Starbucks workers vote union—but Canadian workers did it first

Starbucks workers in Buffalo celebrate union win


IT WAS GOOD NEWS—BUT ONLY KINDA RIGHT. It is true that workers in a Starbucks store in Buffalo, N.Y. voted 19-8 to join a union on December 9. It is true that is was a first. But not in the way news outlets, like the CBC, hyped it.

CBC radio reported that the union vote was, at the same time, a first...period ... and that it was actually just a first in the USA.

Confused and sloppy

The confused and sloppy reporting is just another illustration of how much we still live deep in the shadow of the USA. So much so that our “national broadcaster” can mindlessly parrot American spin on a story—once again casually dismissing the actual Canadian truth.

It also illustrates how we must be ever-cautious about what the mainstream media tells us is the whole truth about anything.

The fact is the workers in Buffalo will get their union once the American National Labour Relations Board (NLRB) certifies the vote is valid. When that happens the Buffalo Starbucks will be the first store in the chain to have a union recognized by the NLRB, in the USA.

The larger truth

The larger whole truth is that workers in close to a dozen Starbucks stores have joined unions since the 1990s. Many doing so all on their own, outside the traditional labour relations model.

In August 2020, the staff of a busy Starbucks drive-through in Victoria joined the United Steelworkers (USW). Almost a year later, they had a first contract that raised wages and created a safer working environment—both major objectives of their unionizing drive.

The Victoria drive-through is not the first Starbucks outlet in Canada to be unionized. A number of locations in B.C., Saskatchewan and Quebec had the same status in the 1990s and 2000s, but they all eventually decertified.

IWW campaigns

The Starbucks Workers Union is a trade union formed by members of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). The union has members at Starbucks locations in New York City; Chicago; Grand Rapids, Michigan; Cincinnati; Quebec City; Bloomington, Minnesota, and Omaha, Nebraska.

On May 17, 2004, Starbucks’s workers in midtown Manhattan organized the first Starbucks barista union in the United States. The workers wanted a union to gain a living wage and a guarantee of regular of hours per week.

The union has also joined with Global Exchange in calling on Starbucks to purchase at least 5% of the store’s coffee from fair trade certified sources.

The 12 workers submitted union cards to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) for a certification election. Starbucks filed an appeal with the NLRB, asking that the election be extended to several stores, not the single store that filed for an election.

The IWW subsequently withdrew the election petition because an appeal fight could cause a several-year delay in the validation of the election.

The IWW usually does not get involved in the NLRB election process, but rather chooses to focus on winning incremental demands on the shop-floor through the practice of “Solidarity Unionism.” On this basis, the IWW organizing drive continues at Starbucks locations across the world

More unions at Starbucks likely

Jim Stanford, director of the Centre for Future Work predicts more Starbucks workers will unionize.

“Starbucks workers want more protection, and more respect, so this union drive is definitely not an isolated event.”

Stanford said workers are most likely to be interested in unionization if they’re in a sector where workers felt devalued prior to the pandemic, such as retail, hospitality and grocery.

Bob Barnetson, a labour relations professor at Alberta-based Athabasca University, says the high turnover of staff in certain sectors, such as at cafes like Starbucks, can make it hard to maintain union solidarity.

If these movements gained traction citywide or province-wide, they “would have more staying power,” he said.

There are provisions for this in Quebec, where groups of businesses, such as those belonging to a particular franchise, or employees across a certain industry, can negotiate a collective agreement. There are also other models in Canada for sector-wide bargaining in specific industries, which is common in construction.

This involves a sort of “master agreement,” explained Barnetson, which makes it easier to organize and sustain unions in a particular sector.

“COVID has demonstrated very publicly that workplaces clearly are not safe,” said Barnetson. “You can’t rely on the government … so maybe you need to rely on other workers via unionization.”

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