Tall Order: New Tech, Barista Burnout Driving Push for Starbucks Unionization

Today, the National Labor Relations Board will count the ballots of Starbucks workers in three Buffalo, New York branches that could result in the first unionized corporate-run Starbucks in the United States.

If the workers succeed in their unionization drive, the moment could represent a rare victory for organized labor within the service industry which posts a unionization rate of just 1.2 percent of workers, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics—well below the national average of 6.3 percent of private-sector employees.

Cathy Creighton, an attorney with Cornell University's Industrial and Labor Relations branch in Buffalo, told CNBC that, if successful, the Starbucks drive could lay a path for other service industry workers to take similar steps toward gaining greater leverage over workplace conditions, resulting in reaching implications across the industry.

This potentially historic moment may have never come to fruition had it not been for the company's handling of its mobile order system.

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The ballots have been cast and employees of three Starbucks cafes in New York state will learn Thursday whether they have created the first unions at outlets owned by the retail coffee giant in the United States. Shown above is a general view of a Starbucks store on December 9, 2021, in Buffalo, New York. Photo by ELEONORE SENS/AFP via Getty Images

Reuters reported that a major reason behind the unionization drives lies in the desire for employees to have greater say over the "workload created by the company's mobile app," which has seen a surge in orders since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

"It's as though you are making drinks under the pressure of trying to defuse a ticking time bomb," James Skretta, a Starbucks barista in Buffalo, told the outlet.

Baristas cannot limit the number of mobile orders the store receives per hour, according to Reuters, which leads to unexpected surges that can be challenging for employees to fill. While a store manager can elect to turn off mobile orders completely that can then result in another store being overwhelmed.

When Starbucks was offering free tumblers as a part of its holiday drink rollout in November, the mobile ordering system was so busy that the Buffalo store where Skretta works fell behind by as much as 40 minutes, according to Reuters. It was forced to throw away at least 30 drinks abandoned by customers.

Other companies, including Chipotle and Walmart, have launched mobile apps that employees have also taken issue with. Neither company is unionized.

"Technology was made for customers and not for employees," Casey Moore, a barista at one of the Buffalo Starbucks locations submitting votes on Thursday, told Reuters. "Without a union, we haven't been able to voice how the technology could also work for us."