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Starbucks workers vote for a union, a first for coffee chain

Starbucks workers at a store in upstate New York have voted to join a union, a first for the coffee chain's nearly 10,000 company-owned stores in the U.S. 

The election result — the first to be announced for three of the company's stores in the region — came from Tom Miller, a field examiner with the National Labor Relations Board's office in Buffalo, New York. Of 27 ballots cast, 19 favored joining a union and eight voted against it, Miller said Thursday during a counting that took place in a videoconference. 

Ahead of Thursday, the sole company-operated Starbucks store represented by a union was in Victoria, British Columbia, which negotiated its first contract this year. The United Steelworkers union in June announced a three-year contract covering Starbucks workers at a drive-thru location in the Canadian province.

The incipient push by workers to organize at Starbucks could open the door for employees at other stores to demand union representation, as well as have a ripple effect on the broader retail industry, which for decades has drawn fire for issues including low pay and unfair scheduling. 

"This is an important victory for the union and the Starbucks employees who want to have the benefit of a union contract," Susan Schurman, a professor of labor studies and employment relations at Rutgers University. "It is also an important victory for the principle that employees in one workplace should be able to exercise their legal right to form or join a union, irrespective of whether employees at other locations choose the same path."

At a post-vote news conference held by the Service Employees International Union affiliate Workers United, pro-union workers described a campaign of misinformation and pressure by Starbucks.

"Today has been monumental in what we've achieved," Gianna Reeve, a shift supervisor at the second Buffalo-area Starbucks store, where workers rejected collective bargaining. "Union busting is not right for Starbucks, it goes against what they would like to be as a company. We hope they will come to the bargaining table."

Reached for comment, Starbucks said it would continue to focus on delivering the "best Starbucks experience" for its workers and customers. 

"Today we saw a split vote in two stores in Buffalo with a third vote outcome pending," a spokesperson for Starbucks told CBS MoneyWatch.

Rossann Williams, president for North America at Starbucks, acknowledged in a note to Starbucks' more than 200,000 U.S. employees that one store "voted to be represented by a union." The results are "preliminary," with "no immediate changes to our partner relationship as the NLRB process continues," she stated.

Unless Starbucks files an objection, the results from the store that voted to unionize will be certified by the NLRB next week.

Another store votes against joining the union

The bid to unionize at a second store was rejected, with 12 ballots opposed and eight cast in favor. Four ballots were not included in the tally, with one voided by the NLRB and two of three challenges unresolved, but insufficient to change the outcome, Miller said. 

Ian Hayes, an attorney for the union, raised the issue of uncounted ballots, saying that three had been slipped under the door of what was believed to be part of the NLRB's office. Miller wondered aloud whether the envelopes might instead have been delivered to New York Senator Chuck Schumer's office, saying the Democratic lawmaker maintained a regional office next to the NLRB.  

Still, the election has concluded and any objections must be raised in later proceedings, Miller said.

The outcome of a vote at a third Starbucks store in the Buffalo area remained in doubt, with seven challenged ballots potentially altering the outcome of the count, which stood at 15 in favor of unionizing and nine against. The union challenged six ballots and Starbucks challenged one, with all seven based on the premise that the people who had cast them did not work at the location. 

More than 80 baristas and shift supervisors from three Buffalo-area stores had voted by mail on whether to be represented by Workers United, an arm of the Service Employees International Union. The election ended Wednesday.

Starbucks employees wait for results of a vote count, on December 9, 2021, in Buffalo, New York. ELEONORE SENS/AFP via Getty Images

The NLRB on Tuesday rejected an appeal by Starbucks to stop the counting of ballots. The company had argued that the election should include all 20 of the region's stores, which effectively would have required the union to sway a much larger pool of workers. 

Labor board members wrote in their unanimous ruling that Starbucks had not met the burden of proof needed to override the NLRB's premise that a proposed bargaining unit consisting of one workplace is legitimate. Just because a bigger group of workers in the region might share a "community of interest" is not sufficient to disprove the agency's presumption, they wrote. 

"No accountability"

The union activity at Starbucks comes amid increased leverage for workers amid nationwide labor shortages and as a record number of Americans quit their jobs. Organized labor is also drawing more public support. A survey by Gallup in August found approval of unions at a more than 50-year high, with 68% of Americans saying they favored unions.   

Pro-union Starbucks workers say they are fighting for higher wages, improved staffing and training, as well as steady pay hikes for those who stay with the company for years. 

"We have no accountability right now. We have no say," said Casey Moore, a union organizer who has been working at a Buffalo-area Starbucks for around six months. "With a union we will actually be able to sit down at the table and say, 'This is what we want.'"

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Since the efforts to organize began, baristas at three additional Starbucks stores have also requested permission from the NLRB to vote on a union. A similar effort is underway among workers at a Starbucks in Arizona.

Beyond its appeal with the NLRB, Starbucks dispatched executives to Buffalo — including legendary former CEO Howard Schultz — to make the company's case that a union would make it harder for workers to pick up shifts at multiple stores. Starbucks has a "network of company-operated stores that work together to create a better partner experience," Johnson stated in his letter. 

Days ahead of federal officials setting the union vote, Starbucks said it would hike starting pay to $15 an hour as well as raise wages 5% for staff employed more than two years and 10% for those with the company more than five years.

The United Food and Commercial Workers unionized Starbucks workers at Seattle stores for a brief time in the 1980s, but those organizing efforts were shut down after Schultz purchased the company. The UFCW has represented workers at Starbucks kiosks in grocery stores across southern California for more than a decade, according to the union.

"With today's victory, Starbucks workers in Buffalo made history as the first ever to unionize at a corporate store," UFCW 135 President Todd Walters said in an emailed statement. "As the largest retail workers union, UFCW looks forward to even more Starbucks workers taking this step to unionize at other stores and standing up for the good pay and benefits they have earned and deserve." 

Starbucks employs about 245,000 people in the U.S., some 235,000 of them at its 9,861 company-operated stores, according to its latest annual report. "The number of Starbucks partners represented by unions is not significant. We believe our efforts in managing our workforce have been effective, evidenced by a strong Starbucks culture and a good relationship between the company and our partners," it stated in the regulatory filing.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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