Updated at 5:15 p.m.
Workers at Starbucks locations in Newton, Worcester and Gardner are joining more than 150 stores nationwide in a series of one-day strikes after workers said Pride Month decorations had been banned in their stores, a claim the company has denied.
Newton workers formed a picket line Thursday while employees in Gardner and Worcester planned strikes for Friday.
Julie Langevin, a former Starbucks barista and strike leader who now works with Workers United, the union representing thousands of Starbucks employees nationwide, held a sign reading “Respect our Rights” and led workers in a chant at the picket line Thursday outside a Starbucks in Newton Centre.
“We’ve been told if we put up a Pride flag, that means somebody’s going to be able to put up a Confederate flag; we’ve been told it’s not inclusive; we’ve been told that they're doing it for our safety,” Langevin said. “And Starbucks the entire time has been denying that it was happening at all. Partners are not dumb. They can't be gaslit by the company when they see it with their own eyes.”
In a text message obtained by GBH News, a manager at a Starbucks location in Central Massachusetts directed workers not to display Pride decor, instead recommending a “one day decoration” during a community celebration and along a parade route, “approval needed.” Throughout June, Starbucks Workers United posted multiple videos and screenshots on social media allegedly depicting employees taking down Pride decorations at the direction of management, including a collage of posts and comments from Starbucks employees who said they were instructed not to decorate for Pride.
The company denied there is a policy to remove Pride decorations, describing the union's claims as "recklessly false" in a statement to GBH News. Displays have only been removed in "isolated incidents" in response to "unique requirements of each store," including local fire codes and other ordinances, according to Starbucks spokesperson Andrew Trull.
"All reported partner concerns on this matter are being taken seriously and are routed for leadership review and to be addressed," Trull said.
Sara Trilling, president of Starbucks North America, told employees in a memo earlier this week that the company’s policies around store decorations have not changed, but that the company intends to issue “clearer centralized guidelines” around visual displays and decorations. “As we reaffirm our previous commitments and standards, it will be even clearer to all who we are and what we stand for,” Trilling wrote. “No one can take away our legacy and our continued commitment to being a place where we all belong.”
In a second corporate statement last week, Trilling and chief executive Laxman Narasimhan emphasized the company’s commitment to “affirm the diversity of our LGBTQIA2+ community and as a call for a more inclusive society – a call we have made since our founding.”
Langevin said the debate over pride decorations is intimately tied to the ongoing battle over contract negotiations.
"The fact that the company is not bargaining over these changes means that they could change them again whenever they want," she said. "So we're going to continue to strike until this company gives the workers a contract.”
Starbucks published photos of the company’s participation in Pride events across the country in a post on their website Tuesday, demonstrating their support for the LGBTQ+ movement in a public campaign that some workers in Newton said they find frustrating.
“The company uses queer workers as props when Pride Month comes around,” said barista Sky Bauer, 23. “Meanwhile the company has been wielding corporate transphobia and homophobia for years.”
In May, Starbucks workers filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board alleging that managers told baristas their transgender-inclusive health care benefits could go away if they chose to unionize. Two months prior, a federal judge ruled that the company illegally retaliated against unionized workers after managers threatened to take benefits away.
The company continues to deny that managers have ever threatened to take away gender-affirming benefits. "Unfounded allegations made by others accusing Starbucks of withholding gender-affirming care from our partners at stores with union activity are both misleading and could deter partners from pursuing essential care," Trull told GBH News.
Starbucks has faced dozens of complaints from workers, including allegations that the coffee giant has failed to bargain in good faith with its employees. The company filed two charges with the National Labor Relations Board this month, claiming that the union launched a “smear campaign” and misrepresented the corporation’s policies around LGBTQ+ care.
Cody Hale, 27, has worked at Starbucks for seven years, and in Newton Centre for about one year. He says the clash over Pride decor has been “demoralizing” as a gay man and an active union member.
“We're burnt out, we're tired, and customers don't realize how tired we are all the time. I feel like every day I come in and I just want to cry sometimes because it just feels like, what's the point?” Hale said.
Workers at the Starbucks location in Newton Centre held a union election last month and have since joined unionized shops – 15 across the state – in urging the company to start contract negotiations. Starbucks Workers United, which first filed petitions in August 2021, now represents around 8,000 workers at more than 300 stores across the country. Starbucks owns about 9,000 locations nationwide.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled Andrew Trull's last name and misstated the number of unionized shops in Massachusetts. Fifteen Starbucks locations have won union elections in the state; locations in Somerville and Newton Corner have voted but have not yet been certified.