Haley Cribbs has worked for Starbucks in Bellingham, Washington, for about six years. When she joined as a “partner” (Starbucks’s term for employees), she found it to be “a pretty progressive company.” It has long offered workers relatively high wages and a lot of benefits not always common in service industry jobs, including a 401(k); medical, dental, and vision insurance; even a path to getting free undergrad education online. But Cribbs says that in the last couple of years there’s been a “culture shift” and the company has gotten less friendly to workers. Her hours were cut from 30 to 15 a year and a half ago, and to make ends meet she says she had to get a second job.
“For someone that’s been there for that long, that was really disappointing,” she says.
Cribbs was one of dozens of unionized Starbucks retail workers from the Pacific Northwest who showed up Wednesday at Starbucks’s SoDo corporate headquarters for a rally in advance of the company’s annual shareholders meeting on Thursday. They were joined by a host of union allies in a raucous and sometimes irreverent show of solidarity. Some protesters came dressed as the Starbucks mermaid, and they were serenaded by a set from local novelty pop punk supergroup Who Is She?, the band who was disinvited from playing at Kraken games after performing an anti-Jeff Bezos song.
Starbucks Workers United, the union responsible for organizing stores across the country, came to the HQ to demand better treatment of workers. Several attendees complained about having had their hours cut, a major issue for many employees since once your hours drop below a certain threshold you are no longer eligible for benefits.
They also came to protest what they say is Starbucks’s disingenuous bargaining strategy. Several Starbucks workers Eater Seattle spoke to at the rally say representatives of management will arrive to bargaining sessions, then find an excuse to leave without addressing any of the union’s issues.
Cribbs says that at a bargaining session for her store, management’s representatives only showed up for about 10 minutes. “I think they will find whatever [reason] they can to not bargain with us,” she says.
Nearly 300 Starbucks stores have voted to unionize since 2021, when a store in Buffalo became the first Starbucks union shop, according to the labor advocacy site More Perfect Union. Starbucks, like many employers facing union drives, has opposed organizing efforts and Howard Schultz, the just-departed CEO and public face of the company, has spoken out against unions (though he has also emphasized the need for Starbucks to invest in its workforce).
Once a group of employees votes to unionize, employers generally don’t have a choice but to recognize the union. But then comes the bargaining stage, during which union and management representatives hash out a collective bargaining agreement that outlines working conditions, including pay and benefits. Negotiating a first contract often takes over a year, according to Bloomberg Law. What Starbucks Workers United is accusing Starbucks management of is in essence a kind of delaying tactic — as long as Starbucks can drag out negotiations, the company won’t have to provide any additional pay or benefits to union workers.
Some officials at the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) agree with the union’s assessment: In December, the agency’s regional Seattle director filed a complaint alleging the coffee giant “has been failing and refusing to bargain collectively.”
Starbucks spokesperson Andrew Trull disputes the union’s characterization of the bargaining sessions. “Starbucks has come to the bargaining table in-person and in good faith, as the law requires,” he says. He blames the union for delays, saying it “has failed to identify bargaining representatives for more than 50 stores nationally (a requirement for Starbucks to initiate the bargaining process)” and insisted on not bargaining fully in-person, which the company has not agreed to.
Starbucks has been accused of illegal anti-union activity, including firing workers because they were involved in organizing. Rally attendee Jake LaMourie, a former barista at a Starbucks in Eugene, Oregon, was let go after not following proper protocol to call in sick, but he believes the real reason for his dismissal was his union activity: “I was one of the lead organizers at the first store in Oregon to unionize so they were out for my head from the start.” LaMourie has filed a complaint with the NLRB in order to be reinstated at his old store.
“We maintain Jake LaMourie was separated for clear violations of established company policies outlined in our Partner Guide,” Trull says. “Not for any reason related to, or in retaliation for, their participation in union activities.”
Complaints like LaMourie’s are nothing new; a ruling earlier this month from a federal judge found that Starbucks had repeatedly violated labor law during the initial union organizing campaigns in Buffalo, and ordered the company reinstate seven employees who were laid off.
Many of the Starbucks partners Eater Seattle spoke with have what appears to be a love-hate relationship with their employer. “I will say it’s one of the better jobs I’ve had,” says Elizabeta Earles, a barista at a Bellingham store. “But it definitely feels like an abusive relationship, where they keep you financially stable-ish, but don’t really treat you well. You essentially feel like you’re trapped. And if you leave, you feel like you can’t find any other avenue of making the same amount of revenue.”
For his part, LaMourie is hoping to get his old job back, despite his conflicts with management. “I miss the store. I miss being in there with its fellow workers, these friends,” he says. “The best part of working at Starbucks has always been the other workers.”