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Why Starbucks baristas are ‘asking for a seat at the table’ as union battle heats up

·5-min read

Michelle Eisen has been working as a barista brewing drinks at a Starbucks coffee shop in Buffalo, NY for 11 years.

In late August, Eisen joined other workers at three Buffalo, N.Y.-area locations in announcing they were seeking to become the first Starbucks stores in the country to unionize. It’s the latest development in a pandemic-era reckoning with the need for higher wages and better working conditions.

Eisen, who’s part of the group Starbucks Workers United, said she and her colleagues on the frontlines have expressed frustration with the company’s current work environment, and are seeking equitable partnership.

“We're asking for a seat at the table,” Eisen told Yahoo Finance Live in an interview this week. “Our working conditions have suffered.They are a company who says that they put their partners first, and that's what we're asking them to do now.”

With a labor shortage as a backdrop, workers are experiencing unprecedented levels of burnout. Eisen said workers want the company’s labor practices and unfair wage concerns to be addressed.

“Someone who's hired tomorrow, will make 16 cents less an hour than I currently make after being there for 11 years,” she added.

On August 23, a group of 50 employees said they would be filing petitions with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to hold official union elections. The group sent a letter to CEO Kevin Johnson asking for assurances that employees who favor a union won't face reprisals.

Starbucks has backed Buffalo workers who are calling to unionize, asking the NLRB to allow all workers in the Buffalo market to be allowed to vote.

“Respecting partners’ right to organize will help us help the company accomplish this mission by improving our lives and raising standards across the industry,” the letter said.

Currently, Starbucks has no unions at its more than 8,000 company-owned stores in the U.S. If successful, the effort by workers in the Buffalo area would only apply to those stores.

“We believe this will make this process fair and respectful for every partner in Buffalo,” wrote Allyson Peck, Starbucks regional Vice President, Northeast region, in the letter sent to every employee in the area.

“It will ensure that all of you are afforded the voting rights, and the voice that you deserve in this process,” she added.

All of a sudden there's a fleet of facilities, people being brought into every store and things that were broken for six months to a year are all of a sudden being fixed. We're just very confused as to why it took the announcement of a union campaign to all of a sudden have these issues addressed.Michelle Eisen, Starbucks barista

Yet the company said limiting the vote to workers employed at three stores would “not be representative” of the partners, since workers tend to float from store to store.

“We have borrowed partners, transfers and promotions happening regularly within and across districts, partners share similar job functions, pay and benefits across stores, and the whole Buffalo market is managed by the same set of leaders,” Peck explained in the letter. “We believe this will make this process fair and respectful for every partner in Buffalo.”

An NLRB hearing will take place Sept. 22 if the two sides cannot come to an agreement.

Still, Eisen dismissed the call for a broader vote as “another delay tactic. It's just to further delay this vote in order to hopefully sway enough people so that we are unable to form this union.”

Reggie Borges, a Starbucks spokesperson, said all dates are set and that “nothing has been delayed as a result of our statement of position.”

War of words heats up

Starbucks baristas prepare drinks during a preview of its new Reserve Roastery and Tasting Room in Seattle, Washington December 4, 2014.   REUTERS/Jason Redmond  (UNITED STATES - Tags: BUSINESS FOOD)
Starbucks baristas prepare drinks during a preview of its new Reserve Roastery and Tasting Room in Seattle, Washington December 4, 2014. REUTERS/Jason Redmond (UNITED STATES - Tags: BUSINESS FOOD)

Workers initially asked that the vote be put to the employees of five stores but dropped the two additional stores from the request a day later, according to Starbucks.

It's still unclear from organizers the reason for expanding and then narrowing the scope.

However, the war of words between the two sides is heating up. Members of the organization have accused Starbucks of “deliberately spreading misinformation” in order to scare some of these partners.

“Their big talking points are telling partners that they cannot pick up shifts at other stores if the store happens to be unionized, or if you happen to be at a unionized store,” Eisen said.

“They're even addressing whether or not we would be able to still be tipped. There's a lot of issues being discussed," she added, accusing the company of not being completely honest.

However, Starbucks called the worker's intimation actions “categorically false.”

On Wednesday, the group tweeted a photo of Rossann Williams, Starbucks North America’s EVP, sweeping the floors at a Buffalo store. But Eisen dismissed the image as part of a public relations campaign to paper over long standing concerns.

“All of a sudden there's a fleet of facilities, people being brought into every store and things that were broken for six months to a year are all of a sudden being fixed,” Eisen added.

“We're just very confused as to why it took the announcement of a union campaign to all of a sudden have these issues addressed,” she added.

Meanwhile, Williams has been in the city holding listening sessions with workers. She’s participated in more than 175 sessions. And this year, company leaders have also held more than 2,000 listening sessions across the US.

Starbucks founder and former CEO Howard Schultz has also flown into Buffalo to hear from workers. According to the company, Schultz has been concerned and wanted to see if there was anything that he could do to help.

“We're not anti-union, we're pro-partners. Our leaders are working to listen and take action on those issues that our partners are raising,” Starbucks’ Borges told Yahoo Finance.

Dani Romero is a reporter for Yahoo Finance. Follow her on Twitter: @daniromerotv

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