Starbucks workers in upstate New York are seeking to form the coffee chain's first union in the U.S., as the labor movement gains steam in the wake of COVID-19-related shocks to the economy.
The efforts to unionize at Starbucks come as unique conditions have given many employees an upper-hand in the labor market. Workers are quitting their jobs at some of the highest rates on record, according to Bureau of Labor statistics data, and job openings also have been hitting record highs in recent months. Meanwhile, an apparent shortage of workers accepting low-wage jobs in the service industry has given employees new leverage as major companies struggle to find staff.
"We've been called essential workers, yet a lot of my co-workers are barely able to afford rent and putting groceries in the fridge in same week," Casey Moore, 25, a Starbucks worker in the Buffalo area and member of the union organizing committee, told ABC News on Thursday. "I think the pandemic definitely highlighted the need for change, because it's not sustainable."
The unionization bid also comes after Starbucks reported earning record fourth-quarter consolidated net revenues of $8.1 billion. Shares of Starbucks, which closed at $111.44 on Thursday, are up more than 19% over the last year and have nearly doubled over the last five years.
Ballots for a union election were mailed out to Starbucks employees at three locations in the Buffalo area on Wednesday evening despite a last-minute effort on behalf of Starbucks to delay sending out the ballots as the company sought to included all Buffalo-area stores in the vote.
Kayla Blado, the press secretary for the National Labor Relations Board, confirmed to ABC News on Thursday that the union election ballots had been mailed out on Wednesday at 5 p.m. local time after the board did not respond to the Starbucks' motion for a stay of election by that time. The ballots are going to be impounded, Blado said, meaning they won't be counted until the board decides whether or not they're going to review Starbucks' request.
If the board denies the request for a review, the ballots will be counted Dec. 9, according to Blado. If the board grants the request, then a new date will be chosen to count the ballots.
"I love my job and I love what I do, and that just made it even more incredibly frustrating to see their response," Moore told ABC News of Starbucks' apparent reaction to the unionization bid. "One of the reasons I first started working at Starbucks was because of the progressive values that they profess to have as a company, and it's honestly been shocking living through the this whole thing."
The workers are seeking to be represented by Workers United, an affiliate of the Service Employees International Union.
The Starbucks Workers United group confirmed on Twitter Wednesday evening that ballots are in the mail and heading to Starbucks partners voting to organize the first unionized stores out of the over 8,000 corporate locations in the U.S.
"Despite Starbucks' repeated attempt to stop partners from voting, the NLRB has once again upheld our legal right to vote to join a union here in Buffalo," the Starbucks Workers United said in a statement. "Starbucks' PR teams say they want partners to vote, yet they continue to use every delay tactic in the book to try and stop an actual vote."
"Hopefully, the whole country can look at what partners are doing in Buffalo against the odds and realize how outdated our labor laws are when companies are allowed to interfere in the process so dramatically," the statement added. "When partners filed for a union, we should have been allowed to vote. A company as large as Starbucks shouldn't be able to use its wealth to intimidate us."
Moore said working along the service industry's front lines during the pandemic has been incredibly stressful, and just today a customer she served via the drive-thru openly told her that he'd tested positive for COVID-19.
Union membership has dwindled in recent decades, falling to 10.8% in 2020 among salaried and wage-earning workers in the U.S., according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In 1983, the first year the BLS collected this data, that figure was 20.1%.
Despite the slumping figures, approval for labor unions in the U.S. is at its highest levels since 1965, according to Gallup data. Some 68% of Americans approve of labor unions in 2021, the highest recorded by Gallup since a 71% mark in 1965.
Many labor economists have attributed this gap between support for unions and union membership rates to increased employer resistance to unionization and outdated labor laws that make it difficult to form unions. Advocates are seeking to reform this through proposed legislation known as the PRO Act, which seeks to expand workplace protections for union-seeking employees.
Moore told ABC News that she joined the union organizing committee a few months after she began working at Starbucks this past summer.
"I always had positive thoughts about unions -- my dad is in a teacher's union and stuff -- so I knew that they were good things, but at first I was like, 'I don't know -- I've never heard of unions in the service industry,'" Moore said.
She said she was inspired to get involved, however, after "meeting with people from Workers United and, like, hearing my co-workers talk about why they wanted to form a union, which is really like to have a seat at the table and to actually have a say in our workplaces."
"I've learned so much about labor law, but I never anticipated just ... the sheer craziness of like this whole process," Moore added.
Starbucks' leaders have said that unionizing would change employees' direct relationship with the company, and they want to preserve that relationship.
"We have also asked the National Labor Relations Board to allow all partners in Buffalo stores to vote, instead of just three stores," Rossann Williams, executive vice president of Starbucks North America, said in a letter to employees last month that was shared with ABC News. "As you know, Starbucks stores in a city or market are deeply interconnected -- partners like to routinely work shifts in other stores, we transfer and promote partners between stores, we share inventory across the market, we operate under the same policies, and we share the same set of leaders."
"We believe rather than restricting the vote to three stores, all Buffalo store partners should vote because every partner's voice matters, especially in an important decision that may affect them all," Williams added. She said they are hosting meetings with employees in Buffalo so they can "know the facts and have a space to hear from us directly so they can make their own informed decision."
"I want to be clear that our actions in Buffalo are not about whether we are pro-union or anti-union," Williams added. "It's quite simply that we are pro-Starbucks partners. As you know, our heritage and culture are built on the belief that by working directly together as partners, we can build a different kind of company."
In the same letter, Williams also made clear that "we are asking partners to vote 'no' to a union -- not because we're opposed to unions but because we believe we will best enhance our partnership and advance the operational changes together in a direct relationship."
In late October, as unionization efforts were in full swing, Starbucks announced it was raising employees' wages and making other changes to improve working conditions. By summer 2022, according to the company's fourth-quarter earnings statement, all hourly employees will make an average of $17, ranging from $15 to $23 across the U.S.
Moore said there is "no doubt" in her mind that Starbucks' instituting a new seniority pay system this was in response to their efforts.
"They had 15 years to implement that policy, and they just did that before, like, I think it was a week before we, the first three stores, started voting," she said. "So, it's things like that, where you can see what power we have standing together with just the threat of unionizing."