Efforts to unionize bring Austin Starbucks workers together
Atlas Danger took a job at the Starbucks at 45th and Lamar with the understanding they’d be working at least 30 hours a week — not the 22 they’re working now. With rising gas prices and inflation, Danger, who makes $14.70 an hour, was unable to pay this month’s rent — despite delivering food on the side.
Coworkers collected donations to help Danger out.
“I was super grateful for it,” they said, “but at the same time, that never should of had to happen.”
Employees say Starbucks shops in Austin have been cutting hours ever since they announced their intention to unionize. A Starbucks spokesperson disputed that claim, saying any allegations of anti-union activity are “categorically false.”
Starbucks has stated it does not "believe unions are necessary,” while the National Labor Relations Board filed a complaint last week against the company for firing seven employees who were organizing in Memphis.
Workers at three Austin Starbucks, including Danger’s cafe, have joined the national movement to unionize. Since December, employees at at least 200 Starbucks across the country have announced their intent to form unions. A location in San Antonio was the first in Texas to organize its union.
“I've been with Starbucks for three years and eight months,” said Lillian Allen, a barista and organizer at the 24th and Nueces Street store. “And in that time, I've seen a lot of nonsense.”
He and his coworkers held a rally outside the shop Saturday in an effort to gain community support.
Allen said workers there started organizing to address scheduling issues, COVID policies and poor management decisions, among other things. He said he’s seen good employees pushed out, people promised promotions that never happened and multiple other issues.
Then right before spring break, he said, a manager told workers requests for time off would be granted only if staff got someone else hired at a Starbucks. No one was ever forced to do this, but that wasn’t enough for Allen and other employees.
“This shouldn't have happened in the first place,” Allen said. “And that was around the time that I printed out the union cards.”
In typical Austin fashion, the organizing efforts at the 24th Street store started in an unconventional way. Before there was an organizing committee or employees went public, Allen had already gotten 10 cards from coworkers saying they supported a union. Allen didn’t know two other employees had reached out to Starbucks Workers United and were asking coworkers their thoughts on a union.
They tweeted a letter to then-CEO Kevin Johnson on March 7, voicing their grievances and reasons for unionizing – which included an “erosion” of the company culture and trust.
“We went public and it was very chaotic,” Allen said. “This is – How many people with ADHD does it take to unionize the Starbucks?”
Allen called up his coworkers that same day to ask if they wanted to sign a union card; 78% of them did. The cards were sent to the National Labor Relations Board, the federal agency that oversees unions and facilitates union elections.
Allen said they’re waiting for the NLRB’s approval to hold a vote.
Of course, Texas isn’t known for being union-friendly. Ana Avendaño, a labor law professor at UT Austin, said that under the state’s “right to work” laws, employees at a place that unionizes don’t have to pay union dues if they don’t want to join, but the union still has to represent them.
“It's a way to weaken unions because unions function based on what the members contribute,” she said.
Avendaño said right-to-work laws have their roots in white supremacy: White workers didn’t want to work alongside Black workers for fear they would undermine their own power in the workplace and bring down wages.
“Unions are the vehicle that brings equities to the workplace,” she said. “When there's a union in the shop, all workers are subject to one set of policies. So in order to weaken that, states like Texas … began to grow this idea of what they call the right to work.”
Organizers in Austin aren’t alone in their fight. They’re getting help from Natalie Wittmeyer, a volunteer with Starbucks Workers United. Wittmeyer is a barista at the Buffalo, N.Y., Starbucks that was the first in the country to unionize.
She said she is confident the shops in Austin will win their union elections.
“The people in these stores also have fostered a really great sense of community with the people that they work with,” she said. “That leads me to the conclusion that the stores are going to come together and overcome any kind of retaliation from management and eventually go on to win their campaigns.”
Starbucks is not only retaliating by cutting hours, Allen said, it has also started enforcing policies that weren’t followed before, such as being written up for clocking in a minute late and dress code violations. He noted a shift supervisor who was a known union supporter was recently fired for being late. Organizers plan to file an unfair labor practice complaint with the NLRB.
“There’s a lot of anger and frustration over the fact that this happened and how it happened,” he said. “It’s generated fear, and it’s also generated support and pro-union energy.”
The district manager for the Austin stores declined an interview request and directed all comments to Starbucks. A Starbucks spokesperson also declined to be interviewed, but gave the following statement: “We will become the best version of Starbucks by co-creating our future directly as partners. And we will strengthen the Starbucks community by upholding each other’s dreams; upholding the standards and rituals of the company; celebrating partner individuality and voice; and upholding behaviors of mutual respect and dignity.”
Dan Cornfield, an expert in labor movements at Vanderbilt University, said unionization efforts have surged across industries nationwide — driven largely by young workers and students with workplace issues that have only been exacerbated during the pandemic.
He said many of the Starbucks being unionized are in large urban areas with public universities. The students they employ garner the support of locals, he said, which is crucial to winning a union election. The third store in Austin that announced its intent to unionize is also in West Campus.
Organizers received the support of congressional candidate Greg Casar, U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett and Mayor Steve Adler, who held a press conference outside the 24th and Nueces store last month. Organizers said customers are offering their support by ordering under names such as “union, yes” or “union strong.”
“The Austin, Texas, situation is probably emblematic of the type of unionization effort that's going on broadly in the corporate retail sector in the United States at this time,” Cornfield said.
For organizers like Sydney Collins, unionizing the store at 24th and Nueces isn’t just about getting representation, it’s about making nationwide change.
“It's really cool and kind of hilarious that in unionizing is when I feel most connected to people within this company."
“Workers everywhere deserve proper representation, better benefits, that kind of thing,” she said. “We just think that some of the money that goes toward CEOs [and] upper management … should be distributed back down to the people who make companies run.”
Allen said he has never felt as connected with the company as he does now. The weekly Zoom meetings with workers at other stores in Austin and union organizers throughout the country has fostered a great sense of community for him.
“It's really cool and kind of hilarious that in unionizing is when I feel most connected to people within this company,” he said.
He said the experience makes him feel like an actual essential worker.
“Seeing the way people show up for this and support this,” Allen said, “makes me feel valued as a member of my community, and it makes me feel proud to do the job I'm doing and to do the union organizing that I'm doing.”
Copyright 2022 KUT 90.5. To see more, visit KUT 90.5.