IZZY HEDIN-URRUTIA (they/them)

Groundcover contributor

Ann Arbor has become a union town. On February 4, three Starbucks locations in downtown Ann Arbor filed for union membership with Starbucks Workers United, a union formed as recently as January 21 to create a platform for employees to voice grievances and demand changes from Starbucks corporate. In addition, other stores outside of downtown Ann Arbor have filed for union membership — the first two stores in the district to file were at Glencoe Crossing and Jackson and Zeeb, both drive through locations outside of the University of Michigan campus. In the past few weeks, five out of eight of the Starbucks locations in Michigan to file have been in Ann Arbor. This marks a significant change in pace and trajectory from past labor activism, such as strikes at former local shop Mighty Good Coffee — rather than resulting in layoffs and closings, the Starbucks union push in Ann Arbor is powerful and increasing in momentum.

Starbucks employees are termed “partners,” a corporate endeavor to emphasize the unity and teamwork supposedly present across the company. However, for local Ann Arbor baristas and shift supervisors, the day-to-day demands of the job have felt crushing, not empowering. For Olivia*, a student and Starbucks shift supervisor, what was supposed to be a part-time job quickly became an overwhelming part of her life: “Starbucks is not the environment it pretends it is.” 

Paying her own tuition, rent and costs of living, Olivia has “never worked less than twenty hours a week” and has found the unique challenges of working at a store within the university district of Ann Arbor exhausting. “When the rush comes in, and we go from having thirty drinks per hour, to all of a sudden … [when] class gets out at 2:50 p.m. to 3:00 p.m. we get forty more drinks. So including everything we got in that last half hour, we get a sixty, seventy half hour. All of a sudden, we’ve doubled in sales.”

In addition, Olivia has felt unsafe frequently at a location where incidents happen “nightly.” Being in the unique position of shift supervisor, Olivia deals with a laundry list of responsibilities, often filling in staffing gaps and directly handling crises when they occur. Roy, a shift supervisor at a drive through location outside of the University district, finds that safety concerns and the lack of support from management is not an issue particular to downtown stores. “We’re expected to do 30, 40, 50 transactions in a half hour’s time, and every transaction usually has a food item and a beverage.” 

He cites this as the catalyst for an instance in which an unruly customer came into the café swearing and screaming. When Roy attempted to employ measures to alleviate the customer’s concerns and stop her outburst, she called him a homophobic slur. “I did not feel safe.” 

As a result, Roy and other partners refused to serve, and incurred the consequences from their interim district manager, who told them they “made the wrong decision for not serving her.” After the same customer found baristas on social media and began messaging them legal threats, Roy felt compelled to file an ethics compliance case to avoid further consequences from corporate. “We got six union cards signed that day.”

Roy found himself in a precarious moment as a shift supervisor when his store manager and district manager were both let go by Starbucks last year. As a result, the shift supervisors who have stuck with the location were forced to run the store in the absence of a store manager. “We had to take on a whole bunch of extra tasks because the only thing our interim manager was doing was scheduling.” 

Roy admits that he was vastly unprepared and unsupported to do the work of running an entire store. “One day it got so bad that I sent an email to the people in Buffalo, telling them that things are terrible here in Michigan. How can you help?” 

Starbucks Workers United was formed by a landslide vote at a location in Buffalo, New York in December of 2021 after filing with three other stores in the area to be represented by SBWU, part of the Service Employees International Union. In filing, partners cited issues with staffing and unfair pay originating in the company long before the pandemic. Starbucks immediately pushed back against union formation, requesting the National Labor Relations Board hold the vote until all stores in the surrounding Buffalo area had filed; however, their request was denied, and subsequently came the birth of a platform for Starbucks partners to demand fair compensation, better staffing, and better safety mandates from corporate.

Starbucks has undeniably been a prominent part of the Ann Arbor city landscape. With the city’s yearly influx of students attending the University of Michigan and Washtenaw Community College, caffeine drives the everyday bustle between home, work and campus. In addition, coffee has staked its claim as the beverage of choice for other Ann Arborites as well, with eight separate coffee companies boasting multiple locations in the city in addition to Starbucks. It’s no wonder that the corporate coffee giant, who raked in $52.58 billion from 2020-2021 during the global COVID-19 pandemic, decided to open thirteen stores in the district alone.

Partners at five of those thirteen stores have filed for union membership, but even before then excitement for unionization had been boiling just barely beneath the surface. “Does Starbucks have a union? It’s not unfathomable to think of,” Olivia insists. She cites her low wages and her frustration with the “inaccessible” nature of corporate as her primary reasons for finding a union necessary. “I can’t even imagine how they would hear us any other way … it seems like the only option at this point. And I think it’s always been the only option.” 

Riza, a local barista at a downtown store, agrees that understanding how much the company makes versus how much workers are paid is what truly pushed her towards signing her union card: “In the last fiscal quarter, Starbucks revenues have increased 31%. That is a crazy statistic in a pandemic. And of course, I’m not seeing a 31% increase in my paycheck.”

Roy, who has been leading many of the organizing efforts since his call for help to Buffalo, agrees that low wages, among other things, have been part of the reason he feels exploited as a partner. “I feel worthless, for the amount of work I’ve had to do for our store … the fact that what they thought to pay us was only worth two drinks, which is only a minute of our time, at best. A whole hour of my time being in the store is worth a minute to them.” Even though Starbucks in Ann Arbor pays more to employees than their average nationwide, Roy notes that his wage is still “several dollars below the livable wage in Ann Arbor.”

Alongside an increase in wages for hourly partners, other demands cited in the letter to corporate in union filings last Friday include better safety mandates that prioritize partner safety during the pandemic. Olivia wishes that corporate better addressed staffing issues so that she was more able to keep up with the high volume of orders and safety precautions more easily, while Riza finds the unwillingness of Starbucks to enforce masking in store for customers particularly egregious. “Statistically, a customer is a lot less likely to get covid from a single interaction with me than I am to get COVID from 200 customer interactions in a day.” 

Roy has felt the brunt of the pandemic as a result of how quickly and carelessly he was shuffled from store to store to address staffing gaps due to COVID-19 infections, and how little corporate cared about his and his partners’ safety as a result. After being exposed by his mother, Roy was told to “go ahead and clock in” by his store manager at work the next day despite clearly dictated COVID-19 protocols warning him not to do so.

After filing, partners report high hopes for the future, even though Starbucks corporate has failed to respond to their letters filing for membership by their set deadline of 3:00 p.m. on February 7. Olivia notes her pride in her coworkers’ comradery and efforts thus far. “I’m super confident in our ability, our power,” she said.”

 Riza points out that even if corporate attempts to address complaints through other avenues, unionization would still be necessary. “Even if Starbucks was a totally amazing, perfect place to work, I still believe we should be in a union. Because I think the chance of exploitation is so high, and we need to have some protection at all times.” 

Roy has felt empowered from the success of the district and in other areas of Michigan thus far, noting that the Ann Arbor district is currently the most “densely organized” and that there are plans underway to ensure smooth filing of other locations in the area.

Considering the exponential gains in revenue during a global pandemic, the unfair treatment of partners as disposable, an overwhelming load of responsibilities pushed onto employees to manage their own safety and the profitability of stores, and the offensively low wages, it is no wonder union efforts in the local Ann Arbor district have been particularly successful. Indeed, for a multi-billion dollar company with stores worldwide, unscrupulous standards and compensation have proven more than apparent. Given this, the question remains: How can the local community show their support for the movement? “Starbucks cares where you’re spending your money,” Olivia states, emphasizing the importance of the public specifically patronizing stores that boast union membership or filings. 

Riza encourages community members to show support for the Congressional PRO Act, to ensure that union-busting tactics are deemed illegal in general, not just for Starbucks. And Roy sees the power in garnering support from City Council leaders in future aspirations for the movement, in addition to visible and substantial support from patrons in the following months as the front shifts into action. “We just need people to show up.”

*All names have been changed to protect anonymity of workers.

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