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I helped lead Starbucks’ recent union drive. The perfect storm gave us the confidence we needed to succeed.

Members react during the Starbucks union vote in Buffalo, New York. (Alexis Rizzo, the source in this story, is not pictured.)

REUTERS/Lindsay DeDario

  • Three Starbucks stores near Buffalo, New York, have voted to unionize. More are preparing to join.
  • Alexis Rizzo is a member of the organizing committee and shift supervisor at one of those locations.
  • This is Rizzo’s story, as told to writer Jamie Killin.

Three Starbucks stores near Buffalo, New York, have voted to unionize — with more preparing to do the same. This as-told-to essay is based on a conversation with Alexis Rizzo, a member of the organizing committee and shift supervisor at Starbucks’ Genesee Street location in Buffalo. It has been edited for length and clarity.

I was a part of the original organizing committee that sent a letter to Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson back in August. I’ve been a part of this process since the beginning, but the idea of unionizing at Starbucks has been a pipe dream for many years. There have always been talks, but this is the first time anything has come to fruition in a meaningful way.  

Usually while we’ve been working for Starbucks, we’ve been very disposable — as is the case with any food-service job. But with the pandemic and the labor shortage, it was the perfect storm where we finally weren’t disposable and had just enough power.

For the first time, the company couldn’t just fire us or replace us, because there was no one to replace us with. I think it gave everyone that bit of courage they needed to to do something like this.

I’ve been with the company almost seven years, and at just under $20 an hour, I only make 30 cents more than a supervisor who gets hired today. The tenured employees who have given years of their life to the company aren’t rewarded for it in any meaningful sense, and that’s just one of the things we aim to fix with a union.

At the beginning of our union campaign, I truly thought Starbucks would respect our right to unionize

Before all this, the company said it would respect our right to organize. Thus, it really broke my heart the way they’ve treated us with their union-busting campaign.

They’re treating us like we’re not real partners — Starbucks’ term for staff members — and like we hate the company. They’re making us feel like the “other,” and that’s just not the company I love and have worked for all these years.

However, throughout Starbucks’ history, whenever there’s been any kind of union drive, the store has either been shut down or the partners who were talking about unionizing are fired for other reasons.

There was even a situation in Philadelphia where Starbucks was found guilty of wrongfully terminating two baristas for trying to organize. The verdict came at the beginning of our campaign.

Starbucks’ union-busting became worrisome

Union busting is not progressive. You can’t be all the things that Starbucks claims to be as a liberal company, yet also be doing this to your employees who are trying to organize. 

For me, the situation was scary and isolating. Since we petitioned, we’ve felt as if someone was always listening in on us, and a lot of people couldn’t take the stress anymore. 

If you look at Starbucks’ mission and values, one of the points is having the courage to challenge the status quo, and that’s what we’ve done here. I hope Starbucks will come to celebrate that and see that we love this company.

We don’t just want to quit because we’re not happy. We want to fight to make it better.

Additionally, the benefits Starbucks gives us is virtue signaling in a way

The image of being a great company that treats its employees wonderfully is very important to Starbucks, but the reality is a lot of partners fight to keep the 21 hours per week needed to get those benefits. 

I have insurance through Starbucks, but it takes a good chunk out of my check every week. The coverage is mediocre despite the price, even though it’s their second-best plan. 

I take advantage of the ASU benefit — which gives Starbucks partners tuition reimbursement for online classes at Arizona State University — and am getting my bachelor’s degree right now. But I also probably spend $1,000 a semester on things that aren’t covered, like textbooks.

There are some ballots being challenged, which could draw things out 

We’re one of the three Starbucks stores near Buffalo, New York, that have voted to unionize, but the process has been — and still is — tricky.

There was a store near ours that was being remodeled at the beginning of October, and some of those partners came and worked at our store for about a week. The company added those partners to our voting list to potentially, even though they don’t work at our location and only did for that brief period of time. (Editor’s note: Other employees have also made this claim.)

Now that we’ve won the vote, I hope Starbucks will come to the table with us and bargain in good faith 

We just need one good contract that other stores can then use as a blueprint for their own union campaign.

Seniority pay is a big focus, as is fair labor allocation — a provision that would ensure we have the staff we need to function.

During our union drive, Starbucks announced that it would implement pay increases throughout next year — including 5% bumps for employees who have been around for at least two years and up to 10% for those with at least five years of service.

I have far more tenured coworkers who currently don’t make much more than I do, and their labor is worth more than my labor. The knowledge they bring to the store every day is worth more than mine, and the knowledge I bring to the store every day is worth more than someone who just started. That’s why seniority pay is the kind of thing we’re fighting to codify and improve.

There’s clear room for improvement, and who knows better how the company can improve than the partners who are serving the coffee and interacting with customers? The company leaves a chair open at every board meeting to represent the voice of a barista, but the chair shouldn’t be empty.

There should be a barista in the chair. That’s the real goal here.

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