Worker organizing at Starbucks is on fire. What started with one store in Buffalo has swiftly spread to other locations across the country.

Twenty stores have now unionized, including four so far this week in unanimous votes. The union has lost only once, when one of the first three stores in Buffalo to organize voted down the union back in December. More than 200 Starbucks stores have sought elections, with more added every day.

The return of Howard Schultz to Starbucks as interim CEO on April 4 hasn't slowed the movement, despite his appeal to employees, known as partners at Starbucks, to trust him — not a union — to make things right for them.

"My job in coming back to Starbucks is to ensure the fact that we... reimagine a new Starbucks with our partners at the center of it all, as a pro-partner company, as a company that does not need someone in between us and our people," Schultz told employees at a town-hall style meeting on his first day back.

But more and more workers at Starbucks believe otherwise. They say a worker-led union is exactly what they need to have a seat at the table.

Starbucks workers were originally drawn to the company because of its culture

Starbucks has long prided itself on being a standout employer. Indeed, the generous benefits and socially progressive culture are a big part of what drew Tim Swicord, Gailyn Berg, Megan Gaydos and Claire Picciano to find jobs with the company in Springfield, Virginia. Their Starbucks store is voting this week on whether to organize.

"The way that they treated their employees and also the work environment that I witnessed — it seemed very engaging and fun," says Swicord, a high school senior who sought out Starbucks for a part-time job last year.

"I wanted to go to college for free," says Picciano, a barista trainer who has worked at Starbucks part-time for three-and-a half years while also working toward a bachelor's degree in health sciences, thanks to Starbucks. The company offers free college tuition through an online program at Arizona State University, a perk Berg and Gaydos have also enjoyed.

Berg, who joined four years ago and is now a shift supervisor, says they love Starbucks, or at least, loved it before.

"Definitely, I felt that they had lived up to the culture, the promises of the culture that they had made," they say.

But in the pandemic, the goodwill faded fast. And all four of the Springfield workers eventually became convinced that they would be better off with a union. It started in January, a month after a Starbucks store in Buffalo won a successful union drive. What started out as a casual, almost jokey conversation quickly turned serious, says Swicord. "We just started to think, 'Hey, this is something we should really do as a store.'"

Starbucks' anti-union campaign has riled the workers

Swicord became one of the organizers. He also became a target of Starbucks' anti-union campaign. At a closed-door meeting with his store manager and the district manager, he says he was warned that unionizing was a gamble, that the employees risked losing their benefits and that he in particular risked losing out on a promotion.

"To me, it did not feel like a conversation," he says.

Swicord says Starbucks has carried out other union-busting activities as well. After their store filed for a union vote, their schedule was taken down from the wall in the back room, and when it was reposted, their hours had been cut. Five new employees were suddenly brought on, but Picciano, the store's barista trainer, says she was not allowed to train the new hires.

"Those partners were shipped to other stores to be trained," she says.

Starbucks denies engaging in illegal anti-union activities, including at other stores where worker organizers have been fired. Starbucks says the workers in question were fired for violating company policies.

Tensions at the Springfield store date to early in the pandemic

The mistrust the four Springfield workers feel toward Starbucks dates to the onset of the pandemic. In those scary first days, Berg felt Starbucks was slow to respond, but soon after, their store was among those Starbucks closed for six weeks, with pay. During that time, the staff got together on Zoom to brainstorm ideas for how to keep safe. Along with their store manager, they decided to place a table and a tent at the door. Customers could place orders on the Starbucks app and pick up their drinks outside.

They were quickly overruled.

Citing food safety issues, their district manager told them their plan was inappropriate, and that customers had to be able to come into the store.

"That was definitely a rough first couple of weeks when we were first getting used to what Starbucks corporate wanted us to look like and deciding if it was actually safe enough," says Berg.

In fact, Starbucks took a number of steps to help employees through that time. For 30 days, they paid workers regardless of whether they went to work or not, for whatever reason. They gave 14 days of paid time off to workers exposed to or diagnosed with COVID. They expanded child care benefits and, for a couple of months, paid workers $3 more per hour in hazard pay.

But increasingly, the employees felt voiceless over the challenges they faced at work. Confrontations with customers over masks. Coworkers calling out sick, with no one to replace them.

"'I'm just so stressed out. We need more help,'" Picciano remembers telling her manager at the time.

Pandemic benefits were cut as company reported record sales

For Gaydos, a barista, a low point came last fall when Starbucks phased out one of its pandemic benefits. Employees had been allowed one free food item and one beverage every day, from any store, even if they weren't working that day. Gaydos says they were told the company couldn't afford the benefit anymore.

"And then it came out that we had record-breaking sales, and that the CEO at the time, Kevin Johnson, was going to receive a 40% raise," says Gaydos.

Starbucks notes that it has replaced some pandemic benefits with others as the pandemic has evolved. For example, twice a quarter, workers can now take five days' paid leave if they need to isolate due to COVID.

The company also points to raises it has announced for store employees. By summer 2022, Starbucks says all workers will earn at least $15 an hour.

The Springfield workers are not impressed.

"Starbucks is boasting about raising everyone to $15 an hour, but that was ten years ago that we needed that," says shift supervisor Berg.

What workers want: more money and more of a say

If their store votes to unionize this week, the Springfield workers have a long list of demands they will bring to the bargaining table.

"Of course a raise — that's our very first one," says Berg.

They also want consistency in their schedules and in how many hours they are allotted each week.

The baristas want customers to be able to tip on the credit card readers in the stores and to be able to tip more easily on the mobile app. They also want Starbucks to supplement the tips, seeing as many people don't tip because the prices are so high.

"It is not our fault that Starbucks keeps increasing the cost of everything to the point where it's the most expensive cup of coffee you've ever had," says Picciano.

Berg has a bigger ask in mind: a larger store. The store now is too small for the amount of traffic they get, Berg says, and workers have suffered injuries while restocking because many items are high up on shelves.

Above all, the workers want a say in how things are done at their store. They want their voices heard.

"All of us would be happy to give this company everything we had if we were also treated the same way back," says Picciano.

On Thursday, the workers hope to become the 21st Starbucks store to join the national union Workers United.

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