Labor Strategy and The Starbucks Effect: Learning from the Starbucks Union Campaigns

IRI Podcast episode on the starbucks union

The "Starbucks Effect” used to be a term describing the positive impact a Starbucks store opening would have on neighboring property values. Today, that phrase might be better used to describe the efforts of Starbucks Workers United more than 300 stores and close to three dozen states have voted overwhelmingly to form a union in the last year. Today we’re joined by Franklin Coley, Partner at Align Public Strategies. Here, he explains:

  • What happened in the last year between Starbucks and Starbucks Workers United;
  • Why Starbucks was vulnerable to these campaigns, despite being an employer of choice;
  • The reason behind the recent slowdown in the rate of Starbucks organizing campaigns; and
  • Why the next stage - collective bargaining - is so critical for Starbucks Workers United and the independent labor union movement, as a whole.

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Unionizing at Starbucks

  • What started less than a year ago, with union wins at two stores in Buffalo now stands with more than 250 stores voting to organize with Starbucks Workers United.
    • A full list of unionized Starbucks locations can be found on the More Perfect Union website
    • Despite the waves they are making in the headlines, less than 3% of Starbucks more than 9,000 locations are unionized.
  • Starbucks does have past experience with unionization. 
    • Early on, some of the Seattle stores were unionized by UFCW.
    • Some of the unionized Starbucks locations are licensed at institutional food providers like airports and college campuses.
  • Today, company leaders and union organizers are wondering what the tipping point is for the union to actually force outcomes from the brand.
    • Unionization is already having an impact on the business, but now the question is what impact it will have in the coming years.


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Why Starbucks?

  • Starbucks markets itself as an employer of choice brand, offering benefits that many other food service companies do not. 
    • Many employees choose to work at Starbucks, and stay with the company, because of the benefits package. They offer unique benefits that most other entry level employers do not offer.
    • The appeal for Starbucks unions is less about compensation and benefits, and more about an overall trend in the workplace since the pandemic. And this goes beyond Starbucks, it is happening at other major employers and frontline workers as well.
    • Starbucks was uniquely exposed and vulnerable compared to other employers which made Starbucks unionization so public.
  • The first phase of Starbucks unions was campaigns in Buffalo and the Boston area, and that spread to more than 300 other stores.
    • There was a wave of independent coffee chains organizing for up to a year before Starbucks unions before it really spread to Starbucks chains. Prior to that, distilleries and pubs were also starting to organize.
    • During the pandemic, the unionization movement made its way from independent companies to a brands, and one of those brands ended up being Starbucks.
    • Starbucks Workers United began salting coffee shops in the Buffalo areas to organize the labor poll. Unite HERE was doing the same thing in Boston, but eventually allowed Workers United to take over that campaign. It started off as traditional style of organizing, but it quickly took off and blew up nationally. 
  • In the initial markets, the strategy to deal with unionization would be the same as the standard union avoidance playbook, but what happened after that was different because their employee base is different. 
    • The employees who are joining these Starbucks unions are digital natives. They are more progressive, expect more from the workplace, and expect their employer to take a stand on issues. 
    • Starbucks Workers United started with 3 national organizers and it spread through social networks. It became “cool” to organize among employees, a social media phenomenon and a veritable meme. 
    • It is difficult for employers to handle these kinds of campaigns, and companies need to be talking about it from Day 1. All employers need to be surveying and finding the issues that employees face to get ahead on unionization. One of the challenges that Starbucks faced was they had blindspots that were not addressed early enough.  

The Power of Starbucks Unions

  • Ironically, the one thing that traditionally inoculated the restaurant industry from union organizing is the small workplace. 
    • A typical Starbucks location has 30 or so workers, whereas an Amazon warehouse has thousands at one location. Traditionally, the larger employers would be at a greater risk of unionization.
    • In this context, with fast moving digital campaigns and close knit workplaces, it makes it easier for smaller campaigns to make their way through the workplace. When it comes to union elections, for a Starbucks union, far fewer votes are needed. 
    • The makeup of organizers at Starbucks locations are also different because they are young and hungry for change, and because it seems like support for unionization is popular. 
  • Starbucks struggled early on in the unionization campaign, and that may have allowed the movement to snowball.
    • There is a podcast from the Washington Post where a reporter followed Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz as he traveled the country to stop the rapidly evolving Starbucks union effort. 
    • One of the things that Howard Schultz and the Starbucks executive team have identified is some operational changes. Scheduling is a key factor for workers. During the pandemic, many people got shut down, and the communication behind it did not always make it to the frontline workers. There are also changes with ice makers, and other operational factors.
    • Starbucks has also shifted their messaging. Previously, it was disconnected, and even some managers were joining the Starbucks unions. So they put a lot of effort into looking at the Starbucks brand both internally and externally.
    • The first Starbucks union elections are often not talked about. The narrative that was picked up nationally was that this was a grassroots organizing movement, and there was an element of that, but there was also early intervention. Subsequently, once people look beyond Boston and Buffalo, and go nationally, it is hard to argue that it is not grassroots. But the kickoff was not the case early on. 
    • In the midst of early organizing, Starbucks was working hard to protect its progressive brand while also preventing Starbucks unions, and the company did not get the result they desired.

The Future of Starbucks Unions

  • Workers United continues to be involved with Starbucks unions, holding initial meetings for stores looking to organize. 
    • Professional organizers need to come in if locations of such a large brand want to unionize. They need to take thousands of complaints and roll them into a series of bullet pointed demands that everyone is on board with.
    • Organizers are zoning in on workplace rights and protections from firing, and they are looking for a voice in the process. 
    • Workers United will hire seasoned negotiators to work its way through the Starbucks unions.
  • On the first day of bargaining, Starbucks walked away from the table. This shows that both parties need to bring in seasoned professionals. 
    • It is unclear how the NLRB will respond to this behavior.
  • There have been some wildcat strikes at Starbucks locations, but the only day of action so far was on Labor Day where employees held “sip-ins” at locations, which was a potential test run for a larger national day of action where organizers attempt to shut down locations.
    • It is expected that negotiations will get uglier, and actions will get more aggressive, as locations get deeper into the bargaining process.
  • Recently, there’s been a bit of a slowdown in the rate of Starbucks organizing campaigns.
    • Part of the reason for this is that Starbucks Workers United initially took advantage of the low hanging fruit - the locations that were very union friendly were the ones who picked up on the unionization trend very quickly. 
    • There was always going to be a falloff, regardless of how aggressive Starbucks was going to be.
    • Some of the company's actions early on may have hurt them, but Starbucks has gotten more sophisticated at responding to unionization, which has also contributed to the slowing down. 
    • We are at the point where Starbucks unions will need to demonstrate some wins at the bargaining table if they are going to keep the momentum going. 

Employers and Threats of Unionization

  • Every union wants to “bottle this lightning”, but when the Starbucks organizing campaigns started, they weren’t meant to be the starting ground for the modern labor movement, but it has become that.
    • If unions aren’t able to reach concessions and make good on their promises, contract unionism will find itself in a difficult spot.
    • There is a new study that shows that workplaces are more divided than ever, especially along partisan lines. There is also an increase of partisanship in brand marketing, and a leaning into cultural identity. Meanwhile, workers expect these identities to be represented in the workplace. 
    • Employees are connecting online and there is no delineation between personal and professional life. Workers hold the same values across all forms of life and so do their expectations. This becomes a fraught environment for companies to navigate.
    • Every brand is different based on political positioning, branding, and culture, but all of the issues are being pushed down on the workplace, and forcing them all to become aligned and strategic. 
  • Starbucks has spent decades attracting progressive workers, but the perspective of what being progressive means has changed over time based on how society has started to shift. 

Align Public Strategies

  • Align Public Strategies looks at external events in the political space and helps companies think through their positioning.
    • Labor relations happen both inside and outside of a company, and companies need smart people on both sides to make sure everything is aligned.
    • Align Public Strategies also has a podcast called Working Lunch, and Mr. Coley is a co-host on that podcast. The program addresses labor and union movements within companies, labor policy, and the commonality across business models. It talks about a lot of different issues that impact entry level employers, but labor policy does take up a lot of the conversation.

Franklin Coley Background

  • BA from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
  • He began his career working in the political sphere, on a variety of political campaigns
  • During this same time, he worked as a Special Assistant with the US Department of Labor
  • He was the Vice President of Business Development for Berman Property Maintenance & Construction
  • Mr. Coley was Principal at Touch Strategies
  • He served as Partner at Parquet Public Affairs
  • He is currently serves as Partner at Align Public Strategies



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