Metro, Politics, Featured Story, Newton

Newton Starbucks Joins Unionization Effort, Reflecting National Pattern

A Starbucks in the Waban neighborhood of Newton joined 12 other locations across Massachusetts in filing to unionize with the National Labor Relations Board in May, according to labor nonprofit More Perfect Union. It’s the second location within a mile of Newton city limits to unionize within the last year.

The Starbucks in Cleveland Circle—a location favored by Boston College students—also unionized in May.

The efforts in Massachusetts follow a nationwide movement spurred by a combination of job insecurity and low wages, among other factors, that began in Buffalo, N.Y., in December. 

Since then, Starbucks Workers United reported that more than 320 locations across 36 states have filed petitions for elections, marking the first step in the unionization process. Of those, 230 have voted to unionize as of Aug. 30.

Two additional locations in Massachusetts await elections.

“Forming a union will help us advocate for ourselves and bring a sense of democracy to our workplace,” the Waban Starbucks Workers United Organizing Committee wrote in a statement released in May after a unanimous vote at the location. “We hope to address issues of low wages, poor seniority pay, unpredictable hours, and understaffed shifts.”

The unionization process begins with an election when at least 30 percent of employees support a petition to unionize, according to the National Labor Relations Board. The board then seeks an election agreement between the union and employer, setting terms for the vote. Certification of a union occurs through a majority vote.

With the surge of unionization efforts across the country, the National Labor Relations Board has issued 26 complaints against Starbucks and found merit in 97 charges of violations of labor law and attempts at union busting, according to Starbucks Workers United.

Kayla Cook, a barista and union organizer in Allston, said being pro-union can come with consequences. 

“Workers who are pro-union are being driven to quit,” she said. “They face dramatic cuts in hours, an uptick in random write-ups, and receive increased pressure from management. We’re overworked and people are either not able to see their coworkers to unionize or they’re just too tired at the end of their shift to really work on it.”

In a statement provided to The Heights, a Starbucks spokesperson wrote that claims of union busting are false.

“From the beginning, we have been clear that we will respect the process laid out by the NLRB and bargain in good faith with the stores that vote for union representation,” the spokesperson wrote.

Thomas Kohler, a Boston College law professor and labor and employment law scholar, said he is “not surprised” by the efforts of Starbucks employees, as it mirrors the wave of unionization occurring across many industries.

“What’s driving this is all sorts of things, [including] job insecurity and precarious employment,” said Kohler. “Employment is—for the most part—at will, so a person can be fired at any time, and they are never certain what their hours nor do they have control over that.”

Kohler said he thinks that the pandemic made it clear that short-term jobs—including those at Starbucks stores—make it difficult for workers to plan for the future. The labor force has shown an unwillingness to work for low wages, he said, spurring unionization efforts such as those at many Starbucks locations.

Collective bargaining through unions helps regulate the employment relationship so that workers can set their terms and conditions in the workplace, Kohler said. 

Tyler Davids, a Starbucks barista in Brookline, said he hopes unionizing can help lead to more predictable wages for the company’s employees. 

“We need to guarantee that if we’re full time, we get those hours and are going to earn enough of a living wage to actually work one job and pay rent,” Davids said.

At the Cleveland Circle Starbucks location, the union helped protect workers. Due to a remodel that caused a three-month closure of the store, Starbucks had to negotiate with the store’s employees, who feared the time off would pose a significant threat to their primary source of income and livelihoods, according to Starbucks Workers United. 

As a result of negotiation, the location’s employees received guaranteed wages through the project, their top choice for temporary store reassignment, “substantially equivalent” hours with compensation for any difference, and periodic updates on the progress of construction, according to Starbucks Workers United.

Unionization efforts today closely resemble labor movements of the early 1900s, though today’s demographic of unionizers is younger, more diverse, and targeting broader causes than just the laborers’ economic conditions, according to Kohler. 

The increased efforts allow workers to not only turn to online forums to gather ideas in their efforts, but also to receive support from the public and local officials. Newton Ward 5 Councilor Bill Humphrey congratulated the Waban Starbucks for unionizing through a tweet.

Despite the slow and bureaucratic nature of unionizing, Kohler said he believes that unionizing efforts  are going to remain workers’ strongest and most effective tool for ensuring the quality of their work environment.

“We don’t live as lone ants—we live in communities,” he said. “And community within communities is incredibly important. Collective bargaining doesn’t take care of everything, but it does play an incredibly important role.”

Graphic by Annie Corrigan / Heights Editor

September 11, 2022