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The COVID-19 pandemic has fundamentally changed the nature of work for many Americans. Michigan Radio’s series “How We Work” is exploring some of those changes through the eyes of a variety of workers.

Why these Starbucks workers want a union

Rachel Ishikawa/Emma Winowiecki / Michigan Radio

Bennet Proegler reached his breaking point after one of the worst shifts he ever had at Starbucks – where he works in Ann Arbor.

“We didn't have a store manager…and we were only running with like three or four people on the floor, but still expected to get drinks out the window in 45 seconds,” Proegler recalls.

He was trying to count inventory and place orders all at the same time. When the interim store manager arrived, he burst into tears.

“I was like, this is enough…. I love this job because I loved the people that I was working with, but mentally and emotionally, I couldn't take it.”

For Proegler this didn’t mean quitting. It meant organizing.

Why a union

There are five stores in Ann Arbor that have filed with the National Labor Relations Board for an election to unionize with Workers United, an affiliate of Service Employees International Union (SEIU).

Victoria Provencio, a shift supervisor in Ann Arbor, heard about the union win in Buffalo, NY back in January. They thought a union campaign could really take off at their location.

“The atmosphere of how Ann Arbor is…I was like: This could work here, and I think it would be a great idea to go for it.”

The workers I spoke with for this story are young – under 30. They’re mostly students. And they like their jobs at Starbucks.

They like the health benefits, the 401K, the friendly chats with customers. But mostly, they seem to just really like each other.

“Part of the reason why I did also sign up to work at Starbucks is it's a safe space,” Proegler said. “I know there are a bunch of partners in my store where…it's the only time that they have experience with other queer people in their lives.”

But these workers say that they deserve more. For one, they want better wages.

Ruby Barron, a barista at Starbucks, notes that drinks can run six or seven dollars, but that their wages are $14 an hour for baristas and $17 for shift supervisors.

“If we're making, like, more than 100 drinks an hour, there's just something clearly not right happening there,” Barron said.

Workers also expressed concerns about the mobile ordering system Starbucks uses, which allows for multiple orders to come in at the same time. It can be hard for workers to keep up.

Elizabeth Blackwell recounted one particularly busy day when the wait time between placing an order on the app and receiving your drink was one hour.

She said customers don’t bring those complaints to corporate. They bring them to her.

“They're thinking, ‘I am going to scream at this 19-year-old girl who has been here for six hours,’” Blackwell said.

They wrote out some of theirdemands in a letter to former Starbucks CEO, Kevin Johnson.

Why this matters

Ann Arbor is not the only city with Starbucks locations campaigning for a union. So far a handful of stores have unionized in the U.S. More than 100 others – including about a dozen in Michigan – have filed with the National Labor Relations Board or announced that they plan to file for an election.

One store has voted no to a union, but Workers United said they are challenging this vote with the NLRB.

Some people are calling these young Starbucks workers “Generation U” – “U” as in union.

Union membership has been low for decades, but Wayne State University labor professor Michael Goldfield says there is a possibility these efforts could be part of an emerging uptick in labor activity – although he noted that it would take a lot more workers in other sectors for that to be a reality.

“It can't just be several hundred or even several thousand small retail places. It has to affect major parts of the economy,” Goldfield said.

He noted that as such a visible company, Starbucks workers could play an important role in both inspiring others to organize, and publicizing labor struggles.

“The Starbucks workers’ successes can be an incentive to workers more central to the economy,” Goldfield said. “[S]omehow, Starbucks and Amazon are sort of sexier for the press than talking about grocery stores or even coal miners or steelworkers or that sort of thing.”

What organizing means

Starbucks’ corporate leaders say a union isn’t necessary, and that the company’s pay and benefits are very competitive. They also have said that they respect the right of workers to organize.

Despite this, there have been reports that Starbucks has cut hours and even fired workers in retaliation for their organizing activity, in violation of labor laws.

Starbucks denies this, but The Washington Postreports that the National Labor Relations Board backed up this complaint from two employees in Arizona.

Whatever the outcome at the Michigan locations, Bennett Proegler says this moment has made him feel more connected to his coworkers. He says they’ve all realized their value.

“Our generation of people have really taken power back into our own hands. We've realized that we can be treated better,” Proegler reflected. “We don't need to stay in a job and put up with whatever the corporation or the company is pushing on us…. [W]e can do something.”

Rachel Ishikawa joined Michigan Public in 2020 as a podcast producer. She produced Kids These Days, a limited-run series that launched in the summer of 2020.
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