Workers at the Capitol Square Starbucks location publicly announced Tuesday that they will be petitioning the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) for a union representation election.
The petition is part of the greater Starbucks Workers United movement, which started with the unionization of a Starbucks in Buffalo, New York, and is now sweeping across the nation with hundreds of stores petitioning following suit.
“We will not give in to one-sided corporate decision-making when right outside our doors Wisconsinites have gathered for over a century to protest for what they believe in,” said a signed letter from the Capitol Square Starbucks addressed to Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz. “Our wonderful customers, the Madison community and the brave activism of Starbucks’ partners across the country have inspired us to finally make a change.”
“No partner has ever needed to have a representative seek to obtain things we all have as partners at Starbucks. And I am saddened and concerned to hear anyone think that is needed now,” said Schultz in 2021, in response to the first union petitions in Buffalo, New York.
One of the employees pushing for unionization, Evan McKenzie, is a junior at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a member of an acapella group as well as a house fellow. He’s worked with Starbucks for almost five years now, two of which have been at his current location.
“We have been talking about unionization for a while now, kind of in the background. What really started our conversations was the pandemic. Starbucks, pretty publicly, gave Starbucks Partners some pretty incredible benefits. They increased our wage for a while, they gave us free drinks and food benefits and a couple of other things. They called us essential workers,” McKenzie said. “In the middle of the pandemic they just silently took those away. This was at a time when cases were receding, but also at a time when a lot of us, myself included, were starting to feel the worst financial effects of the pandemic. I think a lot of people at our store would say the loss of that pay increase was pretty hard.”
McKenzie talked about some of the changes the organizing committee would like to see at the Starbucks.
“There’s no seniority pay at our store. I’ve been at Starbucks for almost 5 years, and get paid [in essence] about the same as someone just starting,” McKenzie said.“We don’t get credit card tips at our store, even though a majority of our customers pay with a card. Starbucks said it would disrupt the customer experience, which we disagree with. We’re asking for things like better healthcare benefits. We’re asking for a living wage, especially in a city like Madison.”
“We don’t believe having a union will meaningfully change or solve the problems you’ve identified in your stores. We know we aren’t perfect, but we believe our challenges are best addressed by working together,” said a Starbucks operated website “One Starbucks”, meant to convince employees to vote against unions.
Starbucks is one of many corporations to openly oppose unions, and it has received backlash in the past for union busting — the process of actively working to challenge unionization efforts through means such as mandatory meetings, signage and other methods.
“So far, we have not seen too much union busting tactics, but I would say we’ve definitely seen the beginning of union busting,” said McKenzie. “Managers have already sent out anti-union materials via our messaging apps, which are also posted in the store. Upper management that usually doesn’t come [into] our store has already started to come and talk to people. We’re expecting mandatory union meetings, we’re expecting workplace intimidation and we’re expecting to win this [vote],” adding that “I’m very happy to say an extreme majority of people in our store have signed union cards and are ready to fight for this.”
“To other stores that want to unionize, I would say: contact our store. We would love to help other Starbucks, other cafes, other locations in Madison, especially, get their feet on the ground and create a community of workers who fight for each other,” said McKenzie.
He encouraged people in the community who want to support their efforts to come out to the Capitol Square location and tip baristas as well as order drinks with the names “Union Yes”, or “Union Proud”.
“Show us you support us!” McKenzie added.
Ian Wilder is a current features writer and former state politics reporter for The Daily Cardinal. Follow him on Twitter at @IanWWilder.