Monday, March 4, 2024

Wilmington Starbucks employees follow national trend, petition to unionize

Middle Sound Loop employees are the first locally to petition for better working conditions

The Starbucks employees at the Middle Sound Loop location are joining the growing list of nationwide stores petitioning to unionize. (Port City Daily/Amy Passaretti)

WILMINGTON — Workers at the Middle Sound Loop Starbucks have joined the growing list of locations organizing to form a union. To date, 100 Starbucks nationwide have won the right to unionize, with more petitions pending. The 7201 Market St. coffee shop marks the first in Wilmington to speak out for better working conditions.

The Middle Sound Loop location is one of 15 Wilmington Starbucks. There is also one in Hampstead and two in Leland.

Starbucks founder and CEO Howard Schultz is against unions, having said in previous reports, as well as in his authored memoir, the company offers vast opportunities and welcomes open communication with employees. 

Employee benefits include healthcare for full-time and part-time staff, stock options, free college tuition for those eligible, comprehensive mental health benefits, paid parental leave and a national sick pay program. Starbucks currently offers an average starting hourly pay of $14, with some positions paying $10 or $11 per hour. 

During the pandemic, Starbucks provided employees 14 bonus days of mental health time off and paid everyone for 30 days, regardless of whether they came to work.

Wilmington employees — referred to as “partners” in Starbucks culture — publicly announced plans to file for unionization Monday in a letter sent to Shultz. Seven employees signed their names with a note that others wished to remain anonymous.

They expressed the need to stand in solidarity with fellow colleagues in the Starbucks Workers United movement, launched in August 2021 in Buffalo, New York. Five months later, the store became the first unionized Starbucks.

“[W]e feel that our voices have not been heard and that our concerns were met with silence,” the letter states. “We at Middle Sound Loop and Highway 17 feel that we have been forgotten, ignored and neglected.”

Employees wrote in the letter they dealt with low compensation, product shortages, understaffing, fear of losing benefits, unjustified management discipline and additional poor working conditions.

“There has been increased stress on sales, drive-thru times and pumping out as many drinks as possible, leaving baristas and shift supervisors exhausted and burnt out by the end of their shifts,” it adds.

Buffalo’s success earlier in the year is the first since the 1980s that a union has represented a Starbucks. More than three decades ago, United Food and Commercial Workers supported about 120 employees at six Seattle locations.

Starbucks faced another union campaign in 2004 when a grassroots effort was led by the Industrial Workers of the World, but employees withdrew their petition. However, the initiative led to a series of National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) cases uncovering how Starbucks corporate executives coordinated to fill union-supporting stores with anti-union hires.

In 2009, Starbucks was found guilty of committing 30 labor violations, including unlawfully terminating or threatening employees wishing to organize and prohibiting them from discussing the union on their breaks.

Last summer, Starbucks Workers United formed an organizing committee to launch petitions in New York and is now supporting other stores in its efforts. The group collaborates with Workers United Upstate, a group with experience helping others legally unionize.

Employees can file a petition with the NLRB to form a union when at least 30% are in support of unionizing. The NLRB then holds a vote and the majority ensures the union can form.

It’s unlawful for companies to interfere with union organizing, according to the NLRB.

One of the petitioners for the Middle Sound Loop group —  who preferred anonymity for fear of retaliation — said within four hours after announcing plans to unionize, anti-union papers were posted in the office in an effort to dissuade employees. 

“Starbucks corporate has been scrambling to get their ducks in a row and figure out how to ‘deal with us,’’ the petitioner added and confirmed striking is not off the table.

The local Starbucks workers are hoping for management accountability, seniority pay, consistent scheduling, adequate staffing, health and safety protocols, and cost-of-living wage increases.

Starbucks Workers United helps employees negotiate contract details and mitigate unfair disciplines or firings.  

A Starbucks spokesperson confirmed corporate execs respect employees’ right to organize and the company “will bargain in good faith.” Yet the company also noted it stands behind its belief that unions are not the way forward.

“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,” the spokesperson said.

During a May 3 quarterly earnings conference call, CEO Schultz announced new employee incentives. His public meeting touted $1 billion in employee and store investments, including upping starting pay to $15 per hour. He also noted the introduction of tipping on debit and credit cards, upgrading store equipment and suspending its share repurchasing program, an effort to return profits to investors. He said he would be traveling to Starbucks locations nationwide for employee feedback.

Following the announcement, Schultz was clear the new changes would not be implemented at union stores, since they would be negotiating their own contracts.

The hospitality industry has traditionally not been known for unionizing, and according to the U.S. Labor Department only 1.2% of all workers in food and drink establishments were unionized as of 2021. So far 250 Starbucks locations have submitted election petitions to the National Labor Relations Board. The board reported petitions were up 57% in the first half of fiscal year 2022 and Starbucks’ petitions account for nearly a quarter of all petitions filed since January.

“By unionizing, we ask that you give us our seats at the bargaining table, where we want to voice our concerns and be understood,” Middle Sound Loop employees wrote in the letter to Schultz. “We want you to see why unionizing is important to us, as well as why it is necessary for us to continue loving our jobs.”

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