Thousands of Starbucks employees went on strike Thursday, amid the coffee chain’s busy holiday season, to protest working conditions and push company leaders to recognize workers’ unionizing efforts at stores nationwide and meet them at the bargaining table.
For the past 25 years, Starbucks has been rolling out limited-edition holiday drinks giving away special, reusable, holiday-themed cups in advance of the winter holiday season. Known as Red Cup Day, it’s become an obsession among many Starbucks devotees, who treat the cups as collectors items and often line up for them before stores are even open. It’s also one of the company’s most profitable days. But this year, in the face of ongoing antagonism from Starbucks corporate against its unionizing workers, over 100 Starbucks locations are going on strike, potentially throwing a wrench into the company’s plans. Welcome to the Red Cup Rebellion.
SB Workers United, a collective of Starbucks workers leading the organization effort across the country, announced early this morning that over 100 Starbucks stores, and thousands of workers, would be on strike today, picketing these locations. In a statement to Eater, SB Workers United says “this is the largest coordinated action of the Starbucks Union movement yet.” Workers are asking customers to show up at picket lines, or donate to a solidarity fund, and also giving away special union red cups at picket lines, complete with an illustration resembling the Grinch.
Workers say they are “taking collective action in response to the company’s refusal to bargain in good faith,” and remind management that the right to strike is protected under the National Labor Relations Act. In a statement to Eater, a representative for Starbucks says, “Counter to what the union has shared, Starbucks has engaged Workers United representatives on multiple occasions in a good faith effort to move the bargaining process forward — reaching out in September to urge the union to meet us at the table and again in October by proposing dates and locations for more than 80 individual store bargaining sessions.”
Workers continue to accuse Starbucks of union busting tactics. In a statement, Michelle Eisen, a worker from a Starbucks location in Buffalo, says, “Whether it’s firing one of my coworkers for wearing a suicide awareness pin, how they’ve closed down a dozen locations in the process of unionizing, or how we’re being denied benefits that non-union stores are getting. Starbucks has left behind the very values that drew many of us to the company in the first place. You cannot be pro-LGTBQ, pro-BLM, pro-sustainability, and anti-union. This Red Cup Day, we’re organizing for a voice on the job and a true seat at the table.”
In its statement to Eater, the Starbucks representative said in response to these allegations: “No Starbucks partner has been or will be disciplined or separated for supporting, organizing or otherwise engaging in lawful union activity.”
It is notoriously difficult for the NLRB to prove a store was closed or a worker let go because of retaliation against the union — but the company has faced allegations of union-busting at organizing locations around the country. In May, the Buffalo branch of the NLRB filed a complaint accusing Starbucks of more than 200 violations of the labor act; in September, a NYC board sued the company for wrongful termination of a Queens, New York barista; and Workers United has accused the chain of closing stores where organizing was taking place. According to SB Workers United, the NLRB has filed 39 official Complaints against Starbucks. Meanwhile, Starbucks has filed 40 unfair labor practices against the union for “failing to bargain in good faith.” Interim CEO Howard Schultz has also publicly derided the union, telling workers to find somewhere else to work if they hate the conditions so much, and has said Starbucks would never accept a union.
Now, as over 250 Starbucks locations have unionized, the company has been forced to accept that the union is the reality. But most recently, corporate representatives walked out of negotiations because they objected to workers participating in the negotiations via Zoom. Starbucks management says recording the sessions was a violation of the National Labor Relations Act, though organizers say the virtual attendees and recording was all made explicit and agreed upon beforehand, and management was using this as a stalling tactic.
The strike is garnering attention from workers, customers and politicians alike. Bernie Sanders tweeted, “I’m proud to stand with Starbucks workers on strike today across the country. CEO Howard Schultz is illegally union busting and firing workers for organizing. Mr. Schultz, it is time to recognize the stores that unionized and negotiate with workers in good faith.”
The union is also highlighting the stress and pressure of working on Red Cup Day. “Unfortunately, for baristas, the Red Cup Day experience is understaffed stores, crazy rushes we’re not equipped for, and no compensation for our additional work,” SB Workers United wrote in an Instagram post. In 2020, Red Cup Day was the company’s third most trafficked day ever. The company also has reported no recent reduction in customer spending, and saw membership in its rewards program rise. By targeting Red Cup Day, organizing workers are hitting the company where it hurts — in its holiday profits. “If we can pull in these incredible profits for Starbucks, ”says SB Workers United, “our company can share them with us by fully staffing our stores and paying us for our hard work!”
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