Over the past few years, more than 250 Starbucks cafes across the country have unionized through grassroots efforts. That's despite significant pushback from the company's corporate leadership, which has faced lawsuits for alleged union-busting practices and accusations that it's fired workers for attempting to organize their stores. Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz is scheduled to testify in a U.S. Senate hearing about the company's labor practices later this month. In Massachusetts, 14 Starbucks locations have voted to unionize, and many have faced similar tension with the company's leadership.
Last week, a Starbucks in Boston's Cleveland Circle was abruptly shuttered until late summer for what the company says are plumbing issues. Employees of the store argue that the move demonstrates the company's disregard for their job security, and they're speaking out against what they see as an effort to crush their union. Willow Montana, a shift manager at the Cleveland Circle Starbucks who has led the cafe's unionization efforts, spoke with GBH All Things Considered host Arun Rath. This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Arun Rath: So first off, I have to imagine that the Cleveland Circle Starbucks is a fairly busy location.
Willow Montana: Yeah, it definitely is. A lot of our business comes from nearby students as well as just people who live in the community and who've have been there for decades and who've known us for just as long.
Rath: So, the closing is impactful. Tell us what happened and what Starbucks leadership told you about their reasons for closing the store.
Montana: So, our store is in a unique situation where we were set to have renovations done starting August of last year, 2022, and they pushed the date on those renovations many times. During that period of them pushing the date, we had begun having a problem with our pipes where the excessive flushing of the toilets will cause them to back up with dirty water into the floor drains and onto the floor, which forces us to close for several days at a time while the health inspector comes to approve it and to make sure it's OK after it gets cleaned. This is a problem that we've had before — and Starbucks has been aware of it, but hasn't really done anything to permanently fix the problem.
Last Tuesday, we were having a problem where the drains had started backing up, and so they closed us temporarily for just a couple of days to get the store cleaned up. Two days later, our district manager called us to tell us that they're actually going to keep it shut down for the renovations that have been pushed back so many times so that they can fix the pipes permanently and then start the renovations. They had told us those renovations would take three months when they did eventually happen. Because of the problem with the pipes, they're now saying it's going to be more like a five-month closure period, which is very unfortunate because that's a long time.
Rath: What does that mean then for employees? Do you get transferred to work at another store or you just don't work while the store is closed?
Montana: Back in August of last year, because we have a union, we were able to go into what's called "effects bargaining" with the company. We were able to negotiate a contract for what will happen to us during the time period of the renovations. Because that bargaining took place so long ago, a lot of the language that's in there — for example, what partner wants to go to which store for however many hours a week, whatever it is — needs to be altered, because there's been significant turnover between August of last year and this March. So there's just certain things that need to be adjusted in that contract before it can really be put into place. We're currently in the process of going back and forth with our union attorney and the Starbucks attorneys about making that contract work for all of us.
I actually, right before this interview, got out of a meeting about some of the changes that Starbucks has proposed that we are now pushing back on. It's just a constant push from each direction about "We want this" and "They don't want that." We're in that process of negotiating again right now.
But in the meantime, it was kind of complicated, because at first what the district manager called to offer all of the partners is the ability to pick up shifts through what they call "shift marketplace." It's something that exists in the scheduling app that they use where if a partner doesn't want to work a shift, they can relinquish it and then somebody else can pick it up. That was the option that they gave us, which does not work in any way whatsoever because there simply won't be enough given-away shifts for a 20-person staff who works mostly full-time.
The other option is that they said that our manager would be in touch with us to give us shifts at other locations all around the district in the area. And this worked for a few days. What they then did as a slightly more permanent option, but it's not really permanent, is for this current week that started on March 6, they let us all choose a location which was again, kind of limited. They only gave us a couple stores to choose from, and then they applied our schedule for what had been scheduled at our store, Cleveland Circle, for this week to the location of our choosing. It's an OK option, but our district manager has been very clear that that is only for this week until the negotiations are sorted out, which will likely take more than just this week, if I'm being honest, given what I've read from Starbucks.
Hopefully the same "deal" will be applied every single week until we figure out the contract. But for right now, we're in this state of constant flux and it feels like we're a little bit in limbo, where nobody really knows where they work, if they work anywhere. It's been tough. It's really strange. We keep joking that we are "store homeless" because we don't really have a home store anymore.
Rath: So, the backdrop for all of this — or the front, because it is front and center — is this relationship with burgeoning unionization and tension with Starbucks management. You mentioned that there are legitimate reasons for the closure, such as renovations, but the sense is that maybe the closure is being used as a negotiation tactic. Is that your sense? How much of this is having to do with a union versus how much is having to do with what needs to happen at the store?
Montana: Oh, that's an excellent question. I think all of it has to do with the fact that we have a union and this is in a lot of ways a form of retaliation against us, the way that they're handling it. You know, it's interesting because I had just gotten off call where we were talking about the original contract we had bargained for in July or August of last year. It felt almost too easy, the things that they gave us, almost like they knew that contract was never going to be put in play. Now we're renegotiating for a lot of the things that are in it, and they're giving us a much harder time. It feels intentional.
For example, they don't really want to give anyone their first choice of store to work at, which is incredibly difficult because we have all chosen these stores for a reason, whether it be proximity to them or how easily we're able to get there by public transit. It seems like they have unilaterally chosen stores for us instead, which was not the original agreement. The original agreement was we came to them with choices and they said whether or not those choices could work and at the time they did work.
So it seems like what they're trying to do is force people to quit because the quality of this job has drastically gone down from what it was when we were all working together in the same store. It's like they want to make our jobs and our lives harder intentionally during this five month period to break up the strong union that we have at our store. And we are a strong store. I want to say that we are one of the strongest in the Boston area, and I think that they know that. I think much is to be seen and said about what we finally land on in contract negotiations, as well as how long it takes. But we're not going to roll over easy without a fight. That's why we have the unions, why we have the ability to go into contract negotiations — to get an agreement that works for us. So that's what we intend to do.
Starbucks did not respond to a request for comment.