Starbucks reiterates support of LGBTQIA2+ community amid Pride strikes

The coffee chain denies allegations that some stores banned decorations.

June 27, 2023, 1:36 PM

Amid much back-and-forth between Starbucks and some of its workers who claim the company stopped Pride decorations from being displayed in some locations, some union employees have gone on strike to try to send a louder message.

Starbucks Workers United (SWU) announced in a press release Monday, sent to ABC News, that baristas from over 150 stores in the U.S. will strike through June 30 to demand a "fair contract and respect for LGBTQIA+ workers."

Starbucks workers attend a rally as part of a collective action over a Pride decor dispute, outside the Starbucks Reserve Roastery in Seattle, June 23, 2023.
Matt Mills Mcknight/Reuters

The union campaign kicked off its nationwide week of action on Friday at Starbucks' flagship roastery in Seattle, Washington on the heels of reports that some Starbucks stores were allegedly removing or banning the use of Pride decor, which Starbucks has vehemently denied.

A representative for Starbucks media relations confirmed to "Good Morning America" on Monday that "a subset of partners at the Seattle Roastery were the first to walk off the job on Thursday evening, an hour before close. The Roastery has been able to stay open through the weekend, though some partners remained on strike through the weekend."

In addition to what the union representatives hailed a "successful shutdown" of the Seattle operations, the group said its workers "disrupted operations at dozens of stores" closing nearly 40 over the weekend.

"We have seen an average of 12 stores impacted by strike activity per day, at this time," Starbucks told "GMA." "That scope is currently reflected by operator reports today, as well."

The representative told "GMA" that strike activity has been "limited to stores represented by Workers United, and at those stores where partners have petitioned for union representation."

Starbucks union workers on strike in St. Louis, Mo., June 26, 2023.
Moe Mills

According to the SWU press release, "over 150 stores that represent 3,500 workers" have gone on strike since Friday.

"Workers United continues to spread false information about our benefits, policies and negotiation efforts -- a tactic used to seemingly divide our partners and deflect from their failure to respond to bargaining sessions for more than 200 stores," Starbucks told "GMA."

Moe Mills, a shift supervisor who identifies as non-binary and has worked at Starbucks in Richmond Heights outside St. Louis, Missouri for over three years, spoke to "GMA" Monday via telephone while outside the storefront on strike.

The annual Pride flag-raising event at the Starbucks Support Center headquarters in Seattle, Washington.

"The whole point of this strike is to let [Starbucks] know that they can't cancel Pride," they said. "We take pride in ourselves and our partners and we take pride in our union."

Mills continued, "we as the partners, and specifically of the union partners, are what makes Starbucks what it is and we want people to know what Starbucks isn't -- that's what strike with Pride is about."

On the morning of June 13, 2023, SWU put out a now-viral Twitter thread stating that Starbucks was banning Pride decorations in stores across the U.S.

Two representatives for Starbucks corporate media relations team immediately retorted what they characterized as the union group's "false assertion," telling ABC News in a phone interview and written emailed statement that the company is "deeply concerned by false information that is being spread especially as it relates to our inclusive store environments, our company culture, and the benefits we offer our partners."

"We unwaveringly support the LGBTQIA2+ community. There has been no change to any policy on this matter and we continue to encourage our store leaders to celebrate with their communities including for U.S. Pride month in June," the company stated. "For Starbucks, U.S. Pride Month in June is just one of the moments we support and celebrate our LGBTQIA2+ partners and the community, and it’s our own partners who inform the commitments and actions we have continued to take for more than four decades."

"Starbucks has a history that includes more than four decades of recognizing and celebrating our diverse partners and customers – including year-round support for the LGBTQIA2+ community," the statement concluded.

Later that same evening, SWU released an official response to the coffee company's earlier statement about Starbucks' decoration policies.

"GMA" obtained an internal memo with the subject, "Pride decorations in stores" sent by Starbucks SVP of Talent & Inclusion, Mark Brown on June 13, that reiterated the company's longstanding guidelines and support for the LGBTQIA2+ community.

"There has been no change to any guidance on this matter. Our retail leaders continue to work with store teams to find ways to authentically celebrate year-round with their communities. This includes how stores decorate for heritage months, including U.S. Pride month in June – keeping in our mind our safety standards, Siren’s Eye guidance, and retail dress code," the memo stated.

Jack Savin, a shift supervisor who has worked at the State Street Starbucks location in Madison, Wisconsin for over four years, told "GMA" that their newly unionized location first attempted to put up Pride decorations in May before a district manager later demanded it be removed.

"As someone who identifies as transgender, what I have observed is absolutely heartbreaking and disappointing," Savin said. "There was no written notice, nor anything put in writing in regards to taking down our pride decorations. We had put up a pride flag at the beginning of May. The location of it was kind of a centerpiece to our community board, which is an area all Starbucks [stores] have. We continued to put up decorations around our store after the first of June, including some rainbow lights in a corner of our cafe, and put up some streamers in a rainbow pattern."

Savin told “GMA” their store's District Manager "came in" on Sunday, June 11 and "told us to take down our decorations."

Savin said the manager’s reasoning was as follows: "We can't decorate for pride because it might be offensive and we want to be 'welcoming for everyone'; that decor for pride or Christmas isn't 'welcoming.'"

"I have never heard this reasoning before and [it] completely goes against what Starbucks has said they stand for in the past," Savin said. "We have been able to decorate before. Us as employees have been able to symbolize and celebrate our queer identities before. So this is not only heartbreaking and disappointing, but also contradictory and weird."

Savin shared this information with the store's union representative immediately as more reps across the country and the SWU reported more claims on Twitter about issues with pride decorations in other states.

"Today we're out here standing in solidarity with other stores who have had horrible experiences with store managers and district managers just ripping down their pride displays," Mills said.

They added that their store manager, who wished to remain anonymous for safety reasons, wanted "to celebrate his queer employees and put up a Pride display," that has remained up, which Mills said "was kind of a workaround" because the manager "used very specific Starbucks language and made a Starbucks-themed Pride display. It's like a very small sign. And that's the most that we could do safely."

Alyssa Bingham, a shift supervisor who works with Mills and is currently on strike outside the same location, told "GMA" on the phone that this is their store's third strike.

Starbucks union workers on strike in St. Louis, Mo., June 26, 2023.
Moe Mills

"I think Starbucks' plan was to wait us out and that hasn't worked, we have just gained support and power," she said. "We managed to close our store completely. They have not reopened at all and that feels wonderful," Bingham said. "We have a lot of supportive customers. We have music going and it's a party. It's a celebration of really our only piece that we have to play in this game, which is our labor and we will spend it as we choose."

Their colleague Max Yusen, a barista at the same location, told "GMA" that Monday would probably be "their only day on strike" due to the wave rollout across the country.

"The energy has been really positive and fun," he said of their first strike that their cafe has been "fully shut down the entire time," adding that they "don't really have to worry about managers scabbing or borrowed workers from other stores coming in to work or customers crossing the picket line."

When "GMA" attempted to call the location closed due to the workers' strike, the phone line rang until a recorded message played, asking for a remote access code, before the call ended.

In addition to picket lines, workers protested Starbucks by marching in pride parades across the country, including New York City where they marched alongside the Starbucks corporate float.

Starbucks union worker, Alyssa Bingham on strike in St. Louis, Mo., June 26, 2023.
Moe Mills

"We are striking with pride because it is important for Starbucks to remember that the LGBTQIA+ community makes up a large part of their workforce and happens to a majority of those leading union efforts nationwide," Jackie Zhou, a New York City-based employee of five years, said in a statement. "On top of this, we are striking for a contract which encompasses protections not only for the LGBTQ+ community but for everyone.

Starbucks said in its statement Monday: "We apologize to our customers who may experience an inconvenience at these locations and encourage customers to find any of our more than 9,000 stores open nearby."

CEO Laxman Narasimhan sent a letter to Starbucks Partners on June 23, obtained by "GMA," to make clear the company's support of the LGBTQIA2+ community.

"Despite today’s public commentary, there has been no change to any of our policies as it relates to our inclusive store environments, our company culture, and the benefits we offer our partners," he stated in the letter. "As Sara Trilling and I recently stated, we continue to encourage our store leaders to celebrate with their communities including for U.S. Pride month in June, as we always have. We must ALL have the same vision for how all people, including LGBTQIA2+ people, should be treated – with respect, support and allyship, because belonging is a core value."

He continued, "As such, we strongly disapprove of any person or group, seeking to use our partners’ cultural and heritage celebrations to create harm or flagrantly advance misinformation for self-interested-goals."

As a follow up to that note, EVP and U.S. president Sara Trilling sent a memo titled “Reaffirming Our Commitment to Inclusivity” to U.S. Starbucks partners late Monday night to further clarify the company’s “current guidelines around visual displays and decorations.”

“We intend to issue clearer centralized guidelines, and leveraging resources like the Period Planning Kit (PPK) and Siren's Eye, for in-store visual displays and decorations that will continue to represent inclusivity and our brand,” she said, referencing their CEO’s previous letter to employees that “there has been no change to any of our policies as it relates to our inclusive store environments, our company culture, and the benefits we offer our partners."

This issue for Starbucks comes as other companies have come under fire for support of LGBTQ issues. Target recently faced criticism from artists involved in its Pride month products after it made the decision to remove Prode products following a boycott when anti-LGBTQ backlash nationwide boiled over, including employee harassment and bomb threats at stores in Utah, Ohio and Pennsylvania.

In a statement last month, Target said it removed some products from this year's Pride collection because the company "experienced threats impacting our team members' sense of safety and well-being while at work."

"Our focus now is on moving forward with our continuing commitment to the LGBTQIA+ community and standing with them as we celebrate Pride Month and throughout the year," the company said in the statement.