A Union Brews

Weeks after a Starbucks store in Buffalo, New York, voted to become the chain’s first union location in the U.S., a Eugene store could soon follow suit, making it the first Oregon Starbucks store to unionize. 

But there’s a long road ahead. 

Workers at the 29th and Willamette store joined the growing movement of Starbucks locations that are attempting to start unions. Unions forming at other Starbucks stores have provided a blueprint for the Eugene employees, says Ky Fireside, who works at the 29th and Willamette location. Speaking as a representative of the Eugene workers, Fireside says they expect the corporation will try to derail the process. 

Starbucks tells Eugene Weekly that the company stands by its belief that unions get in the way of its culture. 

On Jan. 7, the 29th and Willamette workers filed a certification of representative petition with the U.S. National Labor Relations Board, paperwork that notifies they are requesting a formal vote to form a union. 

The next day, the workers sent a letter to Starbucks CEO and President Kevin Johnson, announcing they were unionizing. The letter says that whenever Starbucks is confronted with a social justice issue, it takes the right side, referencing LGBTQ Pride and the Black Lives Matter movement. But, the letter adds, the corporation has taken union-busting practices as workers at its stores try to unionize. 

“Our support for unionization is rooted in a deep admiration for this company, and a firm commitment to these guiding values,” the letter says. “In order to best live up to them, a greater degree of power sharing and accountability is necessary, and this is exactly what unionization will afford us.” 

There isn’t a specific reason why the store decided to unionize, Fireside says, but organizing is a way to get to the point where the 29th and Willamette location’s workers can sit at a bargaining table with the corporation. Starbucks’ employees are called partners, but they say workers are not treated like partners of the company. So unionizing is a way to hold the company accountable to its mission and values. 

Starbucks’ mission statement is “to inspire and nurture the human spirit — one person, one cup and one neighborhood at a time.” And among its values are to be present and connect with transparency and create a culture of warmth and belonging. 

Citing those values and the mission statement, a Starbucks spokesperson — who’s not an official spokesperson of the company — says the company’s position on unions hasn’t changed, and that Starbucks’ success has been based on how the company partners with its employees. 

The spokesperson says since the beginning of the company, its belief is that “we are better together as partners, without a union between us at Starbucks, and that conviction has not changed.” 

Workers at two Starbucks stores in Buffalo have unionized, and other stores throughout the U.S. have begun the process, including locations in Seattle, Cleveland and Chicago. Fireside says they thought that filing paperwork to begin a union would be more difficult, but all it took was contacting Workers United, an affiliate of SEIU. 

Employees at the Eugene store are getting insight into Starbucks’ reactions to unionizing through three stores in Buffalo, two of which voted to unionize and one voted against. 

Fireside says the Eugene store is expecting Starbucks will repeat its past alleged union busting actions at other stores, based on what’s been reported on Twitter and Instagram accounts called SBWorkersUnited. They say Starbucks has shut down stores to have a talk about unions. Starbucks higher-ups have tried to address small issues to stop the unionizing process. And the company has even tried to move staff from other locations to the union voting store to manipulate the vote. 

“They paved the way. They got the brunt of the union busting that’s expected from Starbucks,” Fireside says about the Buffalo locations. “The resistance they came up against has been a driving force for us. If they had been allowed to unionize, I don’t think we would not have the amount of disappointment and anger that’s driving us here.” 

The 29th and Willamette store is located in a strongly liberal area of Eugene, and Fireside says they’ve noticed a lot of support from the community on forming a union. But what concerns Fireside and their co-workers is if Starbucks decides to fire the store’s manager. “Our biggest fear at this point is backlash for our manager,” they say. “That’s the one thing looming over the whole thing — wanting him to be OK and wanting to have legal standing to protect him.” 

The next step is a Jan. 28 hearing with the U.S. National Labor Relations Board. Fireside says they’re anticipating Starbucks will delay the hearing, as it’s done with other stores, by arguing that a single store can’t be a bargaining unit. So they don’t know when the vote on forming a union will be, “it could be weeks or months” away. 

Winning the vote won’t even be the end of the process.

“They will still have to agree with us to sit down and write up a contract. Even the Elmwood store in Buffalo is not at that point yet,” Fireside says. “It’s not going to be a short road” 

This story is a part of Eugene Weekly’s reporting series on the labor movement in Oregon, funded by the Wayne L. Morse Center for Law and Politics.