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Buffalo Starbucks workers ‘extremely confident we're going to have the first union store,’ as ballots are counted today

Starbucks Workers United
Tom Dinki
Starbucks workers Jaz Brisack (from left), Lexi Rizzo and Michelle Eisen speak with WBFO at the Workers United office in Buffalo Dec. 6, 2021.

When former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz was in Buffalo last month to speak with workers, who the coffee giant refers to as partners, he talked about how the company’s board of directors always leaves two empty chairs at the table.

“Those two empty chairs represent a customer and a partner,” Shultz said, “and the question that must be answered in the affirmative is will this decision make our customers and our partners proud?”

Lexi Rizzo believes an actual breathing partner should be in the chair.

“That is what symbolizes the entire struggle that we're facing right now and what we want,” she said.

Starbucks Workers United
Tom Dinki
A modified version of the Starbucks Siren, meant to show union solitary, is displayed outside the Workers United office in Buffalo.

Rizzo works at the Genesee Street Starbucks in Cheektowaga, one of three Buffalo-area stores that participated in a mail-in vote over the last month to decide whether to become the company’s first unionized stores in the U.S. If any one of the three gets a majority vote, they’d join Workers United, an 80,000-member union affiliated with Services Employees International Union.

The National Labor Relations Board is set to count the ballots at 1 p.m. Thursday.

“I think at this point, we're extremely confident that we're going to have the first union store, like extremely confident,” Rizzo said. “I almost want to say we know.”

Workers, who have dubbed themselves Starbucks Workers United, say they want more of a say in how the $100 billion company is run, as well as seniority pay for workers who remain with the company long-term.

The Seattle-based Starbucks, which has said it doesn’t believe a union is necessary and sent in top executives like Shultz to convince workers, recently announced it would increase starting wages to $15 an hour and provide pay bumps once workers have been there for two years and again after five years.

But Michelle Eisen, an 11-year employee who currently makes just 63 cents more an hour than a new employee, said the only way to guarantee those benefits are permanent is a union contract.

“When this is all said and done, [Starbucks executives are] going to go back to where they came from. And eventually, these little things that they've put in place to quiet us down are going to be slowly taken away,” she said. “The only way to hold them accountable and to make sure that these changes are permanent is … a signed contract that says these things are permanent.”

Workers have also accused Starbucks of union busting. They filed a charge with the NLRB last month, saying the company was “engaging in a campaign of threats, intimidation, surveillance.”

Rizzo said the presence of Starbucks executives, including North America Vice President Rossann Williams, in Buffalo stores the last few months, has been “terrifying” for some workers, particularly the younger ones.

“Like a lot of the people we work with are teenagers, and for them to be ambushed by three of the highest standing people in the corporate chain of their job, it's nothing more than an intimidation tactic. It's a show of force,” she said.

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

Workers have also accused Starbucks of sending roughly 30 new hires and transfers from other locations to the three voting stores, in order to pad the number of voters and dilute the number of pro-union voters. They say some of these workers were not working at the voting stores before the payroll cutoff date, but that Starbucks included them on the eligible voter list sent to the NLRB anyway.

“That's not their store. They shouldn't be voting at a store that they potentially could never work at again,” Eisen said, adding they plan to contest these ballots.

A Starbucks spokesperson said the company denies the charges.

The vote has received national attention, with leaders like U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez offering their support to workers. On Monday, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders held a virtual meeting with workers.

The vote has also gotten the attention of Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh, who was in Buffalo this week to tout the $1 trillion infrastructure law. He said he’s been following the vote and that both he and President Joe Biden support any workers’ right to organize.

He said there’s no denying there’s been a resurgence in the labor movement, driven in large part by young people.

“It's a good thing,” he said. “It's a good thing to see wages go up for people, it's a good thing to see working conditions get better for people, it's a good thing to see people have a better place in society.”

Still, food service is one the least unionized sectors of the U.S. workforce. Just 1.2% of them are unionized, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

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.

Rizzo said younger food service workers view their roles differently than prior generations, especially after working through a pandemic.

“It’s always, ‘Food services is an entry level job, food service is for kids, food service is not something you can stick with.’ But if you look at the pandemic, how many restaurants have closed because they couldn't find staff? How many people are now complaining that their local restaurant is so understaffed?” she said. “So you can't have it both ways. You can't say that food service workers should just find a better job, and then be upset that they don't want to settle. I think it's finally to a point where our generation wants to make the sector better and realizes that we can.”

The unionization push at Starbucks has already spread beyond the three stores that just voted. Three additional Buffalo-area stores have filed with the NLRB to hold their own vote. An Arizona Starbucks recently announced its intention to unionize.

But Rizzo said that simply winning the vote is not enough. They then need to secure a quality contract from Starbucks in order to truly spread the movement.

“If we can have one union Starbucks with a good contract, we win,” she said. “Because other stores will see that as an example and say, ‘Look at these actual improvements that were made.’”

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