New York, NY – When Farmingville, L.I. Starbucks worker Sam Cornetta told their manager she may have been exposed to someone with Covid-19 during a Christmas Eve shift last December, the pro-union barista was told “secondhand contact was fine” and ordered to keep working. In February, seven Starbucks workers in Memphis, Tennessee — core members of the union organizing committee at the chain’s Poplar & Highland store — where fired outright after they began speaking out about worker safety and the need to unionize. 

SEIU International President Mary Kay Henry talked to LaborPress about the historic drive to unionize Starbucks stores across the country.

Both incidents epitomize the kind of profound dissatisfaction fueling groundbreaking unionization drives across the country and — according to SEIU International President Mary Kay Henry — 21st century worker demands for “sweeping, systemic change to check corporate power.” 

“Starbucks partners are pouring fuel on the fire of a nationwide surge of workers demanding the right to bargain for a better life,” Henry recently told LaborPress. “In the face of corporations that for decades have squeezed and silenced workers, working people are demanding change and a true voice on the job through a union with a ferocity we haven’t seen in decades.”

That ferocity has, thus far, culminated in 10 Starbucks stores stretching from here to Seattle voting to unionize with approximately 190 others petitioning for their own union elections. 

Last week, baristas organized under the Starbucks Workers United banner and in partnership with the SEIU-affiliated Workers United union, successfully unionized Starbucks’ upper crust outlet — the posh New York Roastery, located on 9th Avenue in the Meatpacking District. 

Starbucks baristas at the Downtown Disney Store in Anaheim, California aren’t even letting the looming presence of The Mouse dissuade them from filing for a union election with the NLRB.

In fact, the virulent union-busting Starbucks managers have unleashed on workers in places like Memphis and others, has in many instances only emboldened pro-union employees to press the fight. 

“Starbucks partners know that together in a union, they’re more powerful than any billionaire CEO or union-busting corporation,” Henry says. “The NLRB has already taken action against Starbucks’ clearly illegal tactics, and we stand with partners who are calling on the NLRB to continue holding the company to account for flagrant anti-worker actions. We’re also united in a demand for sweeping, systemic change to check corporate power. When massive corporations like Starbucks act as though they can silence Black and brown workers with impunity, it’s clear the time has come for our labor laws to reflect workers’ current reality and empower their organizing.”

Management’s crackdown on union organizing is particularly galling to members of Starbucks Workers United who view returning CEO Howard Schultz’ professed fondness for progressive values as little more than weak tea. 

Or as Cornetta says, “At the end of the day, it is a business — they are going to prioritize profits over workers.”

Starbucks especially likes to refer to workers not as “employees,” but as “partners.” 

But Henry says there’s a “deep irony to Starbucks calling these workers ‘partners’ and then treating them like anything but a valued partner.”

“It flies in the face of Starbucks trying to position itself as a so-called progressive company,” Henry told LaborPress. “If Starbucks is truly committed to partnership, it can meet workers’ demands for a union and bargain a strong path forward in good faith.”

So far, all Schultz has done is pledge to halt company stock buybacks and invest that money in Starbucks stores.

Henry, meanwhile, stresses SEIU is “committed to backing every worker in their demands for a seat at the table with their employer.”

“Whether that means going out on strike, filing for NLRB election or organizing across industries and geographies to win sector-wide improvements or a national table with big corporations like McDonald’s, Starbucks and [major] airlines,” she says.

 It’s an “all-of-the-above strategy” for the second-largest union in the nation. 

“Workers aren’t counting anything out and neither will we,” Henry told LaborPress. “Don’t forget: Starbucks partners are winning in the face of significant and coordinated union-busting tactics by the company. Many workers don’t have the option of an NLRB election, and even more will never get a fair shake under the current rules that were written by and for corporations and white men.”

Most of the so-called “Memphis Seven” fired after advocating for unionization are young people of color. 

“Workers understand that the rules are rigged against them and that they need different strategies in different workplaces — which is why SEIU is committed to standing with workers as they organize, seize their power and come together to change their industries in new and innovative ways,” says Henry.


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