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As workers at a Denver Starbucks vote on unionization, the company is accused of union-busting tactics

Next Tuesday, employees at Starbucks on Colfax Avenue in Denver will learn if their vote to unionize was successful. Their effort is part of a recent and historic uptick in worker activism across the country, driven in part by the impact of working conditions during the COVID pandemic. There are more than 50 Starbucks locations across the United States that recently voted to unionize, including one in the city of Superior — the first in Colorado to do so.

But pro-union employees at this particular Denver store say their efforts have drawn backlash from the company. Nick Bowlin is a freelance journalist based in Colorado. He wrote about what happened in an in-depth article which was published this week in The Guardian.

Interview Highlights
These interview highlights have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Erin O’Toole: Can you start by briefly explaining to us why Starbucks employees might want to unionize? Not everyone knows about unions. I know there are a lot of myths and misconceptions about what union representation means.

Nick Bowlin: The workers I spoke to at Starbucks in Denver had a few main points. Starbucks has historically been known for having good benefits and salaries for the service industry, a kind of front-of-house gig. But they [the employees] say wages have not kept up with inflation in recent years.

They are also certainly motivated by some of the hardships of service workers resulting from the pandemic. They felt that the company was not protecting them when it came to protecting them from the virus and also from belligerent customers. Several had horror stories of customers getting angry — and sometimes violent — over mask mandates and shortages in the store.

They also cited a policy that Starbucks has just made huge profits in recent years. And they think more of that money should go to the people who make the coffee. They cited a policy that was proposed during the first Starbucks to unionize, which was December 20, 2021 in Buffalo, New York, where if a worker misses a shift, that worker’s wages will be distributed to other baristas who working. at the time or on a short shift, rather than going back to their, you know, company profits.

Many workers I have spoken to who were unaware of unions before, when they realized what the collective bargaining process entailed and the ability to really lobby for the benefits and protections they want, this aspect of autonomy; many of them referred to this as something that led them to support unionization.

You started tracking union efforts at this Starbucks in Denver several months ago. Tell us a bit about this particular store, which is on Colfax Avenue. It is known as the Grange. How are the employees who work there?

Well, first of all, it looks like a barn.

The Denver Starbucks community says it works really fast there. Inexperienced baristas tend not to start there. Compared to some suburban locations, it can be a bit rougher and tumbler. Starbucks employees at other locations tend not to take their shifts at the barn because it has a certain reputation.

One of the baristas I spoke to was punched in the face by an angry customer who was crazy about the mask policy. There was this other incident where one of the baristas got pepper sprayed because they ran out of frappuccinos one day.

These are things that could happen at any Starbucks. But the barn has a small reputation that goes back to the question of workplace protections and perhaps why workers at the time were particularly keen on announcing a union campaign soon enough.

I have to say, one thing that really jumped out at me was that Starbucks has long had a public reputation for being one of the few companies that actually cares about its employees. They offer health benefits; they pay tuition. It’s a bit difficult to reconcile this perception of a caring company with what is happening now to employees who want to unionize.

And I think that perception is quite common. And there is evidence of that. Like I said earlier, that’s why baristas have sought out Starbucks, because they offer health benefits while not all coffee shop jobs necessarily do. They have a very strong tuition assistance program. And they also have this kind of corporate culture that encourages this kind of friendly atmosphere. Each employee, from senior executives to the lowest-paid bartender, is designated internally within the company as a partner. And that goes hand in hand with the corporate culture that they are trying to promote.

But, you know, workers say a couple of things. Just because there are advantages doesn’t mean they’re always the best — and they want them to be better. And they also say that if they have a union, it will be up to them to push for the benefits they want rather than, you know, the benefits coming from the top of the company.

You know, I’m thinking of one of the Denver store baristas named Vanessa Castro, who I spoke to who worked for Starbucks for four years in several stores across the country. She graduated from Arizona State University with tuition assistance from Starbucks. And she said if you start empowering employees by giving them benefits, options, resources to access them, you can’t choose when to stop.

What happens next? You mentioned that votes for the Denver story will be announced on Tuesday. What do people expect to get results?

That’s right. The NLRB will announce the results on May 10, which is Tuesday. All of my reports suggest that workers are quite confident that they have a wide margin of majority support. And then once that happens, I mean, it’s a big win. But this is also just the beginning, as they then have to enter the collective bargaining process.

All expectations are that Starbucks is going to be very tough with bargaining. You know, the fact that they’re trying to pit union workers against non-union workers with the increase in benefits for non-union stores, I think, is evidence of how they intend to operate at the ‘coming.

The National Starbucks Union is associated with one of the largest service worker unions in the country. They have good lawyers. So they will definitely, you know, grow back. And I really get the impression from the workers in Denver that they are both thrilled that the vote is taking place and that this period of uncertain uncertainty is over.

Colorado Edition is hosted and produced by Erin O’Toole (@ErinOtoole1). Web was edited by Ashley Jefcoat, Head of Digital Operations.

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