Starbucks Labor Campaign’s Election Winning Streak Ends in Defeat in Virginia

Starbucks shift supervisor Gailyn Berg and barista Tim Swicord outside their store in Springfield, Virginia.

Michael A. McCoy for NPR

A union organizing streak at Starbucks was cut short, with workers at a store in Springfield, Va. voting out the union.

The loss follows four unanimous victories for the union earlier this week at stores in Boston, Pittsburgh and Eugene, Oregon.

Twenty Starbucks stores are now unionized. About 220 Starbucks stores have applied for elections, and more are being added every day. More votes will be counted next week.

In Springfield, Starbucks shift supervisor Gailyn Berg, who led the union campaign, said Starbucks’ anti-union messages, including warnings about what could happen if the store votes to unionize, are changing votes.

“We’re not going to be able to get raises in the next few months. We’re not going to be able to work in any other stores. Our partners certainly believe that,” Berg said just after the count was announced.

Since returning to Starbucks last week as interim CEO, Howard Schultz has called on employees, known as Starbucks Partners, to trust him — not a union — to make things right for them.

“My job coming back to Starbucks is to make sure that we…reimagine a new Starbucks with our partners at the center of everything, as a business partner pro, as a business that doesn’t need anyone. ‘one between us and our people,’ Schultz told employees in a town hall-style meeting on his first day back.

He said some – not all – of the worker organizers have intentionally and aggressively sown divisions within the company while “attempting to sell a very different vision of what Starbucks should be”.

The Starbucks store on Huntsman Boulevard in Springfield, Virginia on April 13, 2022, the first of two days of voting in their union election.

The Starbucks store on Huntsman Boulevard in Springfield, Virginia on April 13, 2022, the first of two days of voting in their union election.

Michael A. McCoy for NPR

He also noted low turnout in some store elections. Starbucks stores typically have 20 or 30 employees, and in some elections half or less than half voted.

That was not the case in Springfield, where the store’s 19 employees voted. The final tally was 10 to 8 against the union. A ballot has been cancelled.

Starbucks employees were initially drawn to the company because of its culture

Starbucks has long prided itself on being a great employer. Indeed, the generous benefits and socially progressive culture are a big part of what drove Berg and co-workers Tim Swicord, Megan Gaydos and Claire Picciano to find jobs at the company.

“The way they treated their employees and also the work environment that I witnessed – it seemed very engaging and fun,” says Swicord, a high school student who sought out Starbucks for a part-time job last year. .

“I wanted to go to college for free,” says Picciano, a barista trainer who worked at Starbucks part-time for three and a half years while earning a bachelor’s degree in health science, courtesy of Starbucks. The company offers free tuition through an online program at Arizona State University, a perk that Berg and Gaydos have also taken advantage of.

Berg, who joined four years ago and is now a shift manager, says they love Starbucks, or at least they used to.

“Certainly, I felt they had lived up to the culture, the promises of the culture that they had made,” they say.

But in the pandemic, the goodwill quickly faded. And the four Springfield workers came to believe that they would be better off with a union. It started in January, a month after a Buffalo’s Starbucks store won a successful union campaign. What started as a casual, almost wacky conversation quickly turned serious, Swicord says. “We just started thinking, ‘Hey, this is something we really should be doing as a store. “”

Clockwise from top left: Claire Picciano, Megan Gaydos, Gailyn Berg and Tim Swicord pose for a photo in the parking lot outside their Starbucks store in Springfield, Va. on March 25, 2022.

Clockwise from top left: Claire Picciano, Megan Gaydos, Gailyn Berg and Tim Swicord pose for a photo in the parking lot outside their Starbucks store in Springfield, Va. on March 25, 2022.

Andrea Hsu/NPR

Starbucks’ anti-union campaign has annoyed workers

Swicord became one of the organizers. He also became the target of Starbucks’ anti-union campaign. In a closed meeting with his store manager and the district manager, he says he was warned that unionization was a gamble, that employees risked losing their benefits and that he, among other things, risked losing a promotion.

“To me, it didn’t feel like a conversation,” he says.

Swicord says Starbucks has also engaged in other union-busting activities. After their store called for a union vote, their schedule was removed from the back room wall, and when it was reposted, their hours had been reduced. Five new employees were suddenly hired, but Picciano, the store’s barista trainer, says she was not allowed to train the new hires.

“These partners were sent to other stores to be trained,” she says.

Starbucks denies engaging in illegal union busting, including at other stores where worker organizers have been fired. Starbucks says the workers in question were terminated for violating company policies.

Starbucks barista Tim Swicord, a high school student, became one of the organizers of his store's labor campaign.  Swicord joined Starbucks in the pandemic.

Starbucks barista Tim Swicord, a high school student, became one of the organizers of his store’s labor campaign. Swicord joined Starbucks in the pandemic.

Michael A. McCoy for NPR

Tensions at the Springfield store date back to the start of the pandemic

The distrust of the four Springfield employees towards Starbucks goes back to the beginning of the pandemic. During those scary early days, Berg felt Starbucks was slow to respond, but soon after, their store was among those Starbucks closed for six weeks, with pay. Meanwhile, staff have been meeting on Zoom to brainstorm ideas on how to stay safe. Together with their store manager, they decided to place a table and a tent at the door. Customers could place orders on the Starbucks app and pick up their drinks outside.

They were quickly canceled.

Citing food safety concerns, their district manager told them their plan was inappropriate and that customers should be able to enter the store.

“It was definitely a tough first week when we first got used to what the Starbucks company wanted us to look like and decided if it was safe enough,” Berg says.

In fact, Starbucks has taken a number of steps to help employees through this time. For 30 days they paid the workers whether they went to work or not, for whatever reason. They granted 14 days of paid leave to workers exposed to or diagnosed with COVID. They expanded child care benefits and for a few months paid workers $3 more an hour in hazard pay.

But increasingly, employees felt speechless about the challenges they faced at work. Clashes with customers over masks. Colleagues screaming sick, with no one to replace them.

“‘I’m so stressed. We need more help,'” Picciano recalled telling his manager at the time.

Starbucks shift supervisor Gailyn Berg, who first came to Starbucks four years ago, has become one of the labor campaign organizers in Springfield, Virginia.

Starbucks shift supervisor Gailyn Berg, who first came to Starbucks four years ago, has become one of the labor campaign organizers in Springfield, Virginia.

Michael A. McCoy for NPR

Pandemic benefits slashed as company reported record sales

For Gaydos, a barista, a low point came last fall when Starbucks cut one of its pandemic perks. Employees were entitled to free food and drink every day, at any store, even if they were not working that day. Gaydos says they were told the company could no longer afford the benefit.

“And then it turned out that we had record sales and then-CEO Kevin Johnson was going to get a 40% raise,” says Gaydos.

Starbucks notes that it replaced some pandemic benefits with others as the pandemic evolved. For example, twice a quarter, workers can now take five days of paid leave if they need to self-isolate due to COVID.

The company also highlights the raises it announced for store employees. By summer 2022, Starbucks says all workers will earn at least $15 an hour.

Springfield workers are unimpressed.

“Starbucks brags about raising everyone to $15 an hour, but ten years ago we needed that,” says shift manager Berg.

What workers want: more money and more voice

Before the vote, Springfield workers had a long list of demands they planned to bring to the bargaining table.

“Of course, a raise – this is our very first,” says Berg.

They also want consistency in their schedules and in the number of hours allocated to them each week.

Baristas want customers to be able to tip on credit card readers in stores and be able to tip more easily on the mobile app. They also want Starbucks to top up the tips because a lot of people don’t tip because the prices are so high.

“It’s not our fault that Starbucks keeps raising the cost of everything to the point where it’s the most expensive cup of coffee you’ve ever had,” Picciano says.

Berg has a bigger request in mind: a bigger store. The store is now too small for the volume of traffic it receives, Berg says, and workers have suffered injuries while restocking because many items are high on the shelves.

Above all, workers want to have a say in how things are done in their store. They want their voice to be heard.

“We would all be happy to give this company everything we had if we were also treated the same,” Picciano says.

Having lost the election, labor organizers say they are considering filing an objection with the National Labor Relations Board, citing unfair labor practices. In the meantime, two other nearby Starbucks stores will vote in the coming weeks.

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