Starbucks unionizing wave reaches Wisconsin

By: - February 11, 2022 2:45 pm
Starbucks sign and store

(Fabian Holtappels | Pixabay)

Employees at a suburban Milwaukee Starbucks outlet on Friday joined a national wave of union organizing at the Seattle-based coffeehouse chain, citing wages as well as concerns about employee safety, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Along with Starbucks Workers United, the employees working at the chain’s store at 8880 South Howell Ave. in Oak Creek filed a petition Friday with the National Labor Relations Board for a union certification election — the first at a Wisconsin Starbucks.

“What we’re looking for is respect — respect for our safety and value for our lives,” said Hannah Fogarty, a barista at the Oak Creek outlet and a leader in the union drive there, in a phone interview. “That’s improved COVID policies, improved safety conditions in general, and improved wages. And to get all those things we need to have a voice at the table.”

Fogarty said the $12.60 starting hourly wage for baristas at the store is inadequate. Employees have also felt at risk in the COVID-19 pandemic, she said, a concern that was heightened when the company reduced the isolation period to five days for people exposed to the coronavirus. While that followed an advisory from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), she added, “we feel as though that is not enough time.”

COVID-19 is the only illness for which employees are guaranteed paid sick leave, according to Fogarty. “So if we were sick with anything else, we would have to start digging into our savings account” to make up for lost wages, she said, “which is almost impossible to build at $12.60 an hour.”

Starbucks Workers United is affiliated with Workers United, part of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU).

Since December, when union supporters won two out of three representation elections at Buffalo-area Starbucks locations in New York, union drives have gone public in more than 70 of the chain’s stores around the country in nearly two dozen states, according to Pete DeMay, an organizer with the union.

“I think the pandemic has certainly exacerbated a lot of structural problems that existed at Starbucks before,” DeMay said. The pandemic “certainly made the situation worse.”

Starbucks has more than 15,000 stores nationwide, including corporate-owned and franchise-owned outlets. The company has taken the position that its relationship with employees, whom it refers to as “partners,” is better “without the union in between us,” Sarah Albanesi, a Starbucks spokeswoman, said Friday.

“We do hope to continue that direct relationship and have direct communication with one another, because that’s what has made the company what it is today,” she said. “But we’ve also said that we’ll respect our partners’ right to organize and will bargain in good faith.”

In a letter to the location’s local manager and Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson Friday morning, the Oak Creek workers rejected that description of the union’s role. “Kevin, Contrary to what you would have us believe, the Union is not a third party coming
between you and us; the Union is us,” the letter states. It concludes: “It is time to sit-down at the bargaining table, and negotiate a fair contract with us, your partners.”

Fogarty said that news of the first Starbucks union victories helped inspire the Oak Creek drive, which began in January, and she gave the early wins credit for some recent improvements in wages and policies. “But what we want is the guarantees” that come with a union contract, she said.

If a union election is held and the union gains a majority at the Oak Creek store, it will be the second coffee chain to have a union in Wisconsin. Last year, a majority of employees at the 15 Colectivo Coffee locations in Madison, Milwaukee and Chicago voted for union representation. The NLRB certification of that vote has been on hold while Colectivo continues to appeal the case.

Unlike the Starbucks union elections, which are taking place store by store, the Colectivo union drive covered the entire chain in a single election.


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Erik Gunn
Erik Gunn

Deputy Editor Erik Gunn reports and writes on work and the economy, health policy and related subjects, for the Wisconsin Examiner. He spent 24 years as a freelance writer for Milwaukee Magazine, Isthmus, The Progressive, BNA Inc., and other publications, winning awards for investigative reporting, feature writing, beat coverage, business writing, and commentary.