This article first published on Rocky Mountain PBS.
By Alison Berg, Rocky Mountain PBS
SUPERIOR — After a vote on Friday, the Starbucks on Rock Creek Circle in Superior became the first location in Colorado to unionize its workers.
Of the 29 employees in the store, 15 cast a ballot, with 12 in support, two in opposition and one void ballot due to a signature issue.
Len Harris, a shift supervisor at the coffee shop, watched excitedly as a Starbucks in Buffalo, New York, became the first of the franchise in the country to create a union in December 2021.
Through a series of conversations with her colleagues, Harris realized employees at the Superior store felt many of the same frustrations as their New York counterparts: wages not keeping up with inflation, low staff levels and expectations of doing multiple jobs at once.
“We talk about how this country has all this wealth and these amazing opportunities, and yet, working demands are higher than they were in the past and profit margins are higher for these companies than they’ve ever been,” Harris said in an interview with Rocky Mountain PBS. “I’m not going to mope about for change and not do anything, I’m going to try to implement this change.”
Fueled by the frustration from seeing the richest Americans line their pockets during the pandemic — Starbucks founder Howard Schultz, a billionaire, saw his wealth increase 54% over the first 10 months of pandemic — while on-the-ground employees continued to struggle, Harris began talking to her colleagues about the benefits of a union, which include negotiating higher pay, better benefits and improved working conditions.
Harris worked to dispel some of the anti-union rumors her coworkers had heard, and as a result, found that most of the staff agreed with her concerns. They contacted the National Labor Relations Board after enough staff members signed digital union cards to petition the board. If a majority of workers vote to formalize the union by Friday, the store will become the first in the state to do so, according to the Office of Labor Management Standards, which keeps record of businesses with official unions.
Nationally, 18 Starbucks stores had voted to unionize, as of April 8, Vox reported.
A months-long fight
Staff members said the fight to unionize began months ago. They planned to hold their first election on Dec. 30, 2021, the day the Marshall Fire broke out near their store.
As Harris and her colleagues evacuated to Lakewood during the fire, Harris said her manager called to make sure she was OK, then told her she needed to be back at work the next day.
“I was shocked, because we didn’t know if our houses were going to be there,” Harris said. “We didn’t even know if there was going to be a Starbucks tomorrow.”
Stunned by the store’s efforts to return to business as usual after a traumatic wildfire that nearly destroyed the community, Harris said the potential union only grew stronger in their motivation to organize.
While coworkers banded together, five Starbucks employees told Rocky Mountain PBS that district managers and other upper management figures with the company subtly discouraged them from forming a union.
Indiana Elepaio, a barista at the store for nearly four years, said team members were called into a group meeting where they were asked to share what they enjoyed about working for Starbucks and listened to speeches about “why Starbucks is so great.”
“It felt quite dystopian,” Elepaio said. “Everyone knew it was happening because of the union.”
Elepaio and four other employees interviewed by Rocky Mountain PBS also said they were later called into one-on-one meetings with district managers to discuss the benefits of working at Starbucks and the downsides of joining a union, which they were told included losing benefits, not being able to transfer to other stores and creating tumultuous relationships with management.
“It very much felt like a divide-and-conquer tactic to separate us and weaken the bond,” said Ashe Mullis, a barista. “It was frustrating.”
Mullis said the group did their research and believed those talking points were false, but still saw them as intimidation tactics to discourage employees from unionizing.
“It absolutely felt like I was being dissuaded towards joining a union,” Mullis said. “It felt like a guilt trip.”
A Starbucks spokesperson denied any allegations of “anti-union behavior,” but said the company has preferred to work without a union as to keep positive relations between employees and management.
“We’ve been clear from the beginning that we are better as partners, without a union between us,” the spokesperson told Rocky Mountain PBS. “Any claims of anti-union activity are categorically false.”
Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz also shared a letter with all Starbucks employees on April 10, in which he wrote that the company respects its workers rights to organize but believes dialogue is more open without a union.
“We will become the best version of Starbucks by co-creating our future directly as partners,” Schultz wrote in the letter. “And we will strengthen the Starbucks community by upholding each other’s dreams; upholding the standards and rituals of the company; celebrating partner individuality and voice; and upholding behaviors of mutual respect and dignity.'”
Still, several Starbucks employees, including barista Maria Blair, said they felt the company’s corporate headquarters had made them feel guilty for wanting to join a union and demand better pay and benefits.
“I just wanted to feel like we could be heard even when it comes to facing multibillionaires with unlimited assets,” Blair said. “We’re just asking for some humanity.”
Because a union is a collective agreement between a majority of colleagues, Blair and others interviewed said they believed a union would force the company to listen to their concerns.
“It’s not to say that unions are going to fix everything, but I do feel at least a bit more protected,” Blair said.
If they win their vote, workers are asking for wages to be reviewed each year, more paid sick time, more mental health days and a tipping system for payments made with a credit card, which the store does not currently offer.