March 16, 2023

Senate barista unionisation hearing: What does it mean for specialty coffee?


On 7 March 2023, the US Senate announced that Starbucks’ interim CEO Howard Schultz has agreed to testify at a hearing which will address over 80 complaints about the company’s anti-union behaviour.

Schultz’s expected appearance at the hearing follows a near 18-month saga regarding unionisation among Starbucks’ baristas. In December 2021, a Starbucks in Buffalo, New York voted to become the company’s first-ever unionised store in the US.

“In America, workers have the constitutional right to organise unions and engage in collective bargaining to improve their wages and working conditions,” US Senator Bernie Sanders said in a press release. “Unfortunately Starbucks, under Mr. Schultz’s leadership, has done everything possible to prevent that from happening.”

Moreover, following the mass unionisation wave across Starbucks’ US stores, we have also seen baristas vote to unionise at several specialty coffee companies in the US. These include Peet’s Coffee, Intelligentsia, and Colectivo Coffee, to name a few.

So, how could this barista unionisation affect the future of the specialty coffee industry? Read on to learn more.

You may also like our article on career progression for specialty coffee baristas.

A member of Starbucks Workers Union stands outside a Starbucks store

Why are Starbucks employees unionising in the US?

At present, around 262 Starbucks stores have voted to unionise in the US, with 32 more locations awaiting or contesting the outcomes of their vote.

However, despite this recent wave of unionisation at Starbucks, the chain’s workers have a history of voting to unionise in the US. Moreover, some stores in Canada, Chile, and New Zealand have also unionised.

In 1985, employees at the Seattle roastery and warehouse, as well as workers at some of the city’s coffee shops, first voted to unionise with the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 1001. As a result, unionised part-time workers received a number of contractual benefits, including health care coverage and paid holiday leave.

In an attempt to create backlash, Schultz – who first became president of Starbucks in 1987 – agreed to expand these contract benefits to include employees from 11 other stores in the area. Schultz expected workers to shun unionisation, but his move had the opposite effect, with more people deciding to join.

However, in 1987, following alleged complaints from employees, the union was decertified. Schultz claimed that the company had no involvement, but some employees stated that Starbucks’ management team had filed to decertify, as well as hiring “anti-union” workers and lawyers to assist with their efforts.

In 2004, Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) also led the “Starbucks Workers Union” campaign in a number of major US cities, including Chicago and New York City. Although the campaign was unsuccessful, the National Labor Relations Board found that Starbucks committed 30 labour law violations. These included unlawful surveillance and interrogation of its workers, illegally firing those involved in unionisation efforts, and prohibiting employees from talking about union campaigns while at work.

A new wave of unionisation

It’s been impossible to ignore the prolific number of US Starbucks stores voting to unionise in recent months. Pro-union workers have not been shy about these efforts. Most notably, in July 2022, employees at a store in Boston, Massachusetts went on strike for 64 consecutive days – the longest-ever action taken against the company.

Similarly, Starbucks has not tried to hide the fact that as a brand, it is opposed to these unionisation efforts.

“The history of Starbucks has been that we have been a compassionate company,” Schultz said in an interview with CNN in early 2023. “The union issue is one of many issues that Starbucks faces.

“I recognise that Starbucks partners [which is how the company refers to its employees] have the right to unionise, but we have a right as a company to create the vision for the company, which the large, vast majority of Starbucks partners embrace,” he said.

The reasons for this recent surge in unionisation are complex – and also unique to each Starbucks employee and location. However, as just one example of many, in an open letter to then-CEO Kevin Johnson, workers at the first-ever unionised store in Buffalo, New York stated that forming a union was “the best way to contribute meaningfully to our partnership with the company”. 

However, in an interview with the Guardian in August 2021, founding member of Starbucks Workers United Alexis Rizzo said that a number of problems led to the decision to unionise. These include chronic understaffing and lack of communication between employees and management, with other stores claiming stagnant wage growth and unsafe working conditions.

An Intelligentsia Coffee paper cup sits on the counter at the High Line Hotel location in Chelsea, New York City.

Unionisation in the specialty coffee sector

Alongside this widespread unionisation push from Starbucks employees, workers at smaller specialty coffee companies have been following suit.

However, barista unionisation in specialty coffee isn’t a new phenomena. In 2018, Workers United helped employees at Gimme! Coffee in New York to form their own union, while Michigan’s Mighty Good Coffee filed for a union election the same year.

In March 2022, Wisconsin roaster Colectivo Coffee became the largest unionised workforce at a coffee company in the US. Colectivo management had previously filed to review the decision in 2021, and published an open letter which stated its “disappointment” with the move, but promised to “respect the rules and bargain in good faith”.

Similarly, in August 2022, baristas at five Chicago, Illinois Intelligentsia stores voted to unionise – stating that the move will allow them to have more of a say in their contractual terms. Moreover, in January 2023, workers at a Davis, California Peet’s Coffee store became the first in the company to unionise – notably with the support of Starbucks Workers United.

So, what does this mean for specialty coffee?

Employees decide to unionise for many reasons. However, the ultimate goal of joining a union is to use collective bargaining power to improve working conditions and terms. These can include, but aren’t limited to, greater income stability, a safer working environment, and being able to negotiate employment benefits.

It’s clearly understandable that some baristas want – and feel like they need to have – this bargaining power. It’s fair to say that baristas are some of the most vulnerable professionals to the instability of the coffee industry, especially in terms of pay.

In many major cities around the world, the cost of living is too high for a standard barista salary. Furthermore, the effects of the pandemic have also exacerbated chronic issues within the hospitality industry – including high rates of staff turnover.

Similarly, Covid-19 had a huge impact on the wellbeing and mental health of specialty coffee baristas. Many claimed that providing excellent customer service required more physical and emotional effort than ever before, with some baristas feeling socially drained, anxious, or even depressed.

Looking to the future

These problems exacerbate already existing issues in the specialty coffee sector, mainly that some baristas don’t feel satisfied with their job roles.

Ultimately, this raises an important point: coffee professionals in management or executive positions can improve this situation by actively considering employees’ needs. Alongside this, specialty coffee companies must engage in open dialogue with baristas – especially those who have issues with their working conditions.

By doing so, there can be more open communication, and employees will therefore feel more valued.

Baristas from specialty coffee company Great Lakes Coffee protest outside the brand's midtown Detroit location in an effort to push for unionisation.

In recent years, it’s evident that baristas have reflected more and more on their working conditions, and many are now deciding to take action. A big part of this movement in specialty coffee and beyond revolves around barista unionisation, and the potential benefits of joining a union.

Opinions remain divided on barista unionisation in the specialty coffee industry. However, whether you agree or disagree, it’s imperative that those in senior or managerial positions understand why this is happening – and know how to respond in a constructive and open manner.

Enjoyed this? Then read our article on looking out for barista wellbeing after Covid-19.

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