August 30 kicked off Starbucks’ Pumpkin Spice Latte season. The occasion is typically marked with an abundance of selfies taking over social media with captions like “First #PSL of the season!” or “Yes, I wear #pumpkin before #laborday. #basicbitchesunite #psl #starbucks.” But this year, the #PSL hashtag is taking on a new meaning. To the thousands of Starbucks employees across the country who are organizing and unionizing their stores, it’s #PumpkinSpiceLabor season.
On the day pumpkin took over Starbucks stores across the country, I could hear a steady stream of commotion outside my apartment, which just so happens to face a Starbucks parking lot. My neighborhood store, which is unionized, observed the unofficial holiday by going on strike. Cars driving by were laying on their horns in solidarity, those on the picket line were chanting and blasting music, and several conversations organizers were having with passersby floated up through my kitchen window. I decided to check it out for myself.
This wasn’t the first time this store had gone on strike.
“We had a strike over the Fourth of July weekend over our labor cuts,” Starbucks barista Finn Dorris tells me. “We had a lot of people lose hours. A lot of people lost enough hours that when the benefits audit rolled around people lost their health insurance. People were finding out one week that they couldn’t go to their therapist—their Starbucks provided therapist—the next week because they didn’t have the number of hours they needed the week before, and that gets me so steamed.”
This time around, the strike was specifically in response to what Dorris calls “unjust corrective actions”—essentially they say that workers were being written up all at once for actions that occurred months ago, were incorrectly clocked in to show they were late for a shift when they actually weren’t, and were forced to come in to work shifts even when sick, vomiting with diarrhea.
While a crowd picketed outside the store, a group of local managers were brought in to run the store, expecting a rush from customers looking for their first taste of a PSL. From the outside, it looked hectic, as these managers were put in the weeds taking orders and making drinks only for the crowd of customers to soon reduce to a trickle, perhaps because of the community support for the striking workers.
“I think they’re in panic mode because they think their stores are going to start doing it,” Dorris says. “And honestly, I hope so.”
The fast food union movement is a young one: Oregon-based Burgerville was the first ever fast food chain to ratify a labor contract, and that was in December 2021. That same month a Starbucks location in Buffalo, New York became the first unionize, and while they have yet to to ratify a contract, in the nine months since more than 200 Starbucks locations have unionized with Workers United.
Josie Serrano, leader of the organizing campaign at the now unionized Starbucks in Long Beach, California, first started working at Starbucks four years ago because of the healthcare benefits it offered employees (or “partners,” as corporate likes to call them). Starbucks has offered comprehensive trans healthcare since 2018, making the company a leader in the industry for such benefits. But during COVID, Serrano says, the cracks in this company that always branded itself as being the “good” fast food company started to show.
“A lot of us never really thought about unionizing, but over the years the Starbucks turnover rate for new hires has increased exponentially, and within just the last few years with COVID it just became a problem where most of the workers that Starbucks has, like 80% of workers have been there for less than a year,” Serrano says. “We’re pushed really hard to make times, we’re pushed really hard to make complicated drinks with almost virtually no training, and then a lot of times they don’t staff us enough to even meet those benefit hours, so we’ll have a ton of new hires who don’t know what they’re doing, but then we don’t have the hours to give anybody.”
Serrano points to the young age of the typical Starbucks and fast food workforce as a reason it’s taken this long for this union wave to arrive. Unions, Serrano says, are something that we learn about in school as part of history or as organizations that only affect people like dock workers or steel workers. That lack of institutional knowledge combined with the high turnover of teenagers just getting a summer or college job has been a roadblock. And in some cases it’s one that management seems to be counting on.
“I’ve been told before, if you want to quit there’s a line of 16-year-olds ready to make Frappuccinos,” Dorris says. “That’s kind of how the company makes us feel, it just makes us feel replaceable.”
Ultimately, those unionizing don’t want to quit, they said—they actually like what they do and want to work with coffee. The main thrust behind these unionization efforts is to make their cafes better places for employees, which both Serrano and Dorris say trickles down to a better customer experience. With a union, the employees themselves get a seat at the table with management to help determine store policies.
The main issues the Starbucks Workers United union in particular wants to address are:
- Rights on the job
- Health and safety conditions
- Protections from unfair firings or unfair discipline
- Seniority rights
- Leaves of absence rights
And organizers remind us that unions aren’t just in place to make a bad work environment better, but also to ensure that if you have a good thing going it stays that way.
“I don’t think you necessarily need to have the worst workplace to unionize,” says Serrano, noting that the manager at their store hasn’t pushed back on union efforts. “I think unionizing is about just making sure that in the future everyone remains accountable, and we get paid the way we’re supposed to be paid and treated the way we’re supposed to be treated.”
Starbucks corporate hasn’t exactly been subtle about its opposition to unions. Let’s not forget the “We Are One Starbucks” site the company dropped earlier this year that outlined all the reasons that partners should not unionize. A recent statement to The Takeout from a Starbucks spokesperson reads:
We are listening and learning from the partners in these stores as we always do across the country. From the beginning, we’ve been clear in our belief that we are better together as partners, without a union between us, and that conviction has not changed.
It’s statements like these that make it all the more believable that instances of alleged union busting are indeed in bad faith. In May, for example, NPR reported that interim Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz announced new benefits including expanded training, improved sick leave, and credit card tipping for employees at stores that are not unionizing. Just last week, The New York Times reported that the National Labor Relations Board issued a complaint saying these actions were illegal and that affected unionized employees should be compensated.
A Starbucks spokesperson said in a statement to The Takeout that this action is on the basis of future bargaining with unions:
Wage and benefits are “mandatory” subjects of the collective bargaining process. Workers United is offering to “waive their rights to negotiate for these new benefits.” Under federal law, the “mandatory” subjects of bargaining include wages, hours, benefits and other terms and conditions of employment. These subjects are to be negotiated as part of the collective bargaining process, with no single subject being “waived,” or “agreed to” in isolation and separate from other subjects.
When asked about Starbucks’ stance on unions, a spokesperson told The Takeout:
We’ve also been clear that we respect our partners’ legal right to organize and will bargain in good faith with the stores that vote to be represented by the union.
In the past, the NLRB has also gone to bat for employees who the board claims were unlawfully fired due to their association with organizing actions. Last July, a judge ruled in favor of the NLRB saying that Starbucks did indeed fire two Philadelphia “partners” in retaliation for their organization efforts. Last month, there was a similar ruling in favor of a group of Tennessee partners known as the Memphis Seven who were unlawfully fired.
On the ground, Serrano says managers are able to discourage unionization efforts by pinpointing the benefits that employees might be most scared to lose, then explain to employees how unions could put those benefits in jeopardy.
“If you have someone who is going to college in our store that’s taking classes and maybe getting tuition help through Starbucks, they’ll go to that partner and say, ‘oh yeah, tuition might be taken away, you might not be able to get help with that, if you unionize they might vote against that,’” Serrano says. “It’s all bogus. We’ve been unionized, we haven’t lost any of that. The only thing they can legally say is ‘maybe.’ They can suggest things—they can’t take things away.”
Serrano says that keeping a record of these interactions can be helpful in the unionizing process or in filing potential grievances with the NLRB. If you simply want to call a manager on their bluff, ask them to write down what will be taken away if a union forms. Since it’s technically illegal for them to make those threats, they’ll refuse so as not to incriminate themselves, Serrano says.
Now that stores have in fact unionized, Serrano says Starbucks is dragging its feet on meeting with bargaining units to create contracts. And that’s partially what’s causing the #PumpkinSpiceLabor movement to pick up steam.
Starbucks Workers United and all its regional affiliates are currently hijacking the #PSL hashtag on social media to draw attention to the No Contract, No Coffee! pledge. This is basically asking customers to sign up for a newsletter that will keep them up to date on all the organizing events happening across the country—whether it be “sip-in” demonstrations, strikes, or social media blasts—all attempting to push Starbucks corporate to actually sit down and bargain with unionized stores.
“Tip your baristas well—that money goes right to us, and especially if we’re having low labor and hour cuts that money really does help out,” Dorris says. “Any store that may be planning to strike, set up a war chest where the community can donate to you so you can make up for lost wages, you can make sure you’re able to provide food for the people who are on the picket line too.”
It never hurts to get creative with your own PSL acronym online. Take a lesson from Jorts the Cat, unofficial mascot of all unions:
According to NPR, union support is at a 57-year high with 71% of the U.S. population in support of organization efforts. Serrano says they just want to see that 71% in their social media feeds, in person on picket lines, and as customers speaking up at Starbucks locations and ordering coffee “union strong.” This is a unionization wave that they say is just getting started, and any and all support is necessary.
“All of these workers in the food industry, we have more in common with each other than we do [with] these CEO billionaires at the top, so I think if anybody is curious about it they should reach out to someone in the union to see how they can help,” Serrano says. “We’re getting all kinds of new places unionizing all the time, and this year has just been such an explosion of that. I just want to see it keep going. And I think it will.”