The workers at the Elmwood Avenue Starbucks Coffee branch in Buffalo, NY sparked a fire among their fellow employees across the country by becoming the first Starbucks in the country to win union recognition on Dec. 9 2022. The victory served as an inspiration and reminder for Starbucks workers that the fight for fair labor practices is one that they can win.

More than 3,000 miles away from the icy steps of that Buffalo branch, the Starbucks shop on the corner of Ocean and Front Street became the first in California to file for unionization on Jan. 21. 

“There’s a lot we dealt with in our Starbucks — specifically issues of harassment, indecent exposure, and our place just being understaffed and overworked,” said Joseph Thompson, a UC Santa Cruz student and store shift supervisor. “All of that led to us [wondering] how can we make the workplace better?”

Kathleen Venegas, a UCSC third-year and former Starbucks barista, described how the need for workers across the country to unionize exemplifies how the corporation isn’t taking care of its “partners.”

The unionization of Santa Cruz Starbucks workers, which would mean joining the United Workers, is in an effort to create a stable and safe workplace for the employees, many of whom are college students.

In the US more than 100 Starbucks stores have joined the movement to unionize, in over 26 states

“[Starbucks Corporate] uses the word ‘partner,’ they don’t use the word ‘employee,’ and in my opinion, it’s a manipulation tactic,” said Venegas. “They want to make you feel like ‘we care about you, you’re our partner,’ but they don’t treat you as such.”

Starbucks Workers United classifies what “True Partnership” would look like, as the corporations solidarity with its workers across the country in creating an equitable work environment

After working for Starbucks in their hometown and in Santa Cruz, Venegas resigned from the Ocean Street branch due to personal reasons. Much of what concerned Venegas  — overscheduling, corporates’ recruitment of police to patrol the unhoused, and the general disorganization and confusion of shift schedules — prior to their departure was in line with why the employees filed for the union, which happened just after their departure.

Both Venegas and Thompson emphasized the specific difficulty for student employees to be consistently scheduled upwards of eight hours a day while also having to keep up with school work. 

“Not only is the union going to work with Starbucks to make sure availability is respected, but also to make sure our [employees] don’t have to choose between work and school,” Thompson said. “They shouldn’t have to expect from their bosses to get fired for missing a shift when they were clearly marked as unavailable because they have class.” 

Following the Ocean Street branch, the Starbucks on Mission Street filed for unionization. An employee of the branch mentioned that their wages are meager compared to the cost of living in Santa Cruz — an issue the union will seek to resolve. They wished tom remain anonymous over issues of safety.

According to a Starbucks employee in Santa Cruz, while the Starbucks contract doesn’t have stipulations that prevent employees from talking with the press, there is language in it that makes it difficult for employees to know when they can and cannot. They are unsure if they will be fired if they speak up about their unionization effort. Even with that being the case, the Mission street employee said they and their coworkers and moving forward with unionization, while remaining cautious.

“When we saw that the Ocean store had filed, it just became a lot more immediate and personal for a lot of the Partners,” said a Partner at one of the Santa Cruz Starbucks. “Seeing our neighbors and classmates for taking this brave stand — it really just felt like the right time.”

Since Buffalo’s push for unionization, Starbucks Workers United has already started to see response from corporate, with pay raises at Buffalo’s stores and changes to improve COVID-19 safety measures.

The unionization efforts at these branches were two of twelve branches in California to join the fight for organization and representation of its employees. At the end of February, the Ocean Street and Mission Street Starbucks locations had their first federal hearing in the process of union recognition.  

“Not only do students want a union, but their voices are being advocated for,” said Thompson. “They don’t have a say in the workplace, they’re often more likely to be mistreated by upper management because of that.” 

To learn more about the nationwide efforts of Starbucks Workers United visit their website here

This article was a part of a CHP backlog. The article was originally written on March 19.