Interview with a Starbucks Worker: Organize the Unorganized!

Socialist Revolution has actively followed the struggle of Starbucks workers in the US and Canada to form a union. At the time of publishing, nearly 120 stores have either voted for establishing a union or are part of the ongoing organizing effort. We wholeheartedly support the campaign to force the Fortune 500 company to recognize the union and negotiate a union contract.

The battle of Starbucks Workers United to organize the workers, win higher wages, and improve working conditions will not be easy, especially when confronting a giant that owns more than 9,000 stores. To beat an opponent like Starbucks, the workers will need the support of a large percentage of the 9,000-plus stores.

Socialist Revolution believes that SEIU and the AFL-CIO should allocate serious resources to the Starbucks Workers United organizing campaign and put forward a national vision: every Starbucks a union store! If more than 70% of the stores could be organized, all Starbucks workers could win significant wage increases, starting with a $25 per hour minimum wage, more staffing, regular schedules, a guarantee of 20 hours minimum per week, and full benefits for all employees.

Socialist Revolution correspondents Tim Noonan and Eric Norman interviewed Sara Mughal, who works at a Starbucks in Hopewell, New Jersey, and is part of the organizing committee at that location. The interview was conducted in early February. Since the interview, the Hopewell workers have won a court challenge filed by Starbucks to prevent them from voting as a single store. This was their last hurdle before an election could be held.

Socialist Revolution: We wanted to start off with some questions about the store itself and the nature of the work. What is the employment situation like there? Do you know how many employees work at the Hopewell Starbucks?

Sara: Including our manager, I believe it’s 24 or 25.

What is the divide like between part-time and full-time among those workers?

There’s not really a divide, honestly. The shift supervisors generally have a minimum of about 30 hours because we’re required to be in the stores for them to be open and running. With the workers themselves, Starbucks really tries to minimize the labor hours that they use in terms of cost efficiency, which is one of our struggles. So during the holidays, a lot of people work more hours, but right now, business has slowed down so people are down on hours. But as far as full-time and part-time, you don’t really have much of a divide.

So would you consider additional hours to be one of the demands here, or more consistent hours, perhaps?

Probably more consistent hours, depending on what people want. Some people don’t want 40 hours. Some people want a certain amount of hours. I know a lot of benefits like college and healthcare require 20 hours a week, so some people need that minimum. It’s also not just about the total hours. It’s about how many people we have working together on the floor. When we have fewer of us, each of us is doing a lot more work, and it’s really stressful and not fair to us.

How long do people typically work there? Particularly with respect to the current staff.

So, I worked there for a little over two years. When I started, we had a few partners that were there for three, four years. Some of them have since moved on, but when I worked with them, I was told that it used to be more of an environment where people would stay for long periods of time because the workplace was better. More recently, especially with Covid, it has become a revolving door. We have people training and leaving all the time.

What are your wages like? Do you have any benefits?

I know baristas are not even paid $15. Shift supervisors, like myself, get paid a little bit more. Benefits? We have health care. It’s not the best healthcare. It’s still pretty expensive, but it kicks in at 20 hours a week. There is ASU [Arizona State University] online college available for people. I think you have to have worked at Starbucks for a minimum of three or four months, or something like that, before you’re eligible. But that is also a 20-hours-per-week benefit. We have other smaller benefits like food and drink, Spotify, and stuff like that.

When we have fewer of us, each of us is doing a lot more work, and it’s really stressful and not fair to us. / Image: Copy Editor, Wikimedia Commons

You said you’re a shift supervisor. Have there been any questions of whether Starbucks might try to exclude you from the bargaining unit? Management does that in some circumstances.

No, so they can’t for shift supervisors, because they are trying to exclude assistant managers and we’re really not fighting that. Shift supervisors [unlike store managers and assistant managers] still are on the floor with Baristas all the time. Basically as a Shift Supervisor I’m a barista plus cash handling responsibilities. There’s just no separating me from my team. It wouldn’t make sense at all. I don’t really touch the schedule. I don’t do any sort of discipline. I’m not involved in hiring and firing. So there’s really nothing that would exclude me.

Is that something that you talked about with the organizers? That’s precisely why management tries to do it, especially if they know that the first-line supervisors—who are really just regular workers—are on board with the union effort, that’s why they want to keep them out. And of course, when the situation is reversed, they do the opposite.

Yeah, it’s weird. They have not tried that. They have tried to exclude assistant store managers. I don’t really understand why they want them excluded. I feel like I can’t imagine a situation in which an assistant store manager would be voting “yes” to a union. I don’t know. But no, they have not tried it with shift supervisors as far as I’m aware.

Is the college fully covered for the workers with 20 hours and up per week?

You have to pay tuition up front and then Starbucks would reimburse you. They changed it so that now it is paid up front. So, it’s covered for the most part. I think there’s still textbooks and supplies and stuff like that you still have to cover. But for the most part, it is covered. [Editor’s note: The tuition program is linked to one university, Arizona State University, which has online courses.]

Is this usually someone’s only job, or is it usually a second job or a student-worker situation?

Most of the workers are students. There are some people for whom this is a second job. We have one worker who’s been here 22 years. For the most part, it has become more so students. We have a lot of high-schoolers. For some people it’s their first job, for some people it’s their tenth job.

Are workers supporting families with this job?

Yeah, a lot of workers. We have one really young worker who is helping their family make home payments. We have another who is helping pay for their household’s groceries. Even though so many of our workers are so young, it’s a really important part of their household’s income.

So, it’s obviously very important that this be a good job that can meet the needs of the people who are doing it.

Honestly, most of them work so hard. They definitely work hard enough that they should be paid more.

When did discussion of starting a union first start, and what got it started?

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly. I’m sure you’re familiar with the Buffalo, NY Starbucks’s unionizing. Once that started getting news coverage, it started becoming more of a conversation in our store. Their struggles were all the same as ours, and as they got more support, and as our conditions mirrored theirs more and more, we started to take it more seriously and think that we could do that at our store.

As a shift supervisor, I’m someone who a lot of baristas feel comfortable talking to about workplace struggles and frustrations. All of them can so easily be addressed by a union. So for me, it was an easy decision and we kind of just started as a small organizing committee. Obviously we had to keep it very quiet and secret at first, until we had little conversations with people and then from there it grew and then we had a four-day period where we just did our entire card signing and then filed.

You said that your conditions mirrored the Buffalo situation. Would you say that it was a slow burn, where the inciting incident was seeing Buffalo, but the conditions being addressed were pre-existing ones? Or was there any kind of change in the conditions that precipitated the union drive?

I would say Buffalo was more so like a point where we saw it as a real attainable goal, but honestly, it’s kind of the opposite. The day for me that I decided to just seriously start trying to unionize our store was a good day. It was a day where we had a shift where we had enough people, and we were having a good day of coworkers getting along and getting everything done—and it was so frustrating that that could be every day, so easily, if we just were given what we need to succeed.

How many of the workers are on board with this?

We don’t have a single no, honestly. We have some people who are obviously not as familiar, or informed. We have some people who are not as interested but, for the most part, we have strong support. Regardless of support, the solidarity is 100% of the store.

Very good! You said you did the card signing, did everybody sign the cards?

No. Everyone that we reached out to did sign those cards. When we were kind of strategizing we were accounting for if we had a couple “NOs” or “Unsures,” but we got all “YESes.” Every single one was a yes. I don’t know that I should share exact numbers, just in terms of union-busting going on. I don’t want to give them any sort of real numbers, but we had everyone that we approached sign a card. Workers United requested that we have at least 65% of the employees sign a union card. Obviously, you only need 30%, but they asked for 65% and we exceeded that by well above, I can say that.

Do any of the workers have prior experience with unions?

We have a couple of workers whose parents are in unions. So, obviously, they have parents who understand how much it has brought to their families. And then we have, I think one worker who worked in a grocery store nearby that was unionized as well.

With respect to either of those—people with family union ties or the worker with actual union experience—would you characterize the experiences as positive or negative?

Absolutely positive.

What concerns have been raised by workers about forming a union, if any?

Honestly, when we were having these conversations, it wasn’t so much concern as it was just that coworkers needed more information. They were asking how it worked, how we would go about doing this. I think a couple people did bring up the question of dues, which is obviously something that you hear a lot of negative information about, but it was really easy to just explain what the actual truth is. And obviously we are going to be negotiating our contract. So we’re not going to sign a contract where we’re paying more dues than we’re making. Of course, we’re in this to make more. So just issues like that were very easily explained in a way that they could see it would benefit them.

Do you have any insight as to why the Starbucks union drive is happening now? More in terms of the broader national picture?

I definitely think Covid exacerbated a lot of the issues that were already there and kind of made it clear to so many partners [Starbucks refers to the workers as “partners”] where corporate’s priorities lied, because our safety was not the priority and the priority was clearly customer comfortability, and profits obviously, so that kind of started it. And then I think it kind of snowballed. I think other stores, like ours, saw success with other stores and then had that inspiration. Starbucks Workers United has created so much of a support network. So it’s just become so much easier for stores to do it. It’s so easy for a store to reach out to them and say I want to do this and they take their hand and walk them through it. It’s really easy right now. It’s really never been easier for a Starbucks to unionize.

Would you characterize Starbucks as putting workers in danger with their Covid policies?

Yes, 1000%. Particularly with Omicron, it just kind of ran through our store and they didn’t add any sort of precaution. They had already relaxed them because of the numbers going down in the summer. So they got rid of plexiglass. They got rid of masks, except for workers, of course. They got rid of social distancing. They added cafe seating. There really were no restrictions in place, and then when numbers went up with Omicron, they just didn’t add anything. There was no safety protocol and so many partners got it and it spread, and they basically just let it happen.

Did you present the letter demanding recognition in person?

No, our corporate headquarters and our manager found out at the same time the entire world did. We wanted to take them by surprise. And obviously we had to keep it really quiet up until the point that we actually filed. So then it was, “let’s see what their reaction is.” You know, they were very much taken off guard. They did not expect it in Hopewell, New Jersey.

I know what you mean. Hopewell. Not where you think it’s gonna happen. So, taking them by surprise and not submitting it before the official filing, is this a Starbucks Workers United tactic that they recommend doing? Or is it situational?

They did say, if we wanted to, we could slowly get public support and have people join us. That is another way of doing it. But for us, it really just strategically made most sense to keep it really quiet.

What has been the response of management?

So, since there’s so many stores filing, our case is obviously very different from Buffalo. They no longer have the resources to send in all of these random corporate people, so local management is really doing the brunt of the union busting. Our manager has been very hot and cold. One day she’ll try to be your best friend, the next she’ll be very rude to you. They have a lot of local managers, from the district store managers, just dropping in to say “hi” and hanging out in our cafe. Before, we saw them maybe once a month, whereas now we see them almost daily. They show up all the time. Our district manager would show up maybe once a month. He’s been in at least three times every week since we filed.

We know that Starbucks has been holding meetings that they’re calling “listening sessions” at some of the unionizing locations. Have they had any “listening sessions” at Hopewell? If so, what are they like? What goes on?

I think they actually were slower in their reaction in our store because again, we took them so much by surprise. It took them a long time to regroup. So we actually do not have our first “listening session”—at our store they’re calling it a “store meeting”—until this next week [this would have taken place in and around early February, 2022].

What have they said the meeting is going to be about?

They didn’t even mention it to most people. Most people are like, “Why am I only scheduled for an hour on this day?” and they’re like “Oh, we’re having a store meeting.” And people were asking “What about?” and our manager would just say, “Oh, you know, general store stuff.”

Have you been thinking about what you want to do in that meeting? Is there a strategy?

Well, they’ve been doing this so many times with so many different stores so, obviously, we’re all in communication, like the national Starbucks partners. We know what they’re going to say, so we kind of just anticipate that and talk about what the actuality is, and ask the questions that we actually want to hear about in the store meetings. Like, why do we never have enough partners? Why are we paid so little? Why are you not taking Covid seriously? All of these things are things that we can just ask in this meeting.

Has the union-busting behavior of management had any impact on the workers? And if so, what kind?

As far as them trying to convince us with weird arguments? They have letters on the fridge that say, “We don’t think you need a union” and “Talk to us and we’ll listen to your problems,” and stuff like that. That is really not working. The other thing they’re doing is being rude to us, and that is really working against them because it just fires us up more. We’re already angry. So why would you make us more angry?

Fair point. I just might note that’s always the two edged sword. One of the main reasons that union campaigns fail is because the management creates such a climate of hostility that people feel like “I don’t want it to be in this kind of situation.” But if the workers are really together, and they know they’re together, then it can go in the other direction.

Really, the anger is just directed toward management. As soon as they leave, we are all just talking and laughing about it. So it’s really not a hostile atmosphere unless they are there.

So, what is the next step in the process?

In every district where a store has filed, Starbucks has challenged the store in court by saying that this should be a district vote. The reason that they’re doing this is because if they won that in court, we obviously would have to redo our cards and start from scratch, and then they don’t think that we could do that. So they basically think that they would just get rid of it. They did that with us, and a coworker and I had to testify in Zoom court today [February 3] about that. As far as our lawyer said, all of our testimony is in line with all of the other stores, and Starbucks has lost all of those cases. So, that’s kind of where we are.

I understand that there was a solidarity event today, February 3. How did that go? And do you think that had a positive impact?

Absolutely! I really wanted to be there. Unfortunately, obviously I had court that really ran all day, so I could not make it. But I got so many messages from coworkers saying that it was going really well, and that everyone was being so positive and they were really excited about it. I saw so many social media posts. I think it really made the workers feel supported.

Do you have any other actions planned for solidarity in the leadup to the election?

Yeah, I think we want to do a weekly version of what we did today. People can stop in and show support. I think different union supporters are going, supporting organizations are going. We already have a bunch of groups that are asking to organize those.

Have you begun planning a bargaining committee and thinking about the contract fight?

Not in any concrete way. It’s actually really exciting, because all these workers who are expressing their frustrations are now learning more about unionizing and coming to me and other organizers and saying, “Is this something we could ask for in the contract? Is that something that could be addressed?” and we can talk about it. So the conversations are starting, but we don’t have actual demands yet.

Can you highlight some of those issues that people are particularly talking about that maybe we haven’t touched on yet?

Obviously the main ones were already addressed before we even filed, like, we’re not paid enough, we don’t have enough people on the floor, that sort of thing. But it’s even smaller things, like, could we change the dress code? Could we receive tenure pay or seniority pay? I think there’s going to be more discussion for more specific demands that our store would want, but we don’t have them just yet.

Has there been any sort of attempt to bring all the workers together to discuss that sort of issue?

We are going to hold group meetings. We have one planned after our store meeting to decompress and discuss. So, I think going forward we are going to have more group meetings.

How did you get linked up with Starbucks Workers United (SBWU)?

So it was two ways. I applied on the Workers United website. They had a form that you can fill out to get in contact with an organizer. Also, I reached out to my sister and she had a contact that helped me get in touch with another person from Workers United.

Their struggles were all the same as ours, and as they got more support, and as our conditions mirrored theirs more and more, we started to take it more seriously and think that we could do that at our store. / Image: Wikipedia

Is there an existing union local you’ll be affiliating with if you win?

No, we don’t have that yet.

It is a problem in some places where you have an industry that is represented by a whole bunch of different unions in an area, versus all the same union, and it becomes harder to bargain in concert. The fundamental strength of the union is its ability to threaten to withhold labor, which means that the more various subdivisions are involved, the weaker each unit’s bargaining position is compared to if there was one fully united union. So, do you see this going in a direction where your store bargains for its own unique contract, separate from all the other stores that are currently undergoing union drives?

It’s honestly really hard to tell at this point. The first store started bargaining, I think this past week, I think it was Monday. So really depending on how that goes. I think we’ll have to see. I honestly don’t know.

What kind of support has SBWU given you?

If we need any advice as far as how we should go about doing something, they have that, they’re building a whole archive of stuff that we should keep an eye out for. It’s really interesting, because Starbucks so far has very much been copy and pasting their union busting tactics. So SBWU will show us these flyers that were in other stores that then pop up in our stores, and they’re the exact same thing.

Is the lawyer that you work with through SBWU?

Yes.

Are you getting directly linked up with other Starbucks workers versus union organizers, or some combination of the two?

We’re pretty autonomous. Workers United is not a huge organization and this expanded way more than I think they initially expected at such a quick rate. So we do have our own Workers United organizer who is working with us and other stores in the nearby region. I think he’s more so someone that we reach out to when we need something specifically from him. He did more of the legal documents and that sort of thing. But we also do reach out to the Starbucks workers themselves for other things. So it’s really a combination of the two.

And when you’re reaching out to the other Starbucks workers, is that through social media, or is there some way that SBWU enables you to connect with them?

Honestly in all different ways. Some people I talk to on Twitter, some people I talk to through email, some it’s texting, some it’s through Slack. It’s really just a combination of all these different ways.

Are you aware whether SBWU has an overarching strategy toward the goal of organizing all Starbucks workers?

I think this is expanding so quickly that they don’t have that vision just yet.

Are you hoping to spread this campaign to other stores locally?

I personally believe that every Starbucks should be unionized, and I will do whatever work I can do to accomplish that.

Sometimes this is referred to in union lingo as “hot shop organizing.” There are people who are mad, and they see an opportunity and they take it, as opposed to having a long term campaign to organize. Starbucks is a giant chain and they don’t need any particular store. They may be able to pit the union stores against the non-union stores, and offer different things to different people. There’s lots of stuff they could do. I was wondering whether you see some of that coming or whether there are concerns about that. What do we do about this, as it potentially unfolds?

We have a very delicate balance because Starbucks in particular is a company that is entirely built on image and PR, and they have really mastered their PR. I can’t think of another company that is a stronger marketing machine. So they are obviously very concerned about that in any sort of strategizing they’re doing right now, because we’re being very public about all of the things that they’re doing that are really just underhanded and not okay. So that works in our favor.

There might be things you can win as just one store, but to win the real benefits that you’re looking for, I think the more stores that are involved, the more you can win—thinking about it from that perspective.

That is part of the national strategy, obviously. There’s been a lot more stores lately. So the fact that every week there’s more people filing their own petitions, I think works in our favor, and that was something that they did present to us when we were discussing our union petition. They were saying that obviously, your store filing is good for you, but it’s also good for the movement, because the more of us there are like you, the larger the threat of labor not cooperating.

Have you actually discussed the possibility of going on strike and what that would mean?

The first store that actually won did go on strike and already won stuff from our company. They went on strike during Omicron because the company policy was that unless you were showing symptoms of Covid, you were not paid to isolate, you still had to show up to your shift. And even if someone that you lived with tested positive, you still had to show up to your shift, unless you were showing actual symptoms. They did not feel safe, so they went on strike. And after that strike, Starbucks’s policy changed so that if you’ve been exposed, even if you’re vaccinated and you’re not showing symptoms, you are still paid for an isolation. So, that is something that is on our minds.

That question of potentially going on strike, is that something you’ve been discussing locally? How have people responded to it?

We discussed it a little bit in our store. Again we have such different schedules, so I haven’t talked to everyone about it, but everyone seemed to understand, and it’s something that you need to do to win things you need. So no one was really upset by it.

It is also just a very serious decision. It’s what you need to do to win, but not to be taken lightly. SBWU is using the slogan “treat partners like real partners,” and trying to turn Starbucks “corporate speak” against them. Do you think it’s possible for Starbucks workers to be partners with management in a meaningful sense?

That’s hard. I do think it’s possible. Not necessarily “partners”, in the sense that there’s a mutual give and take, but more so in a way that you have to take us seriously. It’s not really your decision anymore. That’s what it means.

So how can other workers, union members, and socialists help your local effort and the Starbucks union campaign nationally?

It’s really going to be different for every store. For our store, we’re taking it one step at a time. As you saw, we started the community day today, because we were starting something difficult this week, our trial. As we face more challenges from them and their union busting and whatever they’re going to try with us, we’re going to have community support days and actions, and we will absolutely let people know how they can support us. But in the meantime, honestly, every time someone comes in and just tells us they support us or orders a drink under a union strong or something like that, and we get to call it out, that really is a positive moment in our day. It stands out.

I suppose that if that is what’s written on the cup, it is Starbucks policy that you read it out.

Yes. We are very happy to do so very loudly.

They haven’t changed that policy yet?

As I said, their image is very important to them. So not just yet.

Is there anything maybe that you would want to say to any Starbucks workers who may end up reading our article?

Reach out to your local Starbucks that’s trying to unionize. There’s people there that want to help you with yours too.

Anything else you would want to add that we didn’t cover and you think is important?

It was really just an atmosphere of misery and frustration at work, and right after we filed for a union, it’s just so hopeful in our store, so it’s really nice.


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