Starbucks workers in New York are deciding whether they want to join a union, a move that would be unprecedented at stores owned by the company in the United States.
More than 80 baristas and shift supervisors from three stores around Buffalo have been voting by mail on whether to join Workers United, affiliated with the Service Employees International Union. The election ends Wednesday, and the result is expected Thursday afternoon.
No corporate-run Starbucks location in the U.S. has unionized so far. The company has fought off organizing attempts in New York City and Philadelphia. Last year, workers at a store in Canada formed a union, negotiating their first contract with the coffee chain this summer.
The Starbucks union push is among the highest-profile cases to play out during a historic year for labor. For months, retail and restaurant workers have quit at record rates; companies have fought for staff in a busy shopping year, raising wages faster than they have in years. A wave of union drives and strikes has swept factories, health care, tech and other industries.
Unionization had long seemed unattainable for Starbucks staff, said Lexi Rizzo, one of the Buffalo-area workers. "With the pandemic, with all of the labor shortages across the nation, it was finally the perfect storm," Rizzo said, "where for once we weren't disposable as food service employees anymore."
The workers face difficult odds. Restaurants are among the least unionized businesses in the United States. And while labor activity has increased in recent months, it has also seen some searing defeats. Amazon warehouse workers in Alabama in April rejected unionization, though they will get to revote after a federal review found that Amazon's tactics tainted the election.
At Starbucks, the three Buffalo locations are among 8,953 company-operated U.S. stores. They represent a tiny fraction, but alongside them are now three additional Buffalo-area stores and one more in Arizona that are also pushing for union elections.
"It would be a huge win for workers if even one of the Starbucks stores in Buffalo succeeds in organizing," said Rebecca Givan, a labor studies professor at Rutgers University, who argues it would open a previously closed door. "We will likely see many more organizing drives. Not all of them will be successful, but workers will start to see that there is a path and that they can succeed."
The pro-union Starbucks workers say they want better staffing, training and pay, including steady wage increases for workers who stay with the company for years.
Days before federal officials set the union vote, Starbucks announced it would raise its starting pay to $15 an hour and boost wages for staff employed longer than two and five years, plus make changes to its training and scheduling.
Buffalo workers have accused Starbucks of breaking the law by interfering with their labor organizing. Last month, they filed a federal labor charge, saying the chain was "engaging in a campaign of threats, intimidation, surveillance" and other illegal activity in response to their efforts to unionize.
Starbucks denied those allegations and said it complies with all labor-organizing laws and guidelines. The company has fought the union push, saying it supports the workers' right to organize but that unionization is unnecessary.
Over recent weeks, corporate executives have flown into the area stores, including legendary former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, who addressed New York staff in both a talk and a letter.
"No partner has ever needed to have a representative seek to obtain things we all have as partners at Starbucks," Schultz wrote last month. "And I am saddened and concerned to hear anyone thinks that is needed now."
In his speech, Schultz acknowledged that weeks earlier, he learned "some things I've never heard before about the condition of some of the stores," adding that he had promised all issues would be addressed as soon as possible.
Starbucks has also argued that all 20 stores in the region should be required to vote in one election, forming a single bargaining unit. Federal labor officials have repeatedly disagreed, declining to delay the election or the vote count over the matter.
In a Tuesday address, CEO Kevin Johnson said because workers can pick up shifts at different stores, all staff from the region should vote on unionization and not just three individual stores. The National Labor Relations Board found each store to be fairly autonomous and staged three individual union elections.
Editor's note: Starbucks is among NPR's recent financial supporters.