On Tuesday, May 30, employees at the Starbucks on 170th Avenue Northeast in Redmond announced through Starbucks Workers United that they have filed a petition to unionize with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). Pro-union employees hope that being part of a union will help them alleviate scheduling and mismanagement woes they say have plagued the store and which upper management hasn’t addressed to their satisfaction. If the workers vote to form a union in an upcoming election, they’ll join several other Seattle-area Starbucks stores — and hundreds across the country — in unionizing, becoming part of a greater service-industry union wave that crested in 2022.
The first Seattle-area Starbucks to vote unionize was the store at Broadway and Denny in 2022, and a handful of others have followed. (That store was closed months later for what the company says were safety-related reasons, though the union accused Starbucks of retaliation.) Issues at each unionized store vary, though largely the problem comes down to employees (called “partners,” internally) accusing management of not living up to its original 1990 mission statement, which includes the promise to “provide a great work environment.”
At this particular Redmond Starbucks, specific complaints were documented in an open letter posted online on May 26. According to that letter, many problems stem from the installment of managers who, the staff say, received little to no training before assuming leadership roles in the store. These new managers, the letter said, frequently make scheduling mistakes and foster a working environment marked by poor communication and inconsistent support. Other problems cited by staff include working with broken equipment and slow turnarounds on maintenance requests.
“When I started at this store, there was a sense of community, and fostering each baristas’ personal and professional growth was the top priority,” Lillian Kossak, a shift supervior, said in a statement. “And now? Our top priority is just getting through each shift.”
According to the letter, employees at the Redmond store tried to raise concerns about their managers’ performance through internal channels by contacting the district and area managers, but have not seen improvements. “We have done the routes that were provided and we were let down,” said Mike Baughman, another shift supervisor. “With unionizing our store, it is my hope that Starbucks can now better see that we aren’t going away.”
In a statement sent to Eater Seattle, Starbucks spokesperson Andrew Trull said, “We believe that a direct relationship with our partners — where we have the flexibility to listen and learn from one another, address issues and share success — is the right path forward for our company, our partners and our customers.” Trull emphasized investments made to improve employee quality of life, like new brewing machines and strong benefits packages.
“We welcome the opportunity for partners at our Redmond Retail store to vote in a neutral, secret ballot election conducted by the NLRB,” Trull said. “We respect the right of all partners to make their own decisions about union representation, and we are committed to engaging in good faith collective bargaining for each store.”
That last point has become an area of dispute between Starbucks’ unionized workers and its corporate leadership. If the Redmond store employees vote to unionize (the NLRB has yet to set an election date), their union will have to negotiate a contract with the company that establishes new working conditions and policies. No Seattle-area Starbucks store has actually received a contract, and unionized workers say that’s because the company is dragging its feet and finding excuses to delay the bargaining process. In December, an NLRB regional director filed a formal complaint alleging Starbucks was illegally refusing to bargain with 21 stores in Washington State and Oregon, and workers from across the Northwest held a protest in March outside the company’s SoDo headquarters to demand management bargain in good faith. Starbucks has maintained that it is following the letter of the law when it comes to bargaining.
This is all happening at a time of transition for the company, with longtime leader Howard Schultz stepping down just as the U.S. Senate held hearings into Starbucks’ alleged union-busting practices. In March, a collection of corporate office workers released an open letter that, among other things, criticized the company over its attitude toward unions.