Workers Are Trying to “Democratize Starbucks”

Jasper Booth-Hodges

After the successful union drive at several Starbucks stores in Buffalo, New York, more Starbucks workers around the country are interested in unionizing. The latest: Chicago Starbucks workers have filed for a union election.

One of Starbucks' coffee shops in Chicago, Illinois. (Scott Olson / Getty Images)

Interview by
Kit Ginzky

Following the successful unionization votes at two Starbucks stores in Buffalo, New York, a wave of organizing has emerged in shops from coast to coast. Currently, workers at twenty-eight Starbucks shops across fourteen different states are in the process of holding union elections through the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). This wave of organizing is being led by millennial and zoomer workers, many of whom were inspired by the grassroots organizing of Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaigns.

While Starbucks maintains a public reputation as a progressive company with some of the best benefits available to workers in the service industry, workers report increasing costs and a decline in quality over the last several years. The company has waged an intense union-busting campaign in an attempt to prevent workers, or “partners” in corporate lingo, from gaining power in the workplace. Starbucks workers disagree.

Jasper Booth-Hodges is a member of the Organizing Committee at Starbucks #2827, which is located on Chicago’s South Side. Workers in his store feel that the COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare the company’s lack of regard for their safety on the job. Despite the high level of exposure they face in the workplace, and the company’s record-breaking profits in 2021, Starbucks workers have not received hazard pay since May 2020.

Shortly after the store filed their petition with the NLRB, Booth-Hodges spoke with Kit Ginzky for Jacobin about what it has been like to work at Starbucks during the COVID-19 pandemic, and why workers are organizing a union to transform their workplace.


KG

Do you have a sense of what it was like to work at Starbucks before the pandemic?

JBH

I came in, did a bunch of training, and then COVID started. But I’ve had a lot of friends over the years who worked for Starbucks — it’s like a rite of passage for being gay, you know? You’ve got to work at Starbucks at some point. I’ve also been a customer for a long time, and by the time I started working there, I already knew all the drink recipes from the app. It just made sense.

I’ve worked at other jobs at the same level, so I knew the benefits were better than a lot of comparable jobs. I worked for Panera for about three years, and one of my supervisors there left and went to work at Starbucks. She was immediately getting paid a lot more, had all these better benefits, and I knew that they had the tuition benefits at Arizona State University [ASU]. That’s why I work at Starbucks now, I go to ASU.

KG

Have the benefits changed at all during the pandemic?

JBH

Their initial response to the pandemic was pretty good. They closed the stores, sent us all home with pay, and when they brought us back, they gave us an extra $3 an hour catastrophe pay. But they stopped that around June 2020. They were just like, “Alright, you’re on your own, back to work.”

Originally, when they started closing stores, they gave us the option to work. That was when they brought in the catastrophe pay: “You can go home and take PTO, or you can work, and we’ll give you an extra $3 an hour.” That was reasonable. Then they ended up closing all the stores, so we were all home with pay. When we came back, we still had that extra $3 an hour for a month or so, but then they dropped it. Obviously, the pandemic is still not over, but it was definitely bad back then — there were no vaccines, cases were rising, and the abuse we were taking from customers was getting so much worse.

KG

What have customers been like during the pandemic?

JBH

Our cafe is actually closed right now. We’re grab-and-go, so you can come in to order and pick up your drinks, but then you have to leave. Before they did that, there were a couple of fights that broke out and issues with customers not wanting to comply with COVID precautions. It’s been better than having to fight with every other person, but there are still issues.

KG

In general, have customers been more demanding during the pandemic?

JBH

We love our regular customers, they’re great. Even the ones who are really particular about stuff, we love those people. But ever since the beginning of COVID, a lot of customers have been so aggressive about restrictions, limited hours, and product shortages. We’ve been out of so much stuff for so long, but people are still coming in and asking for the same stuff and yelling at us when we don’t have it. When I first started, the customers in general were more understanding. None of that was what we signed up for [working at Starbucks].

KG

What are the actual job tasks that you did sign up for?

JBH

A big part of it is obviously about making the drinks, getting the recipes right. Then, Starbucks has this policy of “making the moment right for the customers.” To an extent, sure, you obviously want people to leave happy. But more with Starbucks than anywhere else I’ve worked, customers know and expect that if they throw a big enough tantrum, they’ll get whatever they want. There are people who make TikToks like, “Oh, I’m gonna say I wanted it iced at the window, so I can get a free drink at Starbucks,” and we just have to do it. A one-off experience doesn’t make it a problem, but it’s almost like they’ve trained a level of entitlement into the customers.

I worked at Great Wolf Lodge for three years, and then at Panera for three years. There were always people like that, but it’s another level at Starbucks. People walk in and expect us to know what they want without telling us, and they get so angry if anything is not exactly the way they want it. The pandemic makes everything worse because everybody is more on edge.

And there is another thing — the Honey Citrus Mint Tea, which was called “the Medicine Ball.” We can’t call it a medicine ball because it has no medicine in it, but it’s become very clear to us that a lot of people think this drink will cure COVID. I’ve heard from partners at other stores that customers will come through the drive thru and say, “I just tested positive, so I’m coming to get my Medicine Ball.” That’s a terrible safety hazard for partners because people will literally come in when they’re sick and expose us if they think this drink is going to help them. It’s tea with steamed lemonade from concentrate and honey syrup — it’s not going to cure COVID.

At this point, it genuinely feels like having this drink on the menu is a safety hazard.

KG

Are you able to do anything to protect yourself when customers are making you feel unsafe?

JBH

I think we are technically allowed to refuse service to people, but I have never seen someone refuse service to a customer without repercussions. The company will go to great lengths to always take the side of the customer, never the partners. They say that they care about us, but their actions show otherwise.

The benefits might be better than a lot of comparable jobs, but a lot of those employers are starting to step up. Chipotle now has tuition reimbursement because Starbucks has raised the standard for these things. And it’s like, okay, if Starbucks sees itself as an industry leader, then they should not just do things in this performative way.

KG

Do you find it difficult to qualify for the benefits that are available?

JBH

I haven’t experienced as much of a loss of hours, but I’ve definitely seen people struggle to qualify. They did lower the average hours that you need to achieve benefits by a little bit during the pandemic. But so many people still haven’t been able to hit that mark.

KG

How many hours a week is it?

JBH

Twenty hours a week is the average you have to hit for the audit period — I think it’s every six months or so. But there’s also a total number of hours. Your total average hours for that period has to be over 520, but during the pandemic, they lowered it. I usually get close to forty hours, so even when my hours are cut, I’m still getting twenty-five to thirty and that still makes me eligible for benefits. But for people who typically work twenty to twenty-five hours a week, if they’re getting ten to fifteen, they might lose eligibility.

KG

Do most of your coworkers depend on these benefits?

JBH

A lot of them do. Because we’re right near campus, some are University of Chicago students and they’re not necessarily using all of the benefits. But I use it for ASU, and another partner in my store is starting at ASU. A lot of partners have kids and need the insurance. It’s good insurance, but the rates have been going up. It’s still cheaper than any other company I’ve worked for, but it’s getting up there.

Sometimes we’re not able to access all the benefits. I tried to sign up for Lyra [a platform through which Starbucks claims to provide ten free therapy sessions] back in 2020, but I was never able to get in touch with anybody and eventually I ended up getting therapy another way.

KG

What is management like at the 55th Street store?

JBH

Our manager is not an unkind person. But there’s this way the company operates where managers have an enormous amount of pressure on them. With all the stuff they have on their plate, it makes it so hard for them to keep that mindset of like, “Hey, my baristas and shift leads are human beings with lives.” Every competent store manager that I’ve met, their life revolves around Starbucks. Because of that, they’re unable to see that not all of us feel that way.

KG

How does this impact the workplace?

JBH

There have been a lot of issues with communication. My roommate submitted his availability, and he has classes at a certain time. But with every schedule, he was getting shifts that were not completely outside of his availability, but close enough that he wasn’t going to be able to get to class on time. The other partners were good about getting him out when he needed to, but it got to the point where it was just like, “Okay, if I can’t get scheduled correctly, I’m just not going to work these days at all.” She always wanted us to fill out the paper availability sheets instead of doing them online, and we realized it was because if we did it online, the system wouldn’t allow her to schedule us outside of our hours. It’s little shady stuff like that, and it adds up.

KG

Are scheduling issues a common complaint in your store?

JBH

There have been so many problems. Frequently, there are gaps in the schedule, and we’re just expected to stay late or come in early to provide coverage. Many of us don’t mind picking up extra hours for more pay, but it shouldn’t be our responsibility to change our schedules without notice. There’s a frustrating expectation that we’re always going to stay late and fix any issues, which shouldn’t be our responsibility.

KG

Is there overtime if you work more than forty hours?

JBH

Yeah. Also, because of the Fair Work Week, if you stay more than fifteen minutes past your time, they’ve got to pay the penalty hour. Because of that, they try to be really strict about making sure people leave on time and don’t stay late. At the same time, if they don’t schedule enough people, they’re going to expect you to stay late anyway. We’re supposed to keep in mind that they don’t want us to give us the extra pay — we’re supposed to stick to our schedule, unless they didn’t schedule appropriately, and then we have to fix it.

KG

Have you had enough coverage during the pandemic?

JBH

At closing, they’ve struggled a lot. They’ll sometimes get afternoon rushes between in-store and mobile orders, and if there are only three people working in the store, it’s just too much to do. In the morning, we typically have enough people, but it is still the bare minimum to keep things running.

KG

With everyone working in such a small space together, have there been concerns about COVID transmission?

JBH

I’m really surprised that my store hasn’t had a big problem with that. We had one person who did end up getting COVID, but that happened during the winter break when a lot of students weren’t here, and then our store ended up closing for a while due to some maintenance issues. None of us were going into the store anyway, so that just kind of worked out for us.

KG

Do you get paid when the store is closed?

JBH

That was a big issue. When they initially closed the store, they said we weren’t getting catastrophe pay. We either had to use sick time, or we could go work at another store and make up hours. Our manager  called me to say the store was going to be closed, and she told me I could go work at the one on 53rd or at 71st. I needed to get paid, so I said I would go work at 53rd. I worked a couple of days over there, but then when she did payroll, my manager let me know that we ultimately got catastrophe pay for all those days the store was closed. So it’s like, “Okay, you’re telling us that we would have gotten paid anyway?” We essentially worked for free.

KG

Was this the incident that really sparked your organizing?

JBH

I’ve been following what’s been going on in Buffalo, pretty much since that started. As it started gaining traction, I reached out to them. I had no idea what I was doing. I’d never done anything like this before. After I reached out to them, they got me in touch with Workers United here, and then I went and met with an organizer named Pete DeMay. We talked about it, he gave me some cards, and gave me the rundown of what I needed to do.

KG

How many workers are in the bargaining unit of your store?

JBH

About twenty.

KG

And you filed for a union election?

JBH

We filed with the Labor Board last Friday.

KG

Do you know when the election will take place?

JBH

Once we have our hearing in a few weeks, the election should be four to eight weeks out from there, most likely closer to eight weeks.

KG

You’re thinking it’ll be a vote by mail?

JBH

Yeah, that’s how it went in Buffalo. With the COVID restrictions, they’re going to mail us the ballots, and we mail them back in. Based on what happened in Buffalo, they had a live stream where they counted the votes, and then we knew right away. That’s what we’re expecting to happen here.

KG

How did you start organizing the shop?

JBH

I just started talking to my coworkers and asking them about it. I talked to my roommates first, because three of the four people that live in my apartment work at that Starbucks. I started with us, and then started talking to the people I was working with, bringing more people into it. I was getting overwhelmingly positive responses from everybody. Some people had questions or didn’t really know what it entailed, but once I explained stuff, they were like, “Yeah, I definitely support this.”

During that period, things were also getting rocky with management. We had the maintenance issue where the store was closed, and we weren’t sure if we were getting paid or not. We did end up with the catastrophe pay, but they stopped it after a week, so we all had to start working at other stores anyway. Now the store at 71st is closed, so they’re working at our store and our store is overstaffed. We have three or four extra people from 71st almost every day.

KG

Do you think that that’s part of a response to your upcoming election? Are they trying to expand the voter roll for your store?

JBH

It’s hard to say, because it seems like a very similar tactic to what was happening in Buffalo. But at the same time, I know that 71st has some maintenance issues they’re resolving. I definitely don’t think it’s unrelated, but at the same time, I know that there are other genuine reasons for what they’re doing.

KG

What do you say to coworkers when you’re speaking to them about forming the union?

JBH

The biggest thing I say is that it’s a way for us to have protection from retaliation from management, protection from the customers getting out of hand. That’s the thing — even if Starbucks’ pay and benefits tend to be a little higher than similar job levels, the difference is the level of work that they expect from us.

KG

What has your contact with other unionizing Starbucks workers been like?

JBH

I don’t want to say too much, because we know that corporate is trying to learn as much about our organizing strategies as they can. But we have a wonderful, supportive community of partners who are working together to democratize Starbucks, create a just and fair workplace, and to have a seat at the table as true partners. There is a lot of solidarity across the country and the city, and it’s been a big help — especially because many of us are doing this for the first time.

KG

How many stores in Chicago have filed so far?

JBH

As of right now, it’s us, Logan Square, and Randolph and Wabash. And then there’s one in La Grange, which is technically a suburb.

KG

Do you anticipate that there will be more soon?

JBH

Yeah, I definitely do. I can’t say where, though.

KG

Has there been any retaliation since your filing?

JBH

We filed last week, so nothing’s really come of it yet. We haven’t had our stores bombarded with managers. We have all the partners from 71st in there, but there hasn’t really been the onslaught of [anti-union management response] that happened immediately in Buffalo. We’re all still kind of waiting for it to happen.

KG

You don’t have Starbucks executive Rossann Williams sweeping the floor yet?

JBH

No, Rosann hasn’t shown her face here yet. But our regional director did come into a meeting with us when our store was closed. She and our district manager had a meeting with us about the maintenance issues that were going on. That just seemed really sketchy to me, because that was before we filed, but our regional director doesn’t care about this problem that we’re having in the store. She’s trying to suss out some other stuff.

KG

Has management acted differently since the filing?

JBH

I think they’re in the phase where they’re trying to be nice and apologetic. In general, corporate is signaling, “If you have an issue, you can come and talk to us about it. You don’t have to unionize.”

KG

How have customers reacted to the news?

JBH

We’ve gotten a lot of community support already, with people coming in asking us how they can support us. I’ve been telling people to keep coming in and showing us support. When things do get ugly, we’re going to need all the motivation and support we can get. Some partners are nervous about retaliation, which is understandable. I just tell them that a union is the only way we can protect ourselves from that treatment. Without a union, management can do whatever they want to us.

KG

I’ve heard that in other unionizing stores, management will suddenly start enforcing the dress code in a way that seems to target the people who they think are the organizers, or to get strict about other minor disciplinary infractions. Is that something you’re concerned about?

JBH

It is something that partners in other stores have struggled with. I’ve been making a point to do everything entirely by the book. I walk to work, and I open, so I get there early to make sure I’m not late, but then I just end up standing out in the cold waiting for the shift to start. I’ve been wearing everything correctly, making sure I don’t step a toe out of line.

KG

What can the neighborhood do to support you?

JBH

We’ve been asking people to come in and order drinks with “Union Strong” or “Union Yes” as the name. Wear union gear, if you have it, when you come in. But most of all, just voice your support. A lot of stores were asking people to come in and stay, but because our cafe is closed, we can’t really do that. But people can support us by keeping that traffic coming in and keeping the business up.

We need to show them that it’s something the community wants as well as something that partners want. That’s always been the thing that Starbucks cares about — what their customers think. If people are showing us support by spending their money, Starbucks’ number one priority is making money, but also showing that this is something that really matters to them. A lot of our regulars are union workers. We have a lot of people who work for the post office who come in. I’ve talked to a lot of our regular customers who are just over the moon for us. There’s been a lot of positive support from the community, so I’m just hoping that momentum keeps up. Because that’s going to really make a difference for us.