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As employees at a Denver Starbucks vote on unionizing, the company is accused of anti-union tactics

Erin O'Toole

This coming Tuesday, employees at the Starbucks on Colfax Avenue in Denver will learn if their vote to unionize has been successful. Their effort is part of a recent and historic uptick in worker activism across the country, driven partly by the impact of working conditions during the COVID pandemic. There are more than 50 Starbucks locations in the U.S. that have recently voted to unionize, including one in the town of Superior – the first in Colorado to do so.

But pro-union employees at this particular Denver store say their efforts have resulted in backlash from the company. Nick Bowlin is a freelance journalist based in Colorado. He wrote about what’s been happening in an in-depth piece that was published this week in The Guardian.

Interview Highlights
These interview highlights have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Erin O’Toole: Can you start with just a bit of a background about why employees at Starbucks might want to unionize? Not everyone is familiar with unions. I know there are a lot of myths and misconceptions about what it means to have union representation.

Nick Bowlin: The workers that I talked to at the Starbucks in Denver had a couple main points. Starbucks has been historically known for having good benefits and good wages for service industry, front-of-house sort of gig. But they [the employees] say that wages have not kept up with inflation in recent years.

They also are definitely motivated by some of the difficulties for service workers that resulted from the pandemic. They felt that the company wasn't protecting them when it came to keeping them safe from the virus and also from belligerent customers. Several had horror stories about customers getting angry — and at times violent — about mask mandates and about shortages in the store.

They also cited a policy where Starbucks has just been raking in enormous profits in recent years. And they think that more of that should go to the people who make the coffee. They cited a policy that was proposed at the first Starbucks to unionize ever, which was December 20, 2021 in Buffalo, New York, where if a worker misses a shift, the wages from that worker will be distributed to the other baristas who are working at the time or on a short staff shift, rather than going back into their, you know, corporate profits.

Many of the workers who I talked to who weren't aware of unions before, when they realized what the collective bargaining process entailed and the ability to really push for the benefits and the protections that they want, that aspect of autonomy; many of them brought that up as something that brought them around to supporting the labor organizing.

You started following the effort to unionize at this Denver Starbucks several months ago. Tell us a bit about this particular store, which is on Colfax Avenue. It's known as the Barn. What is it like for employees working there?

Well, first of all, it looks like a barn.

The Denver Starbucks community says work there is very fast-paced. Inexperienced baristas tend not to start there. Compared to some of the suburban locations, it can be a little bit more rough and tumble. Starbucks workers at other locations tend not to pick up shifts at the Barn because it has something of a reputation.

One of the baristas I talked to was punched in the face by an angry customer who was mad about the mask policy. There was this other incident where one of the baristas was pepper sprayed because they were out of frappuccinos one day.

These are things that could happen at any Starbucks. But the Barn has a little bit of a reputation which gets back to the issue of workplace protections and maybe why the workers at the point were especially inclined to announce a union drive pretty early on.

I have to say, one thing that really jumped out at me is that Starbucks for a long time has had this public reputation as one of the few companies that actually does care about its employees. They offer health benefits; they pay for college tuition. It's kind of hard to square this perception of a benevolent company with what's happening now to employees who want to unionize.

And I think that that perception is pretty common. And there's evidence of that. Like I said earlier, that's why baristas have sought out Starbucks, because they offer health benefits when not all coffee shop jobs necessarily do. They have a very robust tuition aid program. And they also have this kind of corporate culture that encourages this kind of friendly atmosphere. Every employee from management executives on down to the lowest paid barista are referred to internally in the company as partners. And this of goes along with the, you know, company culture they try to foster.

But, you know, the the workers say a couple of things. Just because there are benefits doesn't mean they're always the best — and they want them to be better. And they also say that if they have a union, it will be up to them to push for the benefits they want rather than, you know, the benefits coming down from on high from the company.

You know, I think about one of the baristas at the Denver store named Vanessa Castro, who I spoke to and has worked for Starbucks for four years at multiple stores around the country. She's getting a college degree from Arizona State with tuition aid from Starbucks. And she said, if you start to empower employees by giving them benefits, options, resources to get to access, you don't get to choose when to stop.

What happens next? You mentioned the votes for the Denver story will be announced on Tuesday. What are people expecting the results to be?

That's right. The NLRB will announce the results on May 10th, which is Tuesday. All my reporting suggests that the workers are pretty confident that they have a wide margin of majority support. And then once that happens, I mean, that's a big win. But it's also just the beginning, because then they have to enter the collective bargaining agreement process.

All expectations are that Starbucks is going to be very hard nosed with the bargaining. You know, the fact that they're trying to pit unionized workers against non-unionized workers with the benefit increase for the non-labor stores, I think, is evidence of how they intend to operate going forward.

The National Starbucks Union is associated with one of the largest service-worker unions in the country. They have good lawyers. So they're certainly going to, you know, push back. And I definitely get the sense from the workers in Denver that they are both excited to just have the vote happen and get this, you know, this uncertain limbo period done with.

Colorado Edition is hosted and produced by Erin O'Toole (@ErinOtoole1). Web was edited by digital operations manager Ashley Jefcoat.

The mission of Colorado Edition is to deepen understanding of life in Northern Colorado through authentic conversation and storytelling. It's available as a podcast on iTunesSpotifyGoogle PlayStitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts.

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Our theme music was composed by Colorado musicians Briana Harris and Johnny Burroughs. Other music in the show by Blue Dot Sessions.

As host of KUNC's Colorado Edition, I work closely with our producers and reporters to bring context and diverse perspectives to the important issues of the day. And because life is best when it's a balance of work and play, I love finding stories that highlight culture, music, the outdoors, and anything that makes Colorado such a great place to live.
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