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St. Paul Starbucks baristas first in Minnesota to unionize

Employees from the location at 300 Snelling Avenue voted 14-1 in favor of joining Workers United, an affiliate of the Service Employees International.

ST PAUL, Minn. — The staff at the Starbucks location on Snelling Avenue in St. Paul are suddenly more than just co-workers after the sun came up Thursday morning. 

They're union brothers and sisters as well. 

A 14-1 vote on Wednesday makes this Starbucks the first corporate-owned, unionized store in the state, according to labor organizers who are celebrating the development and what it means. 

"We're so proud to have won this victory and hope it sets the tone for more organizing in Minnesota," the organizing committee said in a statement on Twitter following the vote. 

"I'm incredibly, incredibly excited for all the things that are to come," said Lola Rubens, who was among the St. Paul baristas who voted to unionize.

The Snelling Avenue Starbucks staff is now part of Workers United, which is a subsidiary of Service Employees International Union, best known for representing employees in the textiles and manufacturing industries. Now they're making inroads into restaurants and coffee shops.

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. 

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

Twin Cities Starbucks barista Phoebe Dehring recently shared with KARE 11 a letter addressed to Starbucks president and CEO Howard Schultz outlining several concerns, including customer tipping ability and inflation.  

"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." 

For now, Rubens says the goal of employees in St. Paul is to add stability for the process that will now begin.

"Priority one is job security as well as guaranteed hours to make sure that we are protected from any possible hour cuts and firing or termination without just cause," Rubens said. "Without that security and guarantee, none of the other things that we bargain for will really matter."

Labor experts say that's a good place to start, because even though Starbucks is now required by law to negotiate in good faith with the store's union.

Last week, the National Labor Relations Board sued Starbucks for allegedly retaliating against three employees who lead unionization efforts.

"I don't see them coming to the table easily," said Aaron Sojourner, a Labor Economist with the University of Minnesota's Carlson School of Management. "The company can kind of ignore them - drag out negotiations and not really come to terms. What (the union) needs to do is keep organizing if they want to be successful and they want to make a really big impact on the way jobs are structured at Starbucks."

So far, more than 24 stores nationwide have now formally unionized, and more than 200 more have votes scheduled. That's still a very small percentage of the roughly 9,000 stores the company owns in the United States.

"When one outlet unionizes, they're still up against a large corporation that has almost 400,000 employees. It's huge," said Mitchell Hamline Law Professor David Larson. "So yeah, I think everyone is interested, on the labor side, in building the greatest critical mass that they can."

But Larson says that critical mass doesn't necessarily need to include a large percentage of stores.

"Once they get a toe-hold, then a certain amount of fear sets in," Larson said. "That if we don't do things voluntarily and more graciously, this is going to be like a wild fire."

"More stores are coming out and filing every single day," Rubens said. "I think we're already seeing Starbucks starting to fold under the pressure. We're seeing that they're not able to concentrate their anti-union efforts as effectively in stores anymore just because there are so many and they're coming forward in droves and it's really testing their resources."

But if their efforts end up taking years, not months, Rubens says that's okay too. 

"There are things that I want for myself and there are things that I want for my current co-workers in our workplace," Rubens said. "But it's not just about me, it's about all of the people who will come after me who will have the benefits that I am currently fighting for."

How is Starbucks handling the change? A corporate spokesperson sent the following statement to KARE 11's Kiya Edwards. 

“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.”

KARE news partner MPR reports that at least 20 Starbucks locations around the country have now unionized, with hundreds more taking steps to hold elections. 

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