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'We can't support ourselves': Starbucks employees' efforts to organize reach Minnesota

One local labor expert says, once one store unionizes, others are likely to say, "We can do this too."

MINNEAPOLIS — Just months ago, a Buffalo, New York Starbucks became the company's first unionized store. 

Fast forward to this Wednesday, multiple reports show more than 200 stores have followed suit.

"I think it's a fast build," said Macalester College Political Science Department Chair, Lesley Lavery. "I've actually heard that down the street from Macalester College over on Snelling, there's a new Starbucks and that that's one of the potential unionizing locations."

As of April 14, reports show at least five Minnesota locations have either announced or filed to unionize, including the Starbucks location on the first floor of the Mall of America and the store at West 54th Street and South Lyndale Avenue in Minneapolis.

Barista Phoebe Dehring shared with KARE 11 a letter addressed to Starbucks president and CEO Howard Schultz outlining several concerns, including customer tipping ability and inflation. They have all petitioned the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) for a union representation election. It will come down to a vote.

"Our hours have been cut across the board and many of us feel we can't support ourselves and our families," Dehring said. "We also would like additional sick hours and guaranteed isolation pay when partners get COVID. Even though we're all vaccinated, we've had quite a few people get COVID and end up using all their sick hours trying to support themselves." 

Thursday morning, the Mall of America Starbucks workers that are demanding union recognition released the following statement:

"We, the partners of store 02705 at the Mall of America in Bloomington, MN, are proud to announce our intent to join in solidarity with our fellow partners by filing for union recognition with Starbucks Workers United. In doing so, we believe we are upholding the mission and values that were once celebrated – to nurture the human spirit; one person, one cup, and one neighborhood at a time."

Lavery says it's somewhat surprising to see Starbucks unionize before, say, McDonald's, considering the coffee company already offers health and education benefits.

"In this industry, that's not common," Lavery said. 

She also explained reasons a corporation would not want to unionize.

"It does tend to be expensive," she said. "Let's say you're a Starbucks shift manager. You have a ton of people set to work the morning shift and then you realize there's not a lot of people coming in for coffee today and you want to let somebody go early. No. With the union, you have to let them have their full eight-hour shift so that's going to cost you more money." 

How is Starbucks handling the change? A spokesperson sent the following statement:

“We will become the best version of Starbucks by co-creating our future directly as partners. And we will strengthen the Starbucks community by upholding each other’s dreams; upholding the standards and rituals of the company; celebrating partner individuality and voice; and upholding behaviors of mutual respect and dignity.”

Lavery added that Starbucks is not alone in the unionizing trend.

"I work in public education and several charter schools have recently unionized," she said. "The employees at Surly Brewing attempted to unionize at the beginning of the pandemic. … It just reopened. They're not unionized, so we'll see what happens there."

"The locals might also be inspired by the teachers having just gone on strike in Minneapolis or that there's just been a unionization at Amazon at a warehouse and so I think those things can influence one another."

Last month, U.S. labor board prosecutors filed a complaint against Starbucks for allegedly violating federal law by putting union supporters under surveillance and retaliating against them. Starbucks says "any claims of anti-union activity are categorically false."

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