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Young Starbucks baristas are powering a growing push to unionize


From coast to coast, young Starbucks baristas are pushing to unionize their cafes, flexing their collective power against the coffee giant in a fight that could change the broader restaurant industry and its workforce.

After notching a first win late last year, two Starbucks company-owned stores have formally organized after a December vote and hearing before the National Labor Relations Board. To date, more than 30 company-owned stores from Massachusetts to Tennessee and Arizona have filed for union elections at Starbucks, according to a CNBC analysis of NLRB filings. An industry-wide labor crunch and the high-profile union push from Starbucks workers could mean more chains see their employees follow suit.

“I do think, right now, this is the canary in the coal mine for the union and for the industry,” said MKM Partners analyst Brett Levy.

The petitions to organize have come faster than even those involved first believed possible, according to Richard Bensinger, union organizer with Starbucks Workers United and a former organizing director of the AFL-CIO. But with the group organizing via single-store units, some say the push could take years before reaching critical mass for the coffee giant.

Starbucks employees in Tennessee meet with Buffalo, New York, organizers from Starbucks Workers United to learn more about unionizing efforts.

Courtesy: Richard Bensinger, Starbucks Workers United

Bensinger said he thinks Starbucks corporate was “caught off guard” by the speed. Hundreds of partners a week are contacting the organizers to learn more about how to petition to unionize, he said.

Starbucks spokesperson Reggie Borges said it is inaccurate to say the company was caught off guard and not prepared. “This shows a lack of understanding of how our leadership engages with our partners,” he said. This includes regularly meeting with workers and holding listening sessions.

The number of stores that have filed petitions is a small fraction of the coffee giant’s nearly 9,000 U.S. company-owned cafes, Borges said.

Starbucks Workers United believes most of the pro-union workers are in their early 20s, which prompted Bensinger to say they are part of a “Gen U” for unions. These workers are optimistic that organizing will bring them power to express their voice in a way that will be received by management to better the company during the third year of the pandemic, he said.

“This is a generational uprising. I think young people are rediscovering unions as the way to have a voice into the job and lift up their wages and benefits,” Bensinger said. “We always thought in this country that we would do better than the next generation — these folks have student debt, they can’t buy a house, they can’t afford health care, there’s no retirement security. So it’s a hopelessness.”

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