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While Starbucks Employees Struggle for Union Status, Company Officials Converge on Stores.

A campaign in the Buffalo area could result in the formation of the first union at company-owned stores in the United States. However, supporters assert that management's actions are chilling.

Michelle Eisen says she has encountered her share of workplace stress over the course of her decade at Starbucks. She cites the company's growing reliance on production targets, insufficient attention to training, and periods of staffing shortages or excessive turnover.

However, she had never encountered a change implemented by the company after workers at her store and two others in the Buffalo area filed for a union election in late August: the addition of two out-of-state "support managers" who frequently work on the floor alongside baristas and have created unease, according to Ms. Eisen.

"It's an intimidating force for a lot of rookie baristas," Ms. Eisen explained. "This is not a simple task. It should not be muddled further by the sense that everything you do or say is being observed and listened to."

Workers and union activists allege that the imported managers are part of the company's counteroffensive aimed at intimidating workers, disrupting routine operations, and undermining support for the union.

Starbucks asserts that the addition of managers, as well as an increase in the number of employees in stores and the arrival of a senior corporate executive from out of town, are regular company processes. It says the adjustments, which include temporarily closing stores in the area, are meant to assist improve training and staffing – long-standing challenges — and are in reaction to input from employees, not to the union effort.

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In Cheektowaga, New York, a Starbucks store is being used for training. Three additional stores in the Buffalo region are organizing.

"The listening sessions elicited demands from partners, which resulted in those actions," said Starbucks spokesperson Reggie Borges. "This is not a choice made by our leadership, who stated, 'We are going to do this and that.' We listened and took note of their worries."

There are no unionized Starbucks stores in the country's almost 9,000 corporate-owned locations. The possibility of workers there forming a union appears to reflect a recent surge in labor militancy around the country, including strikes in a number of industries.

According to the National Labor Relations Board, union elections are meant to be held under "laboratory conditions," in which workers can vote without fear of coercion and in an election process independent of the employer.

Former labor board officials assert that the company's activities could result in the cancellation of an election if the union loses.

"You might say it's part of a larger sequence of events that appears to generate a tendency for people to be chilled or restrained," said Wilma B. Liebman, a former board chairperson under the Obama administration.

A labor board official recently recommended rejecting a union election at an Amazon facility in Alabama for identical reasons, but Mr. Borges said Starbucks did not believe anything it had done justified overturning the poll.

Starbucks has faced union campaigns in the past, including in the early 2000s in New York City and in 2019 in Philadelphia, when a labor board judge ruled that the termination of two employees engaging in union organizing was illegal. Starbucks has filed an appeal over the verdict.

Though none of the initiatives succeeded in our nation, a Starbucks-owned location in Canada recently unionized, as have some locations operated by other companies that have license deals with Starbucks.

Starbucks has responded in a number of ways that are typical of employers in Buffalo, where union supporters aspire to join Workers United, an affiliate of the massive Service Employees International Union. The initiatives include meeting with employees to discuss the need for a third party to represent them.

Starbucks is also attempting to convince the labor board to require employees at all 20 Buffalo-area sites to vote in the election, rather than allowing businesses to vote separately, noting that employees can work at numerous locations. (Typically, union organizers prefer voting in smaller units in order to maximize their chances of establishing a foothold in at least some places.) The board is expected to rule on this issue and establish a date for the election in the coming weeks.

However, labor law experts believe that some of the company's practices throughout the union campaign were unconventional. "A massive increase in employees, shop closures, all of this is unprecedented," said Matthew Bodie, a St. Louis University law professor and former labor board counsel.

A recent visit to a Starbucks near the airport revealed at least nine baristas behind the counter but only a few customers.

"It's unbelievable," said Alexis Rizzo, a long-serving Starbucks employee who spearheaded the store's organizing push. "Even if you're only attempting to dash to the back to grab a gallon of milk, you're suddenly forced to navigate an obstacle course in order to fit between all the people who are there for no purpose."

Michelle Eisen, a Buffalo Starbucks employee, said the sudden appearance of managers from out of state produced anxiety among many employees.
Michelle Eisen, a Buffalo Starbucks employee, said the sudden appearance of managers from out of state produced anxiety among many employees.

Ms. Rizzo stated that the store's peak employee count — which she stated reached the teens — made those who worked there prior to the union election filing feel outnumbered and disheartened. "It's frightening," she stated. "You go to work and it's just you and ten strangers."

Starbucks stated that the additional staff was necessary to assist the business following an increase in absenteeism.

A portion of the additional staff has relocated to the airport location from a nearby Starbucks store that was recently converted into a training center. Although that store does not currently have an election petition pending, many of its employees have voiced support for the union movement, and several are also feeling alone and disoriented.

"Initially, many believed our store needed a reset," said Colin Cochran, a pro-union employee at the store that was converted into a training facility who has been primarily assigned to other sites since. "As the situation has stretched on and we've been redirected to an increasing number of other establishments, it's been aggravating. We'd like to see one another again."

Workers reported that their uneasiness had been exacerbated by the sudden arrival of new supervisors and company executives from out of town.

In a September conference video, a district manager in Arizona informs her coworkers that the employer has asked her to spend the next 90 days in Buffalo. "There is a massive task force out there trying to resolve this because if Buffalo, New York, unionizes, it will be the first market in Starbucks history," the district manager says in the video, which was shared by a meeting attendee and examined by The New York Times. When asked if the task group is a "last-ditch attempt to halt it," the district manager says, "Yes, we're going to save it."

Will Westlake, a barista in Hamburg, a Buffalo suburb where workers have also registered for a union election, claimed a store log indicated that multiple business officials from outside the Buffalo area had visited the store in the preceding six weeks. At least seven visits by Rossann Williams, Starbucks' head of retail for North America, were included.

Mr. Westlake explained that the officials occasionally work on laptops facing the baristas, occasionally join them behind the bar to work and question about the establishment, and occasionally conduct menial chores such as cleaning the restroom. He stated that many of his coworkers felt scared by these officials, and he described Ms. Williams' presence as "surreal."

Colin Cochran was one of the union-supporting employees at the Starbucks location that was converted into a training center.
Colin Cochran was one of the union-supporting employees at the Starbucks location that was converted into a training center.

Starbucks stated that many of the executives were regional leaders and coaches who assisted in resolving operational challenges and remodeling locations as part of a companywide effort that began in May, when Covid-19 infection rates decreased and store traffic increased across the country.

"The business comeback occurred so quickly that we were unprepared," Ms. Williams explained in an interview.

The company reports that it has increased staffing in a number of areas outside of Buffalo, particularly in the Midwest and Mountain West, and that it hired an additional recruiter in each of its 12 regions this spring to expedite hiring. It stated that over 40 establishments across the country had been converted into temporary training centers.

On a Saturday in October, Ms. Williams paid a visit to the training center, standing behind a group of employees as a trainer taught them at the bar.

Later, while seated outside the store to discuss her work in Buffalo, she dismissed the notion that temporarily closing a store or making other big adjustments would jeopardize the laboratory conditions for the union election.

"If I went to a market and saw the state of some of these establishments and did nothing, it would be totally contrary to my work," she explained. "I'm not coming here to say I'm not going to do anything."