Starbucks cafe in Buffalo votes to form coffee chain's 1st union in US

The vote count for three Starbucks outposts is taking place Thursday.

December 9, 2021, 5:54 PM

Workers with at least one Starbucks outpost in Buffalo, New York, voted on Thursday to form the coffee chain's first labor union in the U.S., according to results of the vote count from the National Labor Relations Board.

The labor board still has to certify the vote, but the preliminary results are seen as a milestone win for the languishing organized labor movement in the U.S. Workers at a second location in Buffalo voted not to form a union, according the NLRB tally on Thursday. The results of the union election for a third Starbucks location in Buffalo were not available Thursday as the amount of ballots challenged by either the union or the company were large enough to sway the overall vote.

PHOTO: Starbucks Workers United members meet at their office in Buffalo, New York, Dec. 7, 2021.
Starbucks Workers United members meet at their office in Buffalo, New York, Dec. 7, 2021.
Lindsay Dedario/Reuters

A total of 19 employees at the Elmwood Starbucks cafe, however, voted "yes" for a union, and eight voted "no," according to the NLRB's live count of the votes. This represents a majority of the 27 ballots counted from the Elmwood location.

The union vote count for the three Starbucks locations was scheduled for Thursday afternoon despite resistance from Starbucks, which filed a request for a review with the NLRB and sought to have all Buffalo-area stores included in the election. On Tuesday, the NLRB denied Starbucks' request for a review, setting the stage for the votes from the three separate stores in the area that have filed for union elections to be counted. Each of the three stores voted for a unionization bid individually.

"The vote outcomes will not change our shared purpose or how we will show up for each other. We want to protect partner flexibility, transferability and benefits across all stores in a market or a district because we know that's important to partners," Starbucks Executive Vice President Rossann Williams said as part of a lengthy letter reacting to the votes. "This is why we strongly believe that every partner in a district or market should have the opportunity to vote on such an important decision."

The efforts to unionize in Buffalo also come amid unique labor market conditions in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, as the number of workers quitting their jobs hovers at record-high levels and major companies have struggled to fill service industry roles. The apparent labor shortage has given workers an edge in negotiating in the workplace, and been linked to the new labor force activism seen across the country in recent months.

The workers seek to unionize with Workers United, an affiliate of the Service Employees International Union, and call their group the Starbucks Workers United. The employees have received support from progressive lawmakers, including Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York.

"Once again Starbucks tried to stop partners from voting, and once again they failed. At this point the company has strayed so far from its original values it's hard to recognize the company I started with," Michelle Eisen, a barista at a Buffalo-area Starbucks, said in a statement released by Starbucks Workers United. "This is exactly why we need a union -- so our voices can be heard and we can work to make Starbucks the company we used to love."

In a letter to employees, whom Starbucks calls "partners," CEO Kevin Johnson reiterated the company's wish to have all Starbucks locations in the Buffalo-area be included in the vote.

PHOTO: People walk past a Starbucks in Buffalo, New York, Dec. 7, 2021.
People walk past a Starbucks in Buffalo, New York, Dec. 7, 2021.
Lindsay Dedario/Reuters

"Unlike others in our industry who operate a franchise model, we have a network of company-operated stores that work together to create a better partner experience," Johnson wrote on Tuesday. "Why does this matter? Many of you have told me you greatly value the flexibility to work between stores, to swap and pick up shifts, giving you the opportunity to connect with partners across different stores as one community."

"Because of this, we feel strongly that all partners in Buffalo should have a voice in the elections, which may unfortunately not be the case," Johnson added. "While we recognize this creates some level of uncertainty, we respect the process that is underway and, independent of any outcome in these elections, we will continue to stay true to our Mission and Values."

Johnson also touted the company's investments in staffing, saying it's "investing an unprecedented $1 billion in wages, training, and hours, deploying new equipment and technology and continuing to support leaders in markets across the country."

In late October, as unionization efforts in Buffalo were in full swing, Starbucks announced it would be raising wages and making other changes to improve working conditions. By summer 2022, all hourly employees will make an average of $17 per hour, the company said in its fourth quarter earnings release, with hourly rates for baristas in the U.S. ranging from $15 to $23.​The unionization bid comes after Starbucks reported record fourth-quarter consolidated net revenues of $8.1 billion.

Overall 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%.

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