‘Put their money where their mouth is’: Oakland Starbucks workers fight to unionize

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Rebecca Johnson | Contributing Editor

The outside of the Amos Starbucks.

By Punya Bhasin, Assistant News Editor

When Sam Knapp, a shift supervisor at the Amos Hall Starbucks, saw that his employees’ wellness was deteriorating, he decided to take action and sent a message to Workers United.

“There were just too many moments where I was definitely very fed up with Starbucks as a company and I had been seeing other stories and articles about other locations unionizing, and I just realized that it was time for us to do the same,” Knapp said. 

Workers at the store formally petitioned on March 4 to unionize. It was the second Starbucks in Pittsburgh to petition to unionize since two Starbucks locations in Buffalo, New York, won their union elections in December. Employees at both the Amos Hall and Craig Street locations seek to join Workers United, which represents 80,000 members in North America in the hospitality, manufacturing, apparel and textile industries, among others. Workers United is an affiliate of the Service Employees International Union.

The National Labor Relations Board will mail ballots to Amos Hall employees on Thursday, before counting them on May 6.

Knapp and fellow workers reached a “breaking point” when he said work conditions continued to worsen and decided to reach out in late January to the Starbucks Workers United account on Twitter.

“Starbucks as a corporation has essentially been getting worse, and the overall wellness of our partners has gone steadily down over the past few months due to decisions from corporate like reducing a lot of payroll hours, taking away a lot of benefits and continually not paying attention to our complaints or suggestions that we had,” Knapp said. “So we just decided that you know, we want better for ourselves and so we took action ourselves.”

Knapp said he wishes Starbucks cared more for its workers and “viewed them as people.”

“We’re sick of how we are being treated by corporate and feeling ignored and taken for granted,” Knapp said. “I definitely feel like we’re not viewed as potentially even like people by corporate based on a lot of their policies. We’ve dealt with a lot of issues with taking away our hours for people who are promised full-time hours, and corporate doesn’t bat an eye whenever people can’t pay rent.”

A Starbucks spokesperson said the company is always “listening and learning from partners.”

“We always scheduled what we believe the store needs based on customer behaviors, and that might mean that a change in the hours available, but to say that we’re cutting hours wouldn’t be accurate,” the spokesperson said. “We are listening and learning from the partners in the stores as we always do across the country, and from the beginning, we’ve been clear in our belief that we are better together as partners without a union between us and that conviction has not changed.”

Workers at the Craig Street location formally petitioned to unionize on March 23, along with the Market Square location in Downtown Pittsburgh. The coffee chain’s Bloomfield location became the first Starbucks in the state to unionize, on April 13.

Julian Burgan, a shift supervisor at the Craig Street location, said he wants Starbucks to practice the progressive ideals it says it stands for and “put their money where their mouth is.” 

“I think it’s kind of one of those things that if they want to be champions of progressive ideals, they shouldn’t be standing in our way. None of us want to bring Starbucks down, we just want our voice heard,” Burgan, a second-year master’s student in Pitt’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, said.

Burgan also said many people don’t realize how young Starbucks workers are, which he thinks makes the company more “scared” of them. 

“So many of us are just generally nervous about the way everything’s headed,” Burgan said. “You know, how are we going to be able to pay off your loans and have a life or a family or even be able to go on a simple vacation today, like you know it’s nerve racking, and this kind of fear didn’t use to exist in our grandparents’ age, and we need to do something about this and hold companies accountable for livable wages.”

A Starbucks spokesperson did not directly answer a question about Burgan saying he thinks the company could be “scared” of its employees.

Besides what workers described as worsening conditions, such as a lack of hours, Kai Cunningham, a barista at the Craig Street location, said petitioning to unionze was more of a protective measure.

“I think corporations can abuse workers in a lot of ways, like with wages, with working conditions and with firing and hiring,” Cunningham, a junior psychology and English major, said. “I think having a union is just an all around good thing because it keeps workers protected and lets us have a voice.”

Burgan said while he wrote the letter to formally petition to unionize, he was nervous about receiving backlash from Starbucks and is worried the company will try to “scare them with potential write-ups.”

“I helped write the letter, and the whole time my hands were shaking because I’ve seen all over the news Starbucks workers being fired for being union leaders, and being written up for no reason so corporate can fire them,” Burgan said. “I am a little worried about them trying to scare us with write-ups here.”

Burgan said since the petition was sent, Starbucks has sent employees what he described as “union-busting material,” such as information packets that say “do your research” and “know the facts” in regards to forming a union.

“They send us these information packets saying ‘do your research’ and ‘know the facts’ but the obvious fact is that unions help workers, and so I think it has brought partners who were neutral or on the fence about the subject to our side because they see how scared Starbucks is of us and that we have a chance for better,” Burgan said.

A Starbucks spokesperson said all claims of anti-union activity are “categorically false” and that Starbucks hopes to “uplift workers’ dreams.”

“We will become the best version of Starbucks by co-creating our future directly as partners,” the spokesperson said. “We will strengthen the Starbucks community by upholding each other’s dreams, upholding the standards and rituals of the company, celebrating partner individuality and voice and upholding behaviors of mutual respect and dignity.”

Burgan said he hopes more Starbucks locations join the fight to unionze.

“We really need and could use any worker, any labor movement, any person to join us and support us,” Burgan said. “There’s power in numbers and you know, Starbucks calls their employees partners, and I think it’s finally time they treated us like their partners.”