Starbucks workers at three stores around Buffalo, N.Y., have voted on whether to join a union. Charles Krupa/AP hide caption
Starbucks workers at three stores around Buffalo, N.Y., have voted on whether to join a union.
Starbucks workers have voted to form their first U.S. union.
Workers from at least one store near Buffalo, N.Y., voted to unionize, in a watershed moment for Starbucks, which operates 8,953 stores in the U.S.
Three Buffalo-area stores held separate union elections, and ballots from two additional stores are still being hand-counted by a federal labor official. At the first store, the tally was 19 votes in favor — versus eight against — a union.
At stake is whether a total of more than 80 Starbucks employees will form a union. If a majority vote yes, they will join Workers United, affiliated with the massive Service Employees International Union.
The election marks one of the highest-profile union wins for U.S. restaurant workers, which are among the least unionized in the country.
3 more Buffalo stores and 1 in Arizona are also trying to unionize
Starbucks has promoted its reputation as a progressive employer with generous benefits, arguing that a union is not necessary.
In fact, Starbucks previously fought off organizing attempts in New York City and Philadelphia. But last year, workers at a Starbucks store in Canada unionized. And now, three additional locations in the Buffalo-area and one in Arizona are pursuing a union.
“I think a unionized Starbucks restaurant will demonstrate to workers … that it’s not easy, but they can do it,” said Rebecca Givan, a labor studies professor at Rutgers University. “We will likely see many, many more organizing drives.”
Buffalo workers get nationwide attention
The Buffalo vote garnered nationwide attention and support from key labor figures such as Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. Starbucks headquarters also responded to the drive by flying a wave of corporate executives into Buffalo, including the head of U.S. retail operations and also the legendary former CEO Howard Schultz.
The pro-union Starbucks workers advocated for better staffing, training and pay, including steady wage increases for workers who stay with the company for years only to discover their pay is not much more than that of new hires.
Hours before federal officials set the union vote for Buffalo stores, Starbucks announced it would raise its starting pay to $15 an hour and boost wages for staff employed longer than two and five years, plus make changes to its training and scheduling.
Buffalo workers later accused Starbucks of breaking the law by interfering with their labor organizing. They filed a federal labor charge, saying the chain was “engaging in a campaign of threats, intimidation, surveillance” and other illegal activity in response to their efforts to unionize.
Starbucks denied those allegations and said it complies with all labor-organizing laws and guidelines.
Starbucks had also argued that all 20 stores in the Buffalo area should vote in the union election, rather than three individual stores, noting that workers can pick up shifts at different stores. Federal labor officials repeatedly disagreed, finding each store to be fairly autonomous and declining to delay the election or the vote count over the matter.
Editor’s note: Starbucks is among NPR’s recent financial supporters.
WBFO’s Tom Dinki and NPR’s Jim O’Grady contributed to this report.