Where’s the Coffee? Understanding the effect of Starbucks’ union efforts

By Fiona M.

Disclaimer: This is a student narrative about the alleged personal experiences of students and Starbucks employees. This story does not hold any legal validity or representation of the Starbucks Union, Starbucks company, or any persons involved. 

Strawberry Acai Refresher, Chai Tea Latte, Iced Caramel Macchiato upside down, Caramel Frappuccino, Iced Green Tea Latte. Whether it’s the thing that gets you out of bed in the morning, a quick stop after school, or a trip to get drinks during advisory, if you go to SEM, you have almost certainly been to the Starbucks on Elmwood Ave. 

Maybe you noticed the workers protesting, saw the lawn signs for a union, or you’ve just walked by, unsure of what it means. The store closing, the sign in the window apologizing for any inconveniences, and even the day that they gave out gift cards, this Starbucks has changed since the union efforts began.

I began my research by asking the people in the SEM community who were affected. How much did the Starbucks shutdowns actually affect students? Although I got varying responses, the general consensus was: not too much. Regular Starbucks customers chose to support other coffee shops nearby such as Caffe Aroma, Spot Coffee, or another Starbucks in the area. 

Prior to researching this, I had very little knowledge of what a Starbucks union would mean for the workers and the customers. I was not alone in this. Of those who I asked, very few people actually knew what the union efforts were for. And regarding their support for it, it was a tentative yes; Supporting the workers, but not really understanding what the support was for. Smiling, waving, or signaling that you stood with the workers as you walked past them holding their signs outside the store, demanding that their voices be heard. 

Getting a barista to talk to me was extremely difficult. I went two separate times, and both times the workers were very reluctant to speak on the union. Their resistance to speak with me was largely due to the number of people who come in daily and ask them about the union. I ultimately was able to get a short interview with one of the baristas. 

In speaking with them, I got an entirely new perspective on this issue. They talked about the working conditions, which have become much worse since the union began – understaffing, which causes the current baristas to be overworked – and a lack of management so they cannot voice their concerns to anyone, these problems make the work environment less than pleasant to be in. The unfortunate part is that none of the benefits of the union have taken effect as the contract isn’t finalized. The barista I talked with told me that they had support from managers when the union first began, but they only attempted some “union bust activities” that actually worsened conditions. The barista, who was originally in favor of having a union, told me that they are not as on board with the union anymore. In their own words, “if everything that the union contract had going on went through, it’d be great, but with all the stalls and everything, it’s just made it a negative environment to work in.” They are fed up with the time it’s taking for them to get the rights they’ve  been protesting about for well over a year. 

When I asked them if they had anything else that they wanted me to include or that they thought I should know, they hesitated, at first. But as I was leaving, they stopped me and told me to know my rights. They said that it’s important to self-advocate before group advocating;  that you shouldn’t “just go with the flow just because that’s what you think you should do. Be assertive. If you think you should be treated a certain way, let them know.” I thought it was a powerful statement from them, someone who just minutes before didn’t even want to talk to me. Although they, in their own words, “just work there,” I thought that it was fascinating to get a perspective that I couldn’t have gotten anywhere else. 

I am so thankful to the barista who was willing to speak with me. They didn’t have to, and without that interview, I never would have gotten the perspective that I was looking for and that helped me to write this article from a place of knowledge instead of one of ignorance.

I want to leave you with the idea that everyone has a story to tell. The people who make your drinks at Starbucks are more than just someone who pours milk into your coffee or fulfills your mobile orders. They have more to say about the establishments that they work for. They may not be representatives for the company, but they do have opinions about their workplace. It’s important to know what you are supporting when you say you’re behind a cause. Very few things like this can be boiled down to a simple solution, this has been a conflict in the business for a long time and it is making the workers’ conditions worse than before; this reality is the opposite of what their union contract intended. While something like a union is positive from the outside, it is a lot more complex than it seems.

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