Starbucks' Buffalo Store Votes to Unionize, Results Unknown for 2 Other Locations

Starbucks workers in a Buffalo, New York, store voted Thursday to unionize, which, if certified by the National Labor Relations Board, would make it the first U.S. Starbucks to do so.

Three stores in the area voted. The first store voted 19-8 in favor of unionizing. A second store voted against unionizing. The outcome at a third store was unclear Thursday night.

The three Buffalo-area stores' efforts to unionize began in August when they filed petitions with the board.

Casey Moore, a union organizer and Starbucks employee, told the Associated Press workers at the massive coffee shop chain currently "have no say."

"We have no accountability right now," Moore said. "With a union we will actually be able to sit down at the table and say, 'This is what we want.'"

Employees at the three Buffalo stores began voting by mail in November to decide whether they wanted Workers United, an affiliate of the Service Employees International Union, to represent them.

The labor board's certification process is expected to take about a week. Starbucks has long fought against efforts to unionize, insisting that it works best when communicating directly to employees.

"Every partner matters," Part of a Starbucks statement said. "It's how we built the company. And how we will continue to run the company."

The coffee giant went on to say it believes every partner in every market should have the right to vote on whether to join a union, though Starbucks fervently worked to dissuade the Buffalo outlets from choosing to do so.

Cathy Creighton, the director of Cornell University's Industrial and Labor Relations Buffalo Co-Lab, told the AP that if the board certifies the votes, Starbucks will have to begin the "collective bargaining" process with Workers United and the stores. This includes discussing wages, working conditions and benefits.

Starbucks, unions
The National Labor Relations Board is scheduled to count ballots December 9, 2021, from union elections held at three separate Starbucks stores in the Buffalo area. Above, Richard Bensinger, left, who is advising unionization efforts, along with baristas Casey Moore, right, Brian Murray, second from left, and Jaz Brisack, second from right, discuss their efforts to unionize three Buffalo-area stores, inside the movements headquarters on October 28, 2021, in Buffalo, New York. Carolyn Thompson, File/AP Photo

"Yes" votes could also accelerate unionization efforts at other U.S. Starbucks stores. Already, three more stores in Buffalo and a store in Mesa, Arizona, have filed petitions with the labor board for their own union elections. Those cases are pending.

The workers in the Buffalo area say Starbucks' stores had chronic problems like understaffing and faulty equipment even before the pandemic. They want more input on pay and store operations.

Starbucks insists its 8,000 company-owned U.S. stores function best when it works directly with its employees, which it calls "partners." Many employees in the Buffalo area work at more than one store depending on demand, Starbucks says, and it wants to have the flexibility to move them between stores.

Starbucks asked the labor board to hold one vote with all 20 of its Buffalo-area stores, but the board rejected that request, saying store-by-store votes were appropriate under labor law.

In a letter to Starbucks' U.S. employees this week, Starbucks President and CEO Kevin Johnson reiterated the company's wish to include all Buffalo-area stores in the union vote.

"While we recognize this creates some level of uncertainty, we respect the process that is underway, and independent of the outcome in these elections, we will continue to stay true to our mission and values," Johnson wrote.

Johnson also reminded employees of the company's generous benefits, including paid parental and sick leave and free college tuition through Arizona State University. Late last month, the company also announced pay increases, saying all its U.S. workers will earn at least $15—and up to $23—per hour by next summer.

But backers of the union say Starbucks can do more.

"If Starbucks can find the money to pay their CEO nearly $15 million in compensation, I think maybe they can afford to pay their workers a decent wage with decent benefits," said U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders, a Vermont independent, in a recent Twitter post. Sanders held a virtual town hall with Buffalo Starbucks workers earlier this week.

Johnson earned $14.7 million in salary and stock awards in the company's 2020 fiscal year.

Starbucks or the union can contest individual votes in the election, which could delay the certification process by the labor board.

In some cases, companies have closed a location rather than deal with a union. But that's difficult for a retailer like Starbucks, since it would be illegal to close one store and then open another nearby, Creighton said.

Starbucks has shown a willingness to bargain outside the U.S. In Victoria, Canada, workers at a Starbucks store voted to unionize in August 2020. It took Starbucks and the United Steelworkers union nearly a year to reach a collective bargaining agreement, which was ratified by workers in July.

The union votes come at a time of heightened labor unrest in the U.S. Striking cereal workers at Kellogg Co. rejected a new contract offer earlier this week. Thousands of workers were on strike at Deere & Co. earlier this fall. And the U.S. labor board recently approved a redo of a union vote at an Amazon warehouse in Alabama after finding the company pressured workers to vote against the union.

Labor shortages are giving workers a rare upper hand in wage negotiations. And Dan Graff, director of the Higgins Labor Program at the University of Notre Dame, said the pandemic gave many workers the time and space to rethink what they want from their jobs.

Update (12/09, 7:23 PM): This story was updated with details and to include a statement from Starbucks following the vote.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Starbucks workers in a Buffalo, New York, store voted Thursday to unionize, which, if certified by the National Labor Relations Board, would make it the first U.S. Starbucks to do so. Above, a general view of a Starbucks store on December 9, 2021, in Buffalo, New York. Photo by ELEONORE SENS/AFP via Getty Images