A few days after filing a petition last month to form a union at a Starbucks in Newtonville, Naomi Goldstein says things began to change.
Instead of working with the usual shift partner, the other barista leading the unionizing effort, the two workers were separated into different shifts and their hours drastically reduced. Finally, when Goldstein asked to take a leave of absence — something other employees had done in the past with no issue, their manager said that Goldstein would need to quit instead.
“She’s not letting me take a leave of absence and making me quit right about the time that the union vote is happening, when she knows that I’m a union organizer,” Goldstein said. “There’s all this new stuff going on. ... It feels targeted. They’re trying to intimidate us.”
Workers at the Starbucks locations in Massachusetts moving to unionize with Workers United say that pro-union workers are being driven to quit with dramatic cuts in hours, an uptick in write-ups for arbitrary offenses and an increased pressure from upper management.
Starbucks denies its local stores are retaliating against employees engaged in organizing a union, actions that would violate federal labor laws. The National Labor Relations Board has not filed a complaint against Starbucks for business practices at any Boston or Massachusetts locations.
“There are more hours available during the holiday season and, as a result, the local teams make adjustments, and that’s an ongoing process,” a corporate spokesperson for Starbucks told GBH News Wednesday. “It’s certainly not related to any organizing efforts.”
Tyler Daguerre, a barista at a Starbucks in Brookline, says that explanation doesn’t square with the rate of business and the need for labor.
“We have been experiencing a really incredible rate of business, yet we’re still being told that we need to cut labor,” Daguerre said. “I think they understand that we mostly depend on our wages to pay bills and rent, and if they cut our hours just enough, then people are going to get forced out.”
Eleven stores have filed petitions to form unions in Massachusetts, part of a Workers United campaign that has created unions at six stores in New York and Arizona since December. Out of about 9,000 company-owned locations nationwide, nearly 200 stores across the country have since moved to unionize.
"I got scared away, I felt like I just couldn't afford to be a union organizer."Jane Avery, Brookline barista
At stores across Massachusetts, Daguerre and other workers report an uptick in write-ups and final warnings for seemingly arbitrary and vague offenses. Daguerre alleges that it’s to create a record of infractions so that employees can be ousted.
“They’re really cracking down on the dress code, tardiness, things that they would have let slide earlier,” Daguerre said. “They’re being very, very strict and things that weren’t an issue beforehand are becoming something that they’re focusing on.”
Kylah Clay, a barista in Allston and union organizer for locations across the state, says efforts to reduce hours have become a challenge for employees hoping to form unions.
“Workers who are trying to get campaigns going are seeing their hours slashed so much that they can’t keep working at Starbucks. It’s not feasible for them and they have had to quit,” Clay said. “For people who are in the process of unionizing, it’s become incredibly difficult for them to get cards out or even have those initial conversations because they just don’t see each other anymore. We’re being overworked and people, are either not able to see their coworkers to unionize or they’re just too tired at the end of their shift to really work on it.”
Jane Avery, a barista at a Brookline location, says pressure from corporate management led her to give up a short-lived unionizing effort in her store and find another job.
“Starbucks is pushing everyone who wants to unionize out the door,” Avery said. “I got scared away, I felt like I just couldn’t afford to be a union organizer. Trying to form a union at Starbucks is a death sentence.”
Reports from workers across the nation mirror those of baristas in Boston, adding to what they say is a trend in wage cutting, spying on workers and increasing pressures to quit.
In early February, Starbucks fired multiple union leaders at a store in Memphis, which the union described as an act of retaliation. Workers at stores in Buffalo, N.Y., claim that unionizing workers have been terminated. Earlier this month, baristas in Denver went on strike, demanding an immediate end to what they described as retaliatory and intimidating practices, including cutting hours, issuing “baseless” warnings and spying on pro-union workers.
Earlier this month, the National Labor Relations Board issued a complaint against Starbucks over accusations that it retaliated against two unionizing employees in Phoenix, Ariz.
Members of the corporate team known as “support partners” have been sent to locations around the country, including several Boston shops, creating a presence some workers say is an attempt to spy on union activity.
“They sit in the cafe with their laptops and are just a presence, and then they approach you for these kind of touchy-feely casual conversations, acting like your new buddy,” said Jeff Bravo, a barista at the Cleveland Circle location. “It seems like a corporate effort to ingratiate themselves with the troops, so if they meet someone who is on the fence or is a little more suggestible, they can influence them in management’s favor.”
A Starbucks spokesperson says the increased presence of support partners is not related to organizing activity but came as a direct result of “a number of operational issues that were not being addressed,” including understaffing and a need for training.
“They’ll directly tell you to vote no. They say, ‘we want you to vote no.’ They’ll tell us a bunch of reasons why they want us to vote no,” Clay said. “But the biggest thing is really just the intimidation that it creates, of having a major corporate employee that you’ve never met before coming into your store.”
The Starbucks spokesperson, who asked not to be identified by name, confirmed that support partners will engage in one-on-one meetings with employees specifically to discuss the disadvantages of unionizing, activity that federal labor laws allow.
“The union has been sharing their perspectives with our partners and we've respected their right to do so. This is an important issue that many people have opinions on, so as a result, our local teams are sharing their perspectives as well,” the spokesperson said, “just to make sure that partners have all the perspectives and facts that they need to make an informed choice.”
The spokesperson said Starbucks company is working with partners on union campaigns, though it brought on a labor law firm, Littler Mendelson, to represent the company last November that advertises it “understands the mindset of union organizers and stands ready to advise employers facing such tactics.”
“I think the best example of the fact that we do respect our partners’ right to organize is that we are bargaining with our partners and in New York right now,” the spokesperson said. “We respect our partners’ voices and what they choose in this matter, and we’re demonstrating that in bargaining right now.”
Despite what he sees as a coordinated anti-union effort, Daguerre says the work to organize Starbucks in the Boston area isn't over and that organizers will push back.
“This really boils down to the heart of why we’re unionizing,” Daguerre said. “We need to guarantee that if we’re full time, we’re going to be given those hours and we’re going to have a living wage to back us up so that we can actually work one job and pay rent with it.”