Workers at the State Street Starbucks location announced Tuesday they will file to unionize with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB).
In a letter to Starbucks CEO Laxman Narasimhan signed by 36 staff members and shared with The Daily Cardinal, workers at the Starbucks location in downtown Madison called for the formation of a union in response to “intimidation, labor cuts and unclear standards” from the company’s upper management.
“Recent events in our store and around the nation have shown us that we cannot depend on the kindness of corporate to consider what is best for us,” the letter read. “Crucial decisions are made about store operations by those who are so disconnected from our community and our day-to-day reality. We deserve a voice.”
The letter stated unionization was the best way to protect workers from retaliatory behavior and allow them representation in negotiations over working conditions.
“By forming a union, we are inspiring and nurturing the human spirit — one person, one cup, one neighborhood and one unionized store at a time,” the letter said.
Matt Cartwright, a shift supervisor at the State Street location, told The Daily Cardinal workers felt compelled to act because the company’s leadership has made decisions that deprioritize their wellbeing.
“Everyone has a general sense that they don’t feel respected, they don’t feel like they have a voice,” Cartwright said. “They feel like they’re expendable, that corporate views them as expendable.”
The State Street Starbucks location is one of the largest Starbucks stores to seek unionization, according to Cartwright. Located near the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus, the store employs over 50 workers, and many of them are part-time student employees.
Evan McKenzie, a UW-Madison senior and organizer at the Capitol Square Starbucks location, is currently partnering with the workers on State Street to assist them through the unionization process. McKenzie said though the State Street location is very profitable, the company has not listened to requests for improvements in working conditions.
“They make the company lots of money, they’re extremely successful and they have not done any unionizing campaigns [previously],” he said. “State Street is asking for those promises to be kept. They waited, they did what Starbucks asked and where did that get them?”
Allie Kerr, a part-time Starbucks barista at the State Street location who also has a job as a full-time educator, believes the company’s policies regarding working hours have harmed part-time and student workers. Starbucks recently implemented a minimum hours requirement mandating employees work at least 12 hours per week.
“Some of our students who are also working other jobs are having to put more of their time into Starbucks than they really can, and people who really need those hours to pay their bills aren’t getting quite as many,” Kerr said. “As a result of that initiative, we lost between five and 10 really strong partners that worked one or two days a week.”
Labor advocates have long criticized Starbucks for allegedly employing widespread union-busting tactics in locations across the country, including withholding benefits from unionized stores and retaliation against workers for union advocacy. A judge for the NLRB ruled in March that Starbucks violated federal labor law multiple times in its attempts to shut down union organizing in New York stores.
In his March 2023 testimony to the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz denied allegations that the company engaged in union-busting.
“We want to treat everyone with respect and dignity,” Schultz said. “However, I have the right, and the company has the right, to have a preference, and our preference is to maintain the direct relationship we’ve had with our employees.”
Kerr said the store has already seen increased scrutiny from upper management after rumors spread that the location was planning to unionize in early March.
“We, as a result of just those rumors, did see an increased corporate presence in our store,” she stated. “I expect that might continue, but I'm hopeful that we'll be able to have a positive dialogue.”
Cartwright said he and other workers have drawn inspiration from other Starbucks union organizing across the country. He said organizers from the Starbucks located on Capitol Square, which became the first Madison location to unionize in June 2022, have provided valuable support to workers on State Street.
“We are one group, and we’re willing to stand hand-in-hand together,” he stated.
Kerr said she hopes State Street location’s significance in the downtown Madison community will give other local union advocates a stronger position in negotiations.
“We’re super prominent and visible in the community, and we make a lot of money for Starbucks,” she said. “We are hopeful that by adding our voices to this already-loud chorus, we might be able to put some positive pressure to have everybody come to the table.”
After the workers file for unionization, Starbucks will then decide whether to voluntarily recognize the union. According to McKenzie, Starbucks has never voluntarily recognized a location looking to unionize, so he expects the NLRB to intervene.
If a company refuses to recognize a union, the NLRB will conduct an election in which the employees will vote on whether to unionize. If a majority of workers present votes in favor, the NLRB will certify the union.
McKenzie said much of the unionization push’s continued success will depend on support from the UW-Madison students who frequent the store. He encouraged students to send messages of support and tip workers more generously.
“That store is the student voice,” McKenzie said. “The support that they will receive from other students at UW-Madison is going to be essential in this fight because it’s scary to unionize, especially as a student.”
Cartwright said the push marks a positive shift for the labor movement in Madison and across the country.
“It’s a movement of hope,” Cartwright said. “It’s a movement of hope for our store. It’s a movement of hope for Madison. It's a movement of hope for the nationwide labor movement. Democracy starts here in the workplace.”
Francesca Pica is the city news editor for The Daily Cardinal. She has covered multiple municipal elections and is a leading reporter on Madison labor issues. Additionally, she will serve as a news intern for The Capital Times throughout the summer of 2023.