Avenue store say they are indeed concerned Starbucks will slow-walk the bargaining process. There’s frustration that the first session last month was mostly setting ground rules, and that there’s now a wait of over two weeks before the second session.

Buffalo Starbucks workers address the media
Tom Dinki
Buffalo-area Starbucks workers speak with the media after the Elmwood Avenue and Genesee Street locations voted to become the first unionized stories in the U.S. Dec. 9, 2021.

“They definitely are trying to draw this out as long as possible,” said Cortlin Harrison, a barista at the Elmwood store and member of the bargaining committee.

A Starbucks spokesperson denied the company is slow-walking negotiations. Starbucks President for North America RossAnn Williams has previously pledged in an open letter to “bargain in good faith.”

Still, Harrison said an arbitration process like British Columbia’s would be helpful. 

“It's insane that we don't have some sort of legal remedy to force them to the table with a serious negotiation,” he said. “I wish that we have that in the United States. Unfortunately, we live in this capitalistic hellscape, where I can't imagine anything like that ever getting passed.”

There is a bill in Congress, the Protecting the Right to Organize Act, that would give U.S. workers an arbitration process for their first contract, among other protections. It passed the Democrat-controlled House last year, but doesn’t seem to have a path forward in the divided Senate.

Without that legislation, Creighton thinks negotiations could get difficult for Buffalo workers.

“These baristas, they're gutsy, young people, mostly young people, who've gone out on a limb to do this, and they're just going to get tied up in knots by our federal labor law, which is outrageously designed for the employer over employees,” she said.

Things haven’t been entirely easy for Victoria workers either. Broad, chair of her union unit, said their contract’s wage increases have been undercut by recent raises for non-unionized stores, a fact she said Starbucks has used to discourage unionization.

Still, Broad said she hopes their experience can help Buffalo workers in some way.

“I really do think that our contract can be kind of a blueprint,” she said, “and obviously labor laws, and there are a lot of different things about Canada and US stores, but I think having access to our contract can be helpful.”

Starbucks and workers at the Elmwood store, under the banner of Starbucks Workers United, head back to the bargaining table on Friday. Workers at the Genesee Street Starbucks in Cheektowaga are bargaining separately.

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