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Starbucks baristas in Austin voted to unionize. Now what?

A person holds pro-union signs.
Michael Minasi
/
KUT
Amanda Garcia demonstates at a pro-union rally outside the Starbucks at West 24th and San Antonio in April.

Morgan Leavy felt relief last week for the first time since March. After months of organizing a union election at the Starbucks at 45th and Lamar, employees at her coffeeshop voted 10-1 to become the first unionized Starbucks in Texas.

“Not only did we prevail, but we prevailed in a traditionally conservative state," she said. It "definitely felt historically groundbreaking.”

Now they begin the process of negotiating working conditions with Starbucks. Workers will send over a contract outlying what they want and the company will — ideally — send back a response. Then union members will sit down with company representatives and their lawyers to hammer out a deal.

But Starbucks hasn’t really done this, said Natalie Wittmeyer, who works with the first unionized store in Buffalo, N.Y. She said their union has sent Starbucks about five proposed contracts, but has received only one in return — and it didn’t address any of the demands workers were making.

“I would categorize Starbucks’ response to negotiating with us as stalling, if not deliberately delaying proceedings,” Wittmeyer said.

Starbucks did not respond to a request for comment.

This isn’t abnormal. Tobias Higbie, chair of labor studies at UCLA, said companies often do this as a way to slow the process. The longer a company drags negotiations out, the more likely a union could collapse.

“The energy of the union drive can dissipate,” Higbie said.

Companies are required to negotiate in “good faith,” but proving they're not can be difficult. Companies often use a tactic known as “surface bargaining," Higbie said, where it seems like they're negotiating in good faith — but they’re really not.

If the process is dragged out, the original organizers may leave or get fired, losing the momentum. If a third of workers become dissatisfied with the union after a year of paying dues, they can call for a vote to get rid of it.

But Higbie said that’s pretty rare.

“There is a danger there for the union group,” he said. “They need to stay engaged and stay connected with their members, their fellow workers, and hopefully move as quickly as possible toward getting that contract, because it can be very frustrating.”

Starbucks has faced accusations of union-busting nationwide, including by Austin baristas who say their hours were slashed and rules were suddenly enforced. Starbucks denies all claims of union-busting.

Wittmeyer said the national unionizing effort will help force the company to the table as baristas continue their David vs. Goliath fight. The movement is gaining members every day: On Friday, workers at the 24th and Nueces Street shop voted 10-2 to unionize. More than 140 stores have unionized nationwide and nearly 290 are planning to hold elections. Only 19 have rejected unions.

“It’s been rough in Buffalo, but, that being said, there is hope in a movement that is all of a sudden this big,” Wittmeyer said.

Workers at 45th and Lamar have not sat down with Starbucks yet, and they are still working on their requests. Leavy said they intend to copy some of the demands laid out by the Buffalo store, such as increasing wages and allowing baristas to get credit card tips. But, she said, there will be specific items for their cafe.

Leavy said workers are united in their dedication to upholding Starbucks’ mission of providing community through coffee and living up to the progressive ideals the company touts.

“It’s just really important that we keep bringing the accountability to them,” she said. “To say this is what we’re fighting for. We’re a part of this company because we believe in it, and so you need to own up to that.”

Leavy said the biggest change at the store since the union victory has been a boost in morale. Customers are constantly coming in to express their support, and it has been busier than usual.

“The support has been overwhelming, in a good way,” she said. “It’s really positive and encouraging interactions that we’re having all day with our community members, and I think that’s been the main thing that’s changed in the atmosphere in the last week: feeling like we have more purpose.”

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