The significance of Starbucks employees unionizing — and how they can retain control

There are currently more than 8,000 corporate Starbucks locations in the United States. In December, a store in Buffalo, New York, became the very first to form a union. In January, a second Buffalo store followed suit. And in February, workers at a Starbucks in Mesa, Arizona, became the first outside Buffalo to do the same. The significance of these landmark decisions cannot be overstated. Not only is this clearly already having a ripple effect, with CNBC reporting that more than 100 Starbucks locations have filed for their own union elections in the last six months, but it may signal the beginning of a new era for hospitality, where workers have greater negotiating power around wages, benefits, and general working conditions.

A high-profile unionization effort from one of the biggest brands in the world not only has the potential for widespread measures to be introduced across chains, but also for better standards to be implemented across the industry. This is part of a larger unionization movement that is seeing more hospitality and retail workers from major brands leveraging their power in numbers. Apple stores are reportedly quietly working to unionize also, coming shortly after unionization efforts of Google and the Game Workers Alliance (formed by a division of the games company Activision Blizzard). We also recently witnessed a huge month of industrial action last year, dubbed “Striketober.” The breadth of types of industries that have mobilized recently is extensive, from film and TV to farmworkers and nurses. Notably, Kellogg’s staged a two-month walkout, which concluded with the agreement to give workers a 3% raise.

There is no coincidence in the timing of this new phase of worker action, with workforces becoming more conscious than ever of their negotiating power in numbers after the worst of the pandemic. With the Great Resignation, more positions to fill, and the newfound appreciation of the necessity of certain sectors throughout the past two years, workers are demanding more for their labor. A recent letter from Starbucks workers in Farmingville, New York, addressed to Starbucks President and CEO Kevin Johnson, read: “The COVID-19 pandemic has brought a lot of previously ignored issues to the forefront of the nation’s minds. The necessity and reliance of this country on minimum wage service workers is one of those things.” It goes on to explain that baristas are “not robots” or “coffee-making machines,” and that they are unionizing “for a voice, for a fair chance to fight and protect ourselves.”

For organized unions to be able to go about protecting themselves, they are required to pay dues, which goes toward legal protection, pensions, health, strike funds, and more. Many employees will pay their dues via their paycheck, known as a checkoff. It means that the employer pays the union directly. However, something about this seems counterintuitive when it comes to protection. As part of negotiations during such historic industrial action, the Starbucks Workers United (SBWU) union should think carefully about the importance of retaining control of its dues and establish its own dues payment system. Something we are hearing less about during negotiations is how payment of such massive, organized union movements would be managed.

Taking dues via payroll deduction can be used as a union-busting tactic in the future. The Union Busting Playbook has also reported employers passing out phony checks with union dues “taken out” and instead “bring in a bag of groceries with the label ‘What you could buy with one year’s union dues.’” While this is just one example, employer statements like these essentially puts them in a position of power to dissuade workers from putting their wages toward their union. If workers retain control of their dues by creating their own system, or utilize a platform that helps them collect dues, they’ll have infinitely more control of their future success.

The recent mobilization of Starbucks workers and the wider hospitality industry is an incredibly promising step forward for workers’ rights. But it is only the first step. Retaining control is the way to convince other branches of the economy of the importance of unionizing and ensure that meaningful change happens as a result.

Scott Heric is the co-founder of Unionly, an online payment platform built for unions.

Click here to sign up for the free IB Ezine — your twice-weekly resource for local business news, analysis, voices, and the names you need to know. If you are not already a subscriber to In Business magazine, be sure to sign up for our monthly print edition here.