Interview by Syd Abad, KZSC News
As daunting as labor organizing may seem, Starbucks locations across the United States are voting to unionize in exponential numbers. The unionization efforts began in Buffalo, New York on December 9th 2021, just about two months ago, and has now spread all the way to the first California Starbucks location
to vote to unionize our local Santa Cruz Starbucks at the corner of Ocean and Water Street. As of January 31st of this year, 54 Starbucks stores have filed to unionize. That’s 54 stores in 53 days, and it’s only growing.
Syd Abad 0:02
My name is Syd, I go by he/him pronouns, and today with me is Joseph, a longtime community organizer and a first year attending UC Santa Cruz with me. Joseph goes by they/them pronouns. Welcome, Joseph!
Joseph Thompson 0:55
Thank you for having me. I really appreciate it.
Syd Abad 0:57
Super, super happy to have you. And I’m excited to learn about your story and your store’s story. So let’s get a couple of things out of the way. First, what does filing to unionize mean?
Joseph Thompson 1:09
So we had to go through the official process with the National Labor Relations Board, which is you know, signing the new cards, making sure people are aware of what is going to be happening when we do unionize. And the first episode of a union card, which is basically just a show of support to the federal government to say, “Okay, we have enough people here who want to have a union.” And you know, you only need about 30%. But most places will wait until they have about 70% Because they want to show that they have an overwhelming majority who are interested in unionizing. So that when they file, you know, they can prove to the company that they have the show majority. And then when you have the election, we can easily get, you know, over 50%. I see.
Syd Abad 1:49
Very cool, thank you. And so what is unionization?
Joseph Thompson 1:54
Unionization very simply is just making sure people have a voice and are formally represented by a bargaining unit that can collectively bargain against Starbucks, you know, in the benefit of workers. So we have these better working conditions, and that people really feel safe and have a good working environment.
Syd Abad 2:12
Cool. Yeah, that sounds pretty straightforward. So now diving into the the little interview, what made you and your co-workers realize the importance of unionizing your store?
Joseph Thompson 2:23
Really, the main importance for us has always been safety, safety is a big issue at our store, not only do the high number of incidents, but also recently, you know, of course, with COVID-19. We’ve seen Starbucks announced that they were going to require vaccination, or weekly testing, since then, after the Supreme Court went against that decision, Starbucks renounced against that policy, now stepping back, and there’s just been a lot of issue around that. But also, with the entire thing about how a lot of these parties don’t feel safe coming to work, a lot of them have been harassed, a lot of them feel that they do not feel supported by corporate, and being able to move away from that and have a safe working environment is probably the most important thing for people at this store, realizing that the union can provide that. And, you know, we’ve been fighting for security guard now to actually represent our store, not wanting police to come in, you know, and really hurt the community in that way.
A lot of them have been harassed, a lot of them feel that they do not feel supported by corporate … a safe working environment is probably the most important thing for people at this store.”
Syd Abad 3:17
I see. All right, cool. Thank you! And so how has management and corporate responded to your location filing to unionize?
Joseph Thompson 3:26
There has been a lot more corporate presence now than I’ve ever seen any of the store I’ve worked at, across from Texas, to Northern California to here. Our district manager, he is in almost every single day, you know, talking with baristas, having one-on-one conversations, trying to figure out what is happening at the store, so they can stop us from unionizing. And then our regional manager is also coming in, still having those one-on-one conversations. It’s funny, he’s actually just, you know, sweeping the lobby,
Syd Abad 3:57
You know, just sweeping the lobby…
Syd Abad 4:06
Joseph Thompson 4:08
So really, it really does show how disconnected corporate is from their average, the average barista working, you know, on an hourly wage, and, you know, it’s definitely there. The extreme corporate presence is because we’re unionizing and is because specifically, the conditions at our store are pretty terrible to watch.
I see. So kind of backtracking, you said that you’ve worked at multiple Starbucks locations. Which locations have you worked at and for how long have you been working with the store?
I’ve been working with Starbucks for over two years now. I’m a shift supervisor at our location. I’ve been working at us. I first got hired a store in Texas, and I started there when I was 16 years old. I worked there most of high school. Then a few summers ago, I came out here worked, in Lincoln, California. That was my second store. And then just even recently, I’ve been working at about, you know, there’s three stores in Northern California plus the Santa Cruz store. So I worked at a lot of Starbucks, and this is definitely the hardest store I’ve worked at, in Santa Cruz, and has definitely the most high number of harassment from the public, but also the least willing to adapt to that. And you know, be able to feel like we’re having support from our firm management, and be able to go and talk to them about what’s happening. There’s been no real change corporate has made, until we unionized.
Syd Abad 5:37
Wow, interesting. Well, that’s cool that you have the perspective of having experience working at different stores, geographically, in the last couple of years. And so how many Starbucks stores have announced their filing to unionize as of now? or the most recent numbers you’ve seen?
Joseph Thompson 5:56
The number always changes, you know, there’s always more joining the movement. But from what from what I’ve seen is we have about 61 stores now, six in Texas just joined the fight yesterday within their San Antonio store. Wow. And, even recently, you know, a lot of Texas stores have been reaching out because they want to join the movement, and even living in a state that isn’t very pro-worker, they still know that they’re going to try it, because it’s really important for them. And they really want to fight for, you know, higher working conditions. And a better pay because the Texas minimum wage in December is federal, so it’s $7.25. Extremely low.
Syd Abad 6:38
That’s what, like, less than half of Santa Cruz’s minimum wage right now?
Joseph Thompson 6:41
Yep. And you know, even if you look at cost of living, yes, it does make some difference. But still, like the minimum wages Starbucks has in Texas, is completely insane. When you look at the work they’re still doing. And you know, we’re still doing the same work we’re doing in Santa Cruz. They’re doing the exact same thing in Texas as well.
Syd Abad 6:58
Wow, ridiculous. So what do you think Starbucks Workers United means for the 21st century American labor movement? Because we’ve seen a very, very steady decline in unionization over the past many decades, I feel like the labor movement has kind of, you know, been seen as powerful as it might have been back in the 20th century. So what do you see? What unionization efforts among Starbucks Workers United are doing for our modern American labor movement?
Joseph Thompson 7:37
I see Starbucks Workers United as the spark that’s gonna ignite the flame. We’re the ones who are going to not only build up our movement within Starbucks, but also help local coffee shops, unionize, help Amazon workers unionize, help all these different service workers unionize. Because at the end of the day, it protects workers, and it’s going to be benefiting all these working class people. And specifically, a lot of even local coffee shops have reached out to us already. There’s there’s been talk about Peet’s joining the movement, there’s been talk about, you know, even local coffee shops in Santa Cruz joining, there has been a lot of, you know, activity, because they’re seeing what Starbucks workers are doing so organically, and they want to join, and, you know, Starbucks Workers United is a worker-led movement, we do not have a whole lot of outside union organizers. It’s mostly partner-to-partner conversations that have been driving people to unionize and to file for unionizing. And this is groundbreaking, because there has not been a whole lot of union activity leading up to this. But now people are realizing that it doesn’t take, you
know, it’s not rocket science, it doesn’t take a college degree … Anyone can do it! And if you believe that our store needs it, it is the best thing to do to look into organizing.
I see Starbucks Workers United as the spark that’s gonna ignite the flame.”
Syd Abad 8:58
Very cool, because I feel like the idea of unionizing is so daunting to people; as if you have to have this whole background of understanding the American labor movement and all this stuff. But the way the way we’re seeing it now, is that people who have never unionized before, don’t know much about labor movements, are just dissatisfied with their conditions are finding the resources to be able to collectively bargain and come together and realize that we’re all facing these substandard conditions together. So yeah, that’s that’s really cool to know that people are doing this and you don’t need experience on organizing in order to be able to do this. And you were talking about some local coffee shops, so this leads into my next question pretty well. Labor organizing; is it only for workers at stores with multiple locations like a franchise? Or is it possible for independent and local stores to Union as well?
Joseph Thompson 10:01
It’s 100% possible and it’s really needed. You know, not only is it good to support these local businesses, to unionize, you know, for example, we have the Santa Cruz Bookshop workers were unionizing right now. They have their union campaign, they’re actually negotiating their contract. But also, you know, from from Starbucks to Peet’s coffee, all these places need to be represented by a union, not only for their best interest, but it’s also in the best interest of customers and people who are supporting them, because they know that their their workers are getting paid adequately, and that they’re being represented by a contract that they negotiated, and collectively bargain to benefit themselves.
Syd Abad 10:37
Okay, right on. Awesome! So, I’ve noticed that there have been some criticisms of the photos of Starbucks United Workers, and just the coverage, showing predominantly white or white-passing workers, how would you respond to the lack of people of color being depicted in those reported efforts?
Joseph Thompson 10:58
Most of it has been a white-centered movement so far, but the main reason why that has been happening is because there’s been a lot of pushback from Starbucks, specifically among partners of color. Recently, even just us today, Starbucks fired I believe five workers from Memphis, Tennessee- mostly people of color for their organizing efforts… Just from talking to media. So it really is not only disgusting to see Starbucks treat their partners of color, so extremely terrible, but you know, the company represents I believe, as of you know in 2022 or 2021, annual report, 57% of the partners at Starbucks are women. And on top of that 47% are people of color. That is, you know, crazy disproportional, but Starbucks is using their union busting ammunition, so radically on these partners of color, and it just shows how they’re not holding up to their “mission and values” as a company. So I think the main reason why this has definitely been more more white partners, or white passing folks, and these photos has been because we’re trying to shield the partners, partners of color, who are unnecessarily getting targeted, because of this movement.
Syd Abad 10:58
Yeah, I could see that the, you know, the white Starbucks workers utilizing their privilege of, “oh, I’m not going to be as at-risk of being fired. So I’m gonna speak out to the media, because I know that my co-workers of color would face more scrutiny from corporate and possibly lose their jobs at a higher likelihood than if I were to”. I can definitely see that. And to piggyback on that, a chunk of Starbucks workers are younger, and in the process of obtaining higher education. So what do you anticipate happening as these workers graduate college, and within the next few years, likely find higher paying jobs with their college degrees, while working class people who may not have that access to education continue to work at Starbucks?
Joseph Thompson 13:09
Our goal, and you know, specifically Starbucks has tuition paid for to go to ASU online, which is great access for people. But also, having these people who have been organizing Starbucks, move on to higher paying jobs, will not only be a benefit to the overall labor movement, but they’ll have that experience to still advocate for those working class people who are either stuck at Starbucks, or are still getting their college education, depending on where they’re at. But really, it comes down to making sure that this solidarity continues throughout that, even after. I’ll also be in almost three years from now. But even after I move on from Starbucks, still showing solidarity with the workers there, and making sure that this movement doesn’t stop at Starbucks is really important to that.
It comes down to making sure that this solidarity continues throughout that, even after.
Syd Abad 13:55
I see for sure. And starting these roots and these unionization efforts I feel could possibly could be more
beneficial than if they were to never happen at all. Cool. Thank you for answering that. And so what are
some of the biggest things that you’ve learned throughout your time organizing the first Starbucks location
to vote to unionize in California?
Joseph Thompson 14:20
I think the biggest thing that I’ve learned is, it’s a lot more important to take your time and make sure everything is set up. There’s been a lot of people reaching out recently who are really, you know, want to get everything going. But it’s really important to take a little bit of time, and really make sure that you’re setting yourself up for success. You don’t want to be the ones who are going at it first, just because they want to, you want to have the movement kind of set up so that you first actually have a vote and have a union at your store, not just the ones who are going to be going at the fast. You know, you have to play the long game in this. And that’s definitely the biggest thing is about making sure we’re fighting and advocating for that.
Syd Abad 14:59
Cool, thank you! And what would you like to tell other workers, Starbucks or not Starbucks, who are facing similar struggles that you and your coworkers have experienced in the past?
Joseph Thompson 15:14
The biggest thing I’ve told them is, if you’re experiencing the same understaffing, the same overworking at Starbucks, you should talk to your co-workers and really decide what you want to do. And if forming a union seems like it’s going to be the best thing for you, go for it! Reach out, get help, look into other unions to see if they can support you. Because at the end of the day, this movement is not gonna stop at Starbucks. And it’s not gonna, you know, fizzle out. There’s been probably 60, 61 stores now. Over two months it is growing exponentially. And it’s really going to reach every single state in the United States eventually, we just need to make sure that we’re supporting our other partners, and make sure that we’re really building this movement from a grassroots level.
Syd Abad 16:00
Absolutely, cool! Thank you for sharing that. And for my last question, if somebody wants to support Starbucks workers united, but isn’t affiliated with Starbucks, what could that solidarity look like?
Joseph Thompson 16:12
There’s a lot of things people can do, if it’s just going in and buying a cup of coffee and change your name to you know, either “union strong” or “solidarity forever”, it would be great. Additionally, Starbucks Workers United launched their website now. So you can actually purchase shirts, hats, mugs; all this stuff. All of that will be used to support more organizing efforts. And even some of the partners who have been wrongly fired for organizing, like the ones in Memphis, Tennessee also launched a GoFundMe, so supporting any of that for the workers is always really great to show solidarity throughout. But lastly, I think the main thing is, you know, making sure that you take the solidarity and don’t just do it once or twice, but keep it throughout what you do in your regular life. You know, make sure you’re always supporting workers, even if it’s not Starbucks, but if it’s like Santa Cruz Bookshop workers, or other union members, making sure you carry that throughout, for sure.
Syd Abad 17:11
Well, thank you so much for meeting with me, Joseph. I feel like I’ve learned a lot. And I’m hoping our listeners have also learned a lot. I’m really honored to be going to school with you, somebody who is young and has so much potential in organizing movements and labor organizing, so I just want to thank you for your time. It’s been great chatting with you.
Joseph Thompson 17:36
Yeah. Thank you so much for having me! Really appreciate it.