A group of young Starbucks union supporters hold signs in a park with fists in the air
Members of Starbucks Workers United cheer on speakers during a rally at Mill Creek Park on June 26 in support of recently fired workers. Credit: (Zach Bauman/ The Beacon)

At the south end of Mill Creek Park on a recent Sunday afternoon, near the iconic fountain by  Kansas City’s Country Club Plaza, workers, allies and politicians gathered in a semicircle. 

Representing Starbucks Workers United, many were clad in black shirts and holding signs such as “Unions brew better coffee” and “Reinstate fired workers.” It was a rally for the reinstatement of Kansas City area Starbucks workers who were fired within a week of their store’s union election vote on April 8. 

So far, five Starbucks stores have unionized in Missouri, with the 41st and Main streets location in Kansas City becoming the latest to win their union election with a 5-4 vote on June 22.  Earlier, the Overland Park store at 75th Street and Interstate 35 became the first Starbucks in Kansas to unionize, with a 6-1 vote on April 8 (seven of the votes remain challenged). The 23rd and Ousdahl location in Lawrence, Kansas, followed suit with a vote of 19-3 on June 7. 

These stores join the wave of Starbucks unionizing across the nation. According to data from Starbucks Workers United, 171 Starbucks stores in 30 states have won union elections; 27 stores have lost.

Many workers are often met by relentless union-busting efforts from upper management and corporate officials. Still, employees continue to fight back. 

Avis Sulzer lost their job at Starbucks in May. A former barista trainer at the 41st and Main location, Sulzer attended the rally in solidarity with fellow “partners” —  Starbucks speak for baristas and service supervisors — who also have lost their jobs in the midst of unionizing. 

“The day after we announced the petition I personally received a write-up for attendance, of all things,” Sulzer said. “I haven’t done anything differently in months attendance wise.”

Here are stories from some of the workers in the region fighting for their labor rights. 

Why do Starbucks workers want to unionize?

Sulzer said the company’s failure to prioritize employee safety in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic pushed employees to take matters into their own hands. 

“They pretty much made us pre-pandemic status way too early for our comfort,” they said. Face guard shields were taken away and the store was not sufficiently sanitized. 

“When the pandemic was under high concern, a lot of our voices were ignored,” Sulzer said.

Workers were also concerned that they did not have enough sick time to cover the recovery time for a COVID-19 infection. According to Starbucks,  employees accrue one hour of sick time for every 30 hours worked. 

“We are Starbucks partners, and Starbucks is known for having benefits. But to qualify for it, you have to have hours,” Sulzer said. “And if you don’t have hours in your store, you’re not going to get your benefits. You have to really break your back for the company just to get those benefits.”

Issues such as lack of communication from upper management and shortened hours are not isolated to one store. In fact, workers say they are the common working conditions unifying Starbucks employees across the metro. 

“There’s just not really a way for us to survive on the wages and on the hours that we’re getting,” said Damitrious McCawley, a shift supervisor at the 23rd and Ousdahl location in Lawrence. 

McCawley has worked at this location for three years, is a shift supervisor and only recently began to make $15 an hour. 

“But it’s not a livable wage by any means,” McCawley said. “There’s no way to work at Starbucks and make ends meet, especially with inflation coming in such a rampant way that it is right now.”

Even employees living between their parents’ houses and attending the University of Kansas are struggling financially, he said. 

“We do a whole lot for this company on an everyday basis. We would like to feel valued in that by our pay reflecting that.”

Three young people stand in a park wearing black Starbucks Workers United shirts. A woman speaks into a microphone next to a speaker.
“We are tired of making drinks that cost more than our hourly wage,” one protester said during the recent rally at Mil Creek Park on June 26.

Last year, Starbucks increased the minimum wage for its employees from $10.50 to $12 an hour. 

Starbucks also announced plans to raise the hourly wage for baristas to $15-$23 in the summer of 2022.

But in May, employees discovered there was a catch.

The wage increases — along with added benefits and new store equipment — were part of a $1 billion investment plan for workers in fiscal year 2022, announced interim CEO Howard Schultz. 

None will be available to employees at unionized stores. 

Starbucks promotes working “side-by-side” instead of mediating through a third party, which could “lead to lengthier discussions.”

In April, Schultz held a town hall meeting with employees in Buffalo, New York, where the first Starbucks unionized in December. Schultz warned employees of the “threat of unionization.” In the past, Schultz has also been criticized for drawing parallels between Starbucks employees and Holocaust survivors to promote the company’s benefits prior to a union vote in Buffalo. 

What it takes to unionize a Starbucks

So far, Workers United, a national labor union and affiliate of Service Employees International Union, has filed to unionize at 302 Starbucks stores in 35 states. 

“The bottom line as to why they’re organizing is because they want to have a collective voice within their workplace, they want to have a say,” said Mari Orrego, a staff organizer with the Chicago and Midwest Regional Joint Board of Workers United. She has been working on the Starbucks campaign since January. 

“What they’re seeking is just guidance on how to start this union process,” she said. “And most importantly, they are also joining to seek this massive solidarity network that we’ve created, because when you organize with Workers United, you are joining the Starbucks Workers United movement.”

When employees at Starbucks stores are interested in unionizing, their first step is to reach out to Workers United, which will assign them a staff organizer who will equip them with the communication, tools and knowledge needed to start having union conversations. 

This underground phase continues until there is an overwhelming majority of support from their store, Orrego said. 

Once a majority is reached, the Workers United regional joint board files a petition for an election with the National Labor Relations Board, an independent federal agency that protects the rights of private sector employees to organize. Then they wait for an election date. 

“During that time a lot tends to go down depending on how management wants to conduct their anti-union campaign,” Orrego said.

Union-busting efforts from management have been rather successful in the past, according to Sulzer. 

“A lot of people are too scared of being public. They’re too scared that the people that are not in favor of the union may not want to work with them,” they said. “And in such a tight-knit store, you don’t want that kind of a rivalry, or those kinds of issues.”

They recall the mandated training video they were made to watch in the spring. “It was basically just blatant union busting,” they said.

According to Sulzer, the video consisted of empty promises and apologies.

“They’re trying to say that things aren’t going to be like they were and we don’t need a union. And there’s a third party coming in between us,” they said. 

​​”There’s a third party, but they’re just here to help make it fair,” Sulzer said regarding the Workers United regional joint board. 

And while Starbucks Workers United has filed charges with the National Labor Relations Board against Starbucks Corp. for refusing to engage in good-faith bargaining with the union, the National Labor Relations Act prohibits employers from promising benefits to employees while they create the terms in their contract during the bargaining process. 

One of the most important tools for workers in similar situations looking to unionize is education. 

“The managers who were anti-union desperately tried to misinform and, almost in a sense, gaslight our younger employees who were not well read on what unions are and what unionizing can do for the betterment of a workplace,” McCawley said. 

To combat this, more experienced employees educated newer ones,  to empower them to hold their own in a conversation against managers.

“We gave them the tools that they needed to better understand what being a part of a union means,” he said.

Inside two Starbucks union experiences

A young man in a green shirt wearing a backpack stands in a park near Kansas City's Country Club Plaza for a story about the Starbucks union effort.
Avis Sulzer, who was recently terminated from their position as a barista trainer in the midst of unionizing efforts, attended the rally in Mill Creek Park to support other workers. “My plan is to go back once there’s a job worth coming back to.” (Zach Bauman/ The Beacon)

Though Sulzer is no longer a Starbucks employee, they are still an organizer with the Starbucks Workers United and hope to be reinstated once contracts have been signed by the newly unionized store and there’s a “job worth coming back to.” 

The 41st and Main Street store is under investigation by the National Labor Relations Board for unfair labor practice violations, including Sulzer’s termination. Workers United’s regional joint board has helped Sulzer file the case.  

“They’ve provided me with several legal counsel, all free of charge,” Sulzer said. Workers United has even provided them with compensation for the time they had to take off work to testify after being subpoenaed for the case. “They’re helping me make the cost of the legality side be less of an issue because it’s going to pay off in the end, and they feel like it’s an investment.” 

In May, the NLRB filed a formal complaint against two local Starbucks  —  the 75th Street and Interstate 35 store in Overland Park and the Country Club Plaza location — for their union-busting efforts, as well as for terminating employees for organizing. The hearing for this complaint will be held on July 5.

Chris Fielder is a barista at the Plaza store. As at other stores across the nation, employees at his location became fed up with low wages, safety concerns, general feelings of voicelessness and other unfair labor practices. 

“What really pushed us in the other direction was when Starbucks and management started making threats, telling us that we could lose benefits, holding one-on-one captive audience meetings in the kiosk of our store, a private, secluded area,” he said. 

The Plaza store held its vote on June 9 and ended with a 9-9 tie. The results are  being contested by Workers United. 

“We’re looking at the challenged ballots to see if we’re going to end up winning,” he said. 

Fielder said employees feel as though unfair labor practices at the store affected the vote. 

“We also are kind of surprised that a lot of votes didn’t arrive when people swear up and down that they mailed it several weeks before the election. So we have a few different opportunities to try and get our win.”

‘Our bond is stronger’ for Starbucks union efforts

It is not just Starbucks seeing this drastic change. From October 2021 to March 2022, Union petitions have increased by 57%, according to the NLRB. 

“Any workplace at all can be unionized,” Orrego said. “Restaurants, strippers, new rooms, dollar stores, McDonald’s workers, every single workplace possible is organizing. So if you ever feel like now that this wouldn’t be possible, I’m telling you now you’re just wrong.”

For those looking to unionize, her advice is to first start talking with the people you trust the most, as it is important to be as discerning as possible in the underground phase. 

“Because should management find out, it’ll make your organizing harder than what it has to be.”

And while discretion is important in the preliminary phase, many unionized stores find power in their individual and collective voices, such as in Sulzer’s case. 

“A unionizing goal is to be very vocal,” they said. “It’s harder to discriminate if they know that you’re union.”

In addition to a louder voice, unionized workers now feel a greater sense of protection overall. 

“Now, we can request for disciplinary meetings in order to prevent unfair labor practices from happening during the negotiating,” Sulzer said. 

Starbucks union employees also have the right to have a third party present during disciplinary meetings with managers. 

In Lawrence, McCawley is in a more positive headspace. In addition to no longer having to worry about finances and cut hours, the shift supervisor feels genuinely happy to be at work. 

“I could do this at any other coffee shop, but I love the one that I’m in because of the people that are there and the community that we’re building. And I genuinely believe that we can make that even stronger and more positive with this union.”

And although the Plaza store’s election outcome is still up in the air, morale remains hopeful, barista Fielder said. 

“We care about each other. We are friends with each other, we genuinely like each other. We want work to be safe. We want it to be enjoyable. And as much as Starbucks is trying to defeat our morale, our bond is stronger.”

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MILI MANSARAY is the housing and labor reporter at The Kansas City Beacon. Previously, she was a freelance reporter and Summer 2020 intern.