ST. LOUIS — A national movement may soon be brewing change at your local Starbucks.
Cafe workers in Ladue and Bridgeton became the first in the area to contest union elections last week. On Monday, their ranks doubled with announcements of two stores in St. Louis, one in Tower Grove South and one on Hampton Avenue, just south of Forest Park.
Others may be on the way.
Local baristas join thousands of others at more than 100 cafes across the country, pushing to shake up business as usual at one of America’s most iconic businesses. The surge coincides with a tight US labor market that is bolstering workers’ bargaining power after two years of the pandemic. And if the Starbucks campaigns succeed, they could change more than their stores, observers say: Dunkin’ Donuts and McDonald’s could be next.
“Tens of thousands of service sector workers aren’t unionizing without a ripple effect,” said Pete DeMay, organizing director at the Chicago & Midwest Regional Joint Board of Workers United.
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Starbucks brushed off the announcements in a statement on Monday. “We’ve been clear in our belief that we’re better off together as partners with no union between us, and that hasn’t changed,” he said. The number of stores seeking representation remains a small fraction of the Seattle-based coffee chain’s thousands of locations.
But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t pay attention. The company announced plans to raise average pay from $14 to $17 an hour, and recalled former CEO Howard Schultz to the top job, in part to help deal with labor campaigns . On his first day back Monday, Schultz announced the company would suspend billions of dollars in stock buybacks — gifts to shareholders — to invest in stores and employees.
The union effort at Starbucks began last summer in Buffalo, New York, where employees filed for a union election in August, citing longstanding issues with staff shortages worsened during the pandemic.
They spent the next two months under a microscope: Starbucks’ top executives flew in for “listening sessions,” national media heralded seismic change for the company, and U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders called the “inspired” workers.
Andrew Watson, shift manager at the Hampton store, thought the same. After Buffalo employees won their vote in December, Watson and his colleagues began talking about duplicating the process here.
He wanted to do something about the infrequent staff increases and reductions that he said left him doing the work of four people on some shifts. It was not hard ground. “Everyone had been paying attention to the news,” he said.
Watson predicted that several other stores in the area would follow in his group’s footsteps.
Such campaigns threaten to shatter Starbucks’ carefully cultivated image as an employer of choice. For years, the company evaded organized labor by paying more than the rest of the service industry and offering perks like health insurance. It has consistently been named one of the best places to work in national investigations.
“If you had asked me 10 years ago if Starbucks would unionize, I would have said the odds were slim to none,” said Edward Jones analyst Brian Yarborough.
But DeMay, the Chicago organizer, said the past few years have been a game-changer. Workers were already frustrated with falling wages and struggling with student debt before the pandemic. Then the virus showed that the company could do more if it wanted to: it was offering a $3-an-hour bonus to people who continued to work at the start of the crisis and two weeks sick leave for those exposed. to disease.
“I think the youngsters, in particular, have had enough,” DeMay said.
Natalie Wright, a 23-year-old barista from the Tower Grove South store, certainly did. She noted that former CEO Kevin Johnson was in line for tens of millions of dollars when he retired. “It’s crazy to think about that when I’m barely able to pay my rent sometimes,” Wright said.
But paying for the changes demanded by the unions will not be free.
Yarborough, the Edward Jones analyst, said if the coffeehouse chain has to pay more for employees, it will likely try one of two things to compensate: raise prices or invest in technology that allows it to employ fewer people.
Will consumers pay more at a cafe that already charges $5 for a large latte?
Armando Cjapi, 40, from the Affton area, said he probably would. Looking at his $3.80 espresso on Monday afternoon outside the store in Tower Grove South, he said he could swallow $4.50.
But Eyasu Asfaw, who runs a taxi service and waited in Hampton for a $4.99 oat milk latte on Monday, said he could switch to QuikTrip.