Employees at a second Starbucks store in Utah announced plans to unionize on Monday morning, adding the store to a list of stores in the giant coffee chain trying to do so. (Associated Press)
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SALT LAKE CITY — As Kat Howard watched several Starbucks stores in Buffalo, New York, unionize and become the first workers at the giant coffeehouse chain to do so, it seemed like a remote possibility for any Starbucks store in the city. ‘Utah.
But what seemed like a distant move came suddenly on March 31 when workers at the Starbucks store in Cottonwood Heights announced their intention to unionize. The announcement was one of many labor movements sweeping the United States — but for Utah service workers, it signaled a change.
“We were a little shy to try in Utah, just because of the conservative environment, but once the Cottonwood Heights store unionized, we decided it was time to organize our store,” said said Luke Laro, barista at Starbucks on 400 East and 400 South in Salt Lake City.
“I really think that was just a catalyst for us,” Howard added.
A large majority of employees signed union permission cards in support of the effort, in a 25-to-1 vote. The store’s intention to unionize was announced Monday with a letter to Starbucks CEO, Howard Schultz, signed by employees.
“We were on the front lines every day of the COVID-19 pandemic,” the employee letter read. “We put our health and maybe even our lives on the line for a company that, quite frankly, didn’t care. We weren’t properly briefed on exhibits and were rushed to work in order to maximize profits instead of aiming to keep everyone safe Starbucks used this stressful time to its advantage and played the role of a socially conscious company, while exploiting its employees and sending mixed signals about what they really cared about.
Among complaints of operation during the COVID-19 pandemic, baristas cited the need for better wages, more stable hours, and access to better health care.
“We believe that the current system of corporate executives changing our policies and benefits lacks partner representation. We believe we have valuable input and we want our voices heard and we believe we must,” Laro said.
Howard and Laro both pointed to an increase in profits, but said only the company’s senior executives see the benefits. An executive-level employee received a 60% increase in his base salary from $500,000 to $800,000 in 2021 after a promotion, according to a U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission financial filing.
“I need a salary that can help me fund my college education and keep me afloat in this economy with all this inflation. I think the fact that they didn’t give us a raise – our salary is $12 an hour in downtown Salt Lake City – is incredibly unfair. It’s basically poverty wages,” Laro said. “Personally, I want a higher wage so I can pay rent , grocery shopping and funding my education.”
As Starbucks stores across the United States have begun to attempt to unionize, the company said it is “listening and learning from partners in these stores.”
The history of unionization – and what’s to come
Views on the legality and membership of unions have changed along with labor practices over the centuries. Unions date back to the early 1800s and around the 1870s, particularly in Utah.
“Originally, unions were considered a criminal conspiracy and it was illegal to join a union,” said Peter Philips, professor of labor economics at the University of Utah.
Times began to change during the Great Depression, with unemployment reaching 25%.
“It caused considerable labor unrest because the employers at the time, because they felt pressured by falling prices, lowered wages, and when they lowered wages, that meant that for the 3 out of 4 workers who still had a job, their jobs were paying them less and less,” Philips said.
The unrest led to the passage of the National Labor Relations Act, which encouraged employers and employees to engage in collective bargaining. This law became the fundamental law that governs unions and employers and the negotiations between them that we still see today.
Unions and strikes have had their ups and downs, and so has the economy over the years. Recent economic events have created a catalyst for the current rise in unionization.
“After the downturn of the Great Recession, workers, especially in the service sector, began to feel that they could not do their jobs and live off them and so what we are seeing now, especially in a period of very low unemployment, is an upsurge in unionization,” Philips said.
Union membership is steadily declining. Union membership was once common with 1 in 3 workers belonging to a union – now that number is 1 in 12.
But membership could see an uptick as labor unrest amid increased inflation and the COVID-19 pandemic boiled over. While social unrest didn’t start with the coronavirus, the pandemic has shed light on growing worker frustration.
“Membership numbers are not only low, but have been declining for decades,” Philips said. “Now that might change. And one of the reasons that might change is because you can only push people so far.”
Employees at the Salt Lake City store remain optimistic.
“I feel like working class struggle, organizing is something that even people on both sides of the political spectrum can sometimes agree on,” Howard said. “It’s important to let people know that it’s okay to realize that you deserve more. You deserve to be treated better than you are. And it’s okay to express that.”
What challenges do employees and the company face?
The road to unionization is not easy. Philips highlighted some challenges that employees might face in their attempt:
1. Representative election organized by the National Labor Relations Council
The election may be difficult to win for several reasons, Philips said. These reasons include access to workers when employers may not allow election campaigning in the workplace or may punish those who promote unionization. Although it is illegal to punish those who promote unionization, it still happens.
“Even if in the long run that person appeals to the National Labor Relations Board (who) say they were fired for a pretext and they are actually fired for encouraging a union campaign – that often happens though too late when the union campaign has run out of steam or become discouraged,” said Philips.
2. High turnover in the service sector
“There is high turnover in service sector jobs and if you have a union campaign that, say, lasts six months, the people you talk to at the start of that campaign may not yet be employed by the employer. at the end of this campaign,” Philips said. “The voting population is that which is employed at the time the National Labor Relations Board holds an election.”
Even if the election is successful on behalf of the union, it can be difficult to get a contract.
All things considered, the nature of Starbucks as a company can help workers when they try to unionize.
“These are national companies and they have to worry about their reputation, not just in Salt Lake City, but in New York. Not just in Utah, but in Washington State and, therefore, they are not going to not ride the anti-union movement quite as hard as perhaps a local business that strongly embraces local conservatism,” Philips said.