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By : Stephen Grigelevich

8 min read

Since the beginning of the pandemic, Boston has witnessed increasing union fervor in the café industry, largely as the result of organizing efforts at small chain cafés like Pavement, City Feed, and 1369. But more recently, local branch baristas at the world’s largest coffee retailer, Starbucks, have joined the ranks of these local shops. On April 11th, workers at the company’s Coolidge Corner and Allston locations, which will now collectively bargain under the name Boston Starbucks Workers United, received NLRB union recognition, receiving 14-0 and 16-0 pro-union votes, respectively. The Boston Compass spoke with three Northeast regional Starbucks workers and union organizers about their experiences of victories and tribulations within recent weeks.

Tyler Daguerre, one of the founding members of the Massachusetts region of Starbucks Workers United (organized under Workers United Labor Union, an SEIU affiliate), shared their local inspiration: “I initially had reached out to the Brookline Booksmith to get involved in organizing. Right around that time was when they [the nation’s first unionized Starbucks store in Buffalo, NY] launched their campaign. I put out a story on Instagram saying ‘hey, if there are any other baristas in the Boston area who want to organize their store, let me know, let’s work together.’” Daguerre was then connected with union organizers in Buffalo, the site of Starbucks workers’ first union. Soon, Starbucks leadership responded. “They were having these paid, voluntary listening sessions… and we'd already known what they were going to say based on what [the Buffalo Starbucks store] had experienced. And so, we already kind of debunked a lot of what they were trying to tell us. And then in future listening sessions…we would collaborate with [workers at Starbucks’ 1304 Commonwealth location] and share the information that we had heard in our respective session.”

Julie Langevin, a 10-year employee and current shift manager at one of Starbucks’ locations in Reading, MA, shared her thoughts on a recent regional union victory: “I would say it was Maine, who recently had their very first Starbucks store unionized. I feel like It's pretty massive when the first store in a state does it. I would say across the country, it's pretty massive.” Langevin also described a particularly divisive tactic Starbucks has employed to thwart union efforts. “Starbucks does not want shift managers, such as myself, to be considered a part of the bargaining unit at each location. They're fighting really hard to have us considered as management, whereas in the rest of the country, people who hold my position are titled as shift supervisors and are legally allowed [to unionize] per the NLRB and NLRA.”

Rafi McCoy, a 3-and-a-half year long barista and barista trainer with Starbucks and a committee leader for the Greater Boston Starbucks Workers United, reported that his store filed for its election in February of this year. Regarding recent victories, he said, “I'll definitely shout out the workers at 874 Comm. Ave for beginning our first indefinite strike in the country! But also, by the time this piece runs, we'll have completed our first full-size "clean play" in Boston; it’s basically a huge organized information push to all the non-union stores in the city, which has been a huge labor of love for myself and a bunch of other amazing organizers.”

All three organizers noted the potential pitfalls associated with contract negotiation. “Starbucks is trying to argue that they have the legal right to bargain one store at a time. And if bargaining takes a year, they're trying to tell us, well, there's 190 unionized stores. It can take 190 years for every store to get their contact.” To avoid this pitfall, Daguerre says, the regional committees across the country are attempting to create a unified contract template in order to negotiate more efficiently with Starbucks leadership. Some contract items would include a fair, living wage pay and trans inclusive healthcare provisions. “But more substantively,” notes Daguerre, “we're really making this about worker power and worker control of the workplace.”

To date, over three hundred company owned Starbucks across the nation have voted to unionize. Some in Starbucks Workers United are reporting what they see as retaliatory store closings, noting the disproportionate number of recently unionized stores closed by the Starbucks franchise. Says Langevin, “I've been with this company since 2005. That's a span of 17 years. I bought into every single line that they sold us about building our communities, about creating a welcoming environment. Every day they tell us how much we need to care about one another…It's been devastating to see that the company that I believed in, that I returned to after quitting my career during the pandemic, because it was so soul crushing, where I thought I knew there was more dignity and respect in the workplace, and I find out that I am right back in the same place. And that they don't care about us. And it's all about the money.”

—Stephen Grigelevich

*Photos and Imagery by Steve Gillis

Originally published in-print in Boston Compass Newspaper #149 August 2022


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