When Starbucks employees at the Ocean Street location arrived to their workplace at 5:30 a.m. on Aug. 13, the coffee machines stayed off, the ovens remained cold, and the door was kept locked. Instead, protest signs were raised, a picket line was formed, and the donuts brought for the event were served without any coffee.
After becoming the first location in California to unionize, the store made history again by becoming the first in the state to strike, beginning a rolling strike spreading through stores all over the state. After dealing with numerous unfair labor practice violations and being stonewalled in contract negotiations with Starbucks management, the workers are fed up.
“It’s the changing of our hours. It’s not listening to the workers, and they’re ripping up and destroying union literature on the property. Those are violations,” said Joe Thompson, a lead organizer at the location and second-year UC Santa Cruz student. “Starbucks isn’t bargaining with us. That’s the main thing that isn’t allowing negotiations to continue.”
The Ocean Street location, along with the Starbucks on Mission Street, both held successful union votes on May 11 of this year. They were followed by a third location at 41st Avenue and Clares Street in Capitola, which held its vote on June 3.
Despite the vote in favor of unionization, Starbucks management continues to resist change, and actively fights back against the union and its members’ efforts to create a contract with the company.
“We respect our partners’ right to engage in any legally protected activity or protest without retaliation,” a Starbucks spokesperson said in a statement to the L.A. Times. “We are grateful for each partner who continues to work, and we always do our best to listen to the concerns of all our partners.”
However, one of the primary instigators of the recent strike has been the retaliation faced by union members.
Under the National Labor Relations Act, refusal to bargain, discrimination or retaliation for union activity, and interference with employees exercising the rights guaranteed to them by the act, are all illegal. Starbucks Workers United (SBWU) will be suing the corporation in federal court over its violations.
The National Labor Relations Act was passed in 1935 and sought to correct the “inequality of bargaining power” between workers and employers. Signed into law by President Roosevelt, it created a list of unfair labor practices as well as the National Labor Relations Board to prosecute violations of labor law.
The striking workers have received support from the Workers United union, the larger organization they are affiliated under, along with other unions in the area.
Efrain Aguilara, a 24-year union veteran from Santa Cruz and representative for United Food & Commercial Workers Union, Local 5, attended the strike rally with his two sons to show solidarity for the protesting workers. Having personally experienced the benefits and difficulties of union membership, he is confident that the workers are on the right track.
“I understand the struggle that Starbucks employees are going through fighting for their first contract. That’s the number one fight. Once you get the first contract, then you move on, updating [that contract], but the first contract is always the hardest,” Aguilara said. “And that’s why we’re here to support the workers.”
With 14 stores already voting to unionize, and many more in the process of filing for an election, the movement is quickly gaining momentum with the help of Workers United. The organization, which currently represents primarily laundry and warehouse workers, trains Starbucks employees in union leadership and organizing.
A union’s first contract is often seen as one of the more significant hurdles that must be overcome to effectively advocate for the represented workers. The first contract, or collective bargaining agreement establishes the treatment and benefits of workers based on negotiations between the union and management. The negotiation process is often lengthy, with less than half of organized workplaces establishing agreements within a year of an election.
It also shares resources such as a strike fund which, along with a GoFundMe, helps recoup the wages lost by workers during a strike.
Fernando Hernandez, the lead organizer with Workers United in California, Arizona, and New Mexico, says that by going on strike and causing the company to lose revenue, the union is saying “it’s your move,” to the, as of yet, uncooperative Starbucks management.
“Talking to a lot of workers, they told me they have to put on a smile and connect with customers, but inside, they’re already so frustrated, so mad,” Hernandez said. “And now, the workers are fighting, and it is about time to do something about it.”