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None of Starbucks’ 8,000 U.S. locations are unionized. Buffalo locations could be the first

Starbucks Workers United looking to organize Buffalo-area Starbucks locations
Tom Dinki
Starbucks employees at three Buffalo-area locations prepare to speak with the media Aug. 31, 2021 at the Tri-Main Center building about their plans to unionize as Starbucks Workers United.

Starbucks has more than 8,000 locations in the U.S., none of which are unionized. Several Buffalo-area locations could be the first ones.

Employees at three Western New York Starbucks locations — Elmwood Avenue in Buffalo, Genesee Street in Cheektowaga, and Camp Road in Hamburg — had employees file petitions this week with the National Labor Relations Board. They’re seeking to hold a vote on union representation in the coming weeks.

The employees, as well as union leaders and politicians, were at Buffalo’s Tri-Main Center building Tuesday to discuss their organizing efforts.

Alexis Rizzo, a shift supervisor at the Genesee Street location, said workers have discussed organizing throughout her six years at the company.

“The spark that drove it to happen now was exacerbated by the pandemic, and also just the labor shortage in the country,” she said. “I think for the first time, we didn't feel disposable as we felt in the past, and we felt like now it was really the time. It was just the perfect storm.”

Employees are looking to become “Starbucks Workers United” under Workers United, an 80,000-member union that represents groups including laundry workers and pharmaceutical workers.

Starbucks siren pic.jpg
Tom Dinki
A modified version of the Starbucks Siren meant to show union solitary is displayed at Starbucks Workers United's news conference Aug. 28, 201.

Gary Bonadonna of Workers United accused Starbucks of union-busting tactics, like recently sending executives and managers into Buffalo stores to speak with employees. In June, a judge with the National Labor Relations Board ruled the company unlawfully fired two workers in Philadelphia for trying to organize.

“You're not practicing what you preach,” Bonadonna said of Starbucks. “You're supposed to be so progressive.”

Starbucks, which is based in Seattle and has a $100 billion market value, has released a statement saying it respects workers’ right to organize, but believes it’s not necessary given its “pro-partner environment.” The company refers to its employees as partners. That environment includes paid time off and health insurance coverage.

Still, local employees are asking Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson to sign what they call a list of “fair election principals.” They’re similar to rules already required by the National Labor Relations Act that mandate employers not interfere with union votes.

Rizzo said all that’s all the more reason Johnson should have no issue signing it.

“This is a really interesting opportunity for Kevin to show that Starbucks is what it stands for and Starbucks does, in fact, respect our right to organize and is the progressive company that they claim to be,” she said.

Workers United helped workers at Buffalo-based coffee chain SPoT Coffee organize back in 2019. SPoT Coffee workers ratified their first contract agreement last year.

That’s not the city’s only recent pro-labor victory. India Walton, a Democratic Socialist and community activist, won the Democratic primary for mayor in June. Walton, as well as other local Democratic politicians like Congressman Brian Higgins and state Sen. Tim Kennedy, are now lending their support to Starbucks workers.

“Buffalo has a long history as a union town, and it'll take organizing like this to build the safe, healthy Buffalo we all need and deserve,” Walton said.

Alexis Rizzo of Starbucks Workers United
Tom Dinki
Alexis Rizzo, a shift supervisor at the Starbucks on Genesee Street in Cheektowaga, speaks to the media Aug. 31, 2021 about Starbucks Workers United's effort to unionize three Buffalo-area Starbucks locations.

But workers hope their organizing efforts won’t end in Buffalo. Rizzo said they’ve already received calls from other Starbucks baristas across the country, and even as far as the U.K.

“Just hearing from them and hearing them say like, ‘We want to do this, too,’ it's really powerful for us,” she said. “And it makes it feel like the message that we're sending isn't just for Buffalo, it's going to have a ripple effect that affects not just Starbucks, but the entire service industry.”

Just 1.2% of U.S. food service workers are unionized, according to the latest data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Rizzo is 24 year olds, and many of the other Starbucks employees with her Tuesday were also in their early to mid-20s.

“I'd say most of us are youthful, but I think that's really important for a union campaign to show that it's not the stereotypical union campaign, like this is the youth,” Rizzo said. “This is like Gen Z unionizing.”

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