By Eliyahu Solomon
When President Joe Biden remarked shortly after his election in 2020 that he intended to be, “the most pro-labor president you’ve ever seen,” the expectations were set sky high. Up until that point, labor unions had shrunk to represent only 10.8% of workers in the United States, a number that only continued to decline in 2021, Biden’s first year in office.
Yet despite the promise from the President, the real labor movement has not occurred in the White House nor has it occurred in Congress, where the Protecting the Right to Organize Act, or the PRO Act, has failed to pass the Senate and is unlikely to do so. Instead, the labor struggle is happening at Starbucks, the largest coffee chain in the United States and the second largest fast food chain overall, behind McDonald’s. The questions remain: How has Starbucks managed to revolutionize this new wave of unionization in the United States, and what does this general unionization trend mean for everyday workers?
In the 21st century, unions are relatively weak and make up very little of the current workforce. Back in the 1960s, unions made up nearly 30% of the workforce, a number which has slowly plummeted to its lowest point of 9.9% in 2019 then back up to 10.3% in 2020. This has coincided with a large shift of wealth towards the top 1%, and protections for workers during the pandemic to be miniscule at best. Due to a changing nature in work, many laborers feel overworked, underpaid, and in some cases abused by management and customers. One such group of workers are Starbucks workers, who have in recent months seen a surge of unionization efforts, including many which have been successful.
Starbucks, specifically its CEO Howard Schultz, has spoken out against unions as a company. There were a number of attempts to unionize back in the 1980s, continuing with nearly no success up until late 2021, when a Starbucks store in Buffalo joined Workers United New York, creating Starbucks Workers United in the process. Since December 2021, over 200 United States Starbucks locations have voted to unionize, with 76 more still yet to be decided.
It should come to no surprise that Starbucks workers are driving this unionization push. Starbucks has always tried to build its brand as a “progressive” one. One look at its website shows how Starbucks sees itself as environmentally conscious and committed to diversity. It ranks 100 on both the Human Rights Campaign’s Corporate Equality Index and the Disability Equality Index. Starbucks labels its baristas as “partners,” and provides health benefits for them if they work 20 hours or more. All this makes it quite intriguing that Starbucks would be involved in an excessive amount of union-busting and other illegal labor practices.
Yet Starbucks does not seem to live to their so-called “progressive capitalist” image that they have tried to cultivate. Friendly worker benefits packages as well as creating a more positive company culture was not adequate enough in preparing workers for dealing with the effects of the pandemic. As expected, the pandemic changed lots of things, including how we interact with one another within society. For centuries, coffee shops served as a place outside the home and office that people were able to sit down and meet. Unlike restaurants, where two or more people are focused on their food, which can get pricey at times, coffee shops allow a low cost, warm, welcoming, and slow-paced environment where two people can allow for the time to pass as they enjoy the aromas, soothing music, and comfortable surroundings which a coffee house like a Starbucks can bring.
Although the pandemic forced the closures of many dining and social meet-up spaces, the demand for coffee did not wain. Mobile orders made remotely increased, and unlike ordering in-person, mobile orders allow the customer to make complex drinks without the stigma of telling it to an actual person, as well as hide the fact of who else ordered. One person can order a drink from a couple of blocks away without realizing how long the wait is while ordering in person requires a person to get in line and make a decision based on how long the line is whether to stay and order or leave and take their business elsewhere. Due to this, baristas are now put under immense pressure to keep the line moving and get the drinks (no matter how complicated) into the hands of sometimes irritable customers who have yet to get their morning (or afternoon, or evening) coffee. Starbucks employees, who are often college students or people working two or more jobs, were also tasked with being “mask police,” making sure customers were following local store guidelines, creating another point of tension between baristas and some customers unwilling to follow Starbucks rules. In other cases, homeless, mentally unwell, or people struggling with drug abuse would come into the store, and once again it would be up to the already busy, overworked, and underpaid employees to go far beyond their capacities and deal with different mental health crises.
This is a small part of the underlying motivations behind the recent Starbucks unionization efforts. For these employees, it is not enough that some basic metrics for diversity are met. Rather, they require either more help in the service aspect of the store, more protection from unruly customers, or even workers trained in mental health to help ease what has become an excessive demand of Starbucks baristas. While unions may have not been a part of Howard Schultz’s grand plan, the reality is that Starbucks has outgrown that initial part of its history, and unions now play a factor in determining how each individual store wants to manage itself. The pandemic has exposed that while many workers are deemed “essential,” they are not treated by upper management as such.
The Starbucks unionization effort is not just a one-off. In fact, many other industries are going through a unionization renaissance, as workers at Amazon, Google, and many other places seek to level out the playing field between management and employee. This attitude has been reflected by the public view as well. According to Gallup, American approval of unions has spiked up to 71%, up from a low of 48% in 2009 and its highest approval rating since the mid 1960s. In the 18-34 demographic, those just beginning or about to enter the workforce, unions see an approval rating of 77%. In the bigger picture, this unionization shift reflects the needs and demands of a new workforce, a generation which has seen a number of different catastrophes including the 2008 recession, the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as just a general culture of overwork needed to pay for basic necessities such as education, healthcare, and cost of living.
Waves of unionization amongst employees in any given company, as well as a general increase in public union support allows for a build up of political power from the bottom up. Starting small and increasing from there allows for unions to take control of the younger demographic, who in turn push support on the older demographic, as well as slowly replace the older demographic in legislative bodies. A pro-union attitude is one that gradually occurs after years of failure and success, and Starbucks workers is one of many examples we will see for a long time of a shift towards pro-unionization and a balance of power between management and employees.