“Seeing the outpouring of support from people all over the Boston area has renewed a lot of our faith in the community.”
Magnus, who asked that we not share his real name for this article, holds the record for longest shift thus far at a Starbucks work strike in front of the coffee shop’s location at 824 Comm Ave. At one point, he marched back and forth there for 24 straight hours.
“It just became a way of life,” he said in an interview. Magnus is a member of the Industrial Workers of the World, one of the oldest industrial unions anywhere. It was through IWW that Magnus, a student at UMass Boston, initially heard of the Starbucks strike, the first of its kind. It’s been more than six weeks since he joined the cause.
While the workers are often the ones protesting, volunteers have helped sustain the picket for more than two months through September. During such a strike, two people are needed to hold the group’s position 24 hours a day, 7 days a week to prevent union delivery drivers, Teamsters who are under contract with Starbucks, from crossing the picket line and delivering food items. It is in the Teamsters contract that they will not cross an active picket.
This ’round the clock presence relies heavily on community members and supporters. Store organizer Nora Rossi says their presence is invaluable.
“That has been crucial to this, because Starbucks is such a big company that if they wanted to reopen and re-staff the store they could,” Rossi said. “It’s illegal to fire us but if they re-opened the store and continued to not put us on the schedule it’s … in bad faith but it’s a way to … freeze us out of our jobs, I guess.”
Deprive the store of its supplies and Starbucks can not fully open. And while squeezing out their employees by not scheduling hours and removing them from payroll may be a possibility for the company, it’s essentially the same thing as firing, which is illegal.
“We’ve had about, at least 200 volunteers from the Boston area from other unions, from Boston University, from people walking by … we would not have been able to do it without that help,” Rossi added. “Also, even the emotional, verbal support from the community has been extremely helpful. A lot of us were pretty beat down by the COVID pandemic … and seeing the outpouring of support from people all over Boston and the Boston area with this strike I think has renewed a lot of our faith in the community.”
Picketing employees manage to earn 70% of their normal pay, thanks to the Greater Boston Labor Council, a regional coordinating body of Boston-area unions chartered by the national American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations. However, volunteers do not get reimbursed for their assistance handling hecklers and those wishing to shake up an otherwise peaceful display of worker rights in this modern world of pre-ordered macchiatos.
According to GBH News and Reuters, of the more than 9,000 company-owned locations nationwide encompassing over 235,000 employees, nearly 200 stores have moved to unionize. The store at 824 Commonwealth is one of them.
The movement began at a shop on Genesee Street in Buffalo, New York. The idea came out of the pandemic, when as essential workers, Starbucks employees were stretched very thin and mistreated by customers and management alike. At the time, it was one of the few stores open while there were limited options for service industry workers. A wage increase was implemented to address stressful conditions but was arbitrarily removed when all Starbucks stores reopened.
In the spring of 2021, a number of employees at the Buffalo location reached out to the Rochester (NY) Regional Joint Board of Workers United—a union affiliated with Service Employees International Union (after splitting much of the former UNITE textile workers division away from the HERE hotel workers division of UNITE HERE in 2009 following a famously ugly internal war)—for guidance, and formed a committee of workers from the area. The Joint Board was initially focused on organizing local independent coffee shops, according to Labor Notes, but started helping the Buffalo Starbucks workers after some of them who had helped with the independent shop drive decided to unionize. Leading to such a successful drive that Workers United soon created a Starbucks Workers United campaign—now led by its Deputy Organizing Director Daisy Pitkin in the role of national field organizer.
Phil Wilson, president and general counsel of the Labor Relations Institute in an episode of the Working Lunch podcast said, “the reason you pick a Starbucks if you’re a union is … you’re gonna get New York Times coverage of that campaign … even if you ultimately lose these campaigns, it gives people something to talk about, it creates energy, it’s exciting … there’s that PR component for the union side around picking a target like that.”
Additionally, Wilson cited employee disillusionment during the worst stretches of COVID-19.
“When you combine that with a pandemic and a lot of the work that they’ve done and a lot of the things you do to try to create that environment it can, in a way, sort of, if you’re suddenly feeling like, well, all of the stuff that you’ve said and all of the stuff that you’ve done … I feel like you’re not really walking your talk right now … it can sometimes create that gap where there’s the opportunity for unions.”
Shortly after the unionization effort began on Comm Ave, Starbucks assigned an interim manager to the location. According to a letter drafted on July 18 from Starbucks Workers United addressed to their district manager, what followed was a series of unfair labor practices including threats, overly restrictive policies, denials of benefits, and changes in operations. More specifically, the new manager reportedly made illegal threats regarding employee compliance with a newly imposed availability policy. Management wanted to fire employees who worked less than two days a week, even though they were full-time students with limited availability. Drastic under-staffing followed, with as few as two people managing the store. Work hours were then cut below the 20-hour threshold employees need to receive benefits, and additional employees were hired to fill those hours.
The letter also accused the interim manager of perpetuating harmful and offensive rhetoric with respect to race, gender, and orientation of both workers and customers, which goes against Starbucks’ stated mission and values. In an additional letter, petitioners wrote that at one point, the manager tore down a pride flag banner in front of customers and scrutinized the clothing choices of an employee who introduced themselves using they/them pronouns. Additionally, she allegedly made racial remarks toward someone who identifies as Black and required the worker, who has textured hair, to wear a visor.
“At some point, it just came to head and they walked out,” said Vanessa Phipps, a software engineer by trade and volunteer protestor. Phipps is also a member of the Party for Socialism and Liberation. That is how she was made aware of the strike, leading to her picketing for a month.
“We’ve almost become like kind of a neighborhood fixture,” Phipps said. “And we kind of rather we didn’t. The goal is to go back to work. The workers here want to be serving people coffee. They just want to be doing so under conditions that are sensible, reasonable, that respect their dignity as workers.”
The strikers included their terms for returning to work in a phone script meant for callers to use when dialing up Starbucks management directly. Those terms were for the company to investigate and terminate the replacement manager in question, and to set up monthly meetings with management to discuss and plan upcoming labor needs, including labor hours for employees, in-store coverage, and new hires.
In response to the protest, Starbucks hired Pinkerton, a notorious private security outfit historically known for strike-breaking. They blocked off the entrance to the store with caution tape, put up ‘No Trespassing’ signs, and removed the protesters’ signage from the fence and storefront. “They’ve been hostile and that’s putting it lightly,” Phipps said.
At one point the building’s landlord insisted that demonstrators move away from the patio storefront, where picketers had set up tents and signs for weeks, for safety reasons. Police arrived to enforce the message, and the rally was pushed to the sidewalk for a few days. It took subsequent public outcry from strikers and supporters as well as pressure from Boston Mayor Michelle Wu to draw back the police presence.
“Being on a sidewalk is more of a safety hazard I would think,” said Sky Bauer, a volunteer and fifth-year student at Northeastern.
On a national scale, Starbucks has lifted the hourly wage of non-union workers to an average of $17/hr. They’ve also announced student loan repayment tools and a savings account program, according to Reuters—all efforts in a move to slow down the unionization of their workers. Meanwhile, organizers say that there have not been any real attempts at full negotiations.
In some ways, the strikers may seem naive. But organizers and participants like Rossi say they have approached the company with a grounded stance from the get-go.
“I don’t have an investment in Starbucks in the emotional sense,” she said. “Corporations don’t care about us … and I knew that. I’m fully invested in my team and not in Starbucks.”
That investment might be paying off. As of this writing, the strike at 874 Comm Ave has ended after 64 days of protest, according to Working Mass, the Democratic Socialists of America’s Mass chapter monitoring the strike.
According to their site, Starbucks has met the demands of employees regarding imposed availability changes and an investigation into the interim manager—the company has said it’s actively seeking a replacement.
But according to a statement released by Starbucks to the Boston Globe, the workers are “returning to work under the same conditions at the time that they went on strike. No negotiation [was] conducted with these partners for their return.”
A letter released from Starbucks Workers United clarified: “Starbucks has conceded … the minimum availability requirement can not be unilaterally implemented at union stores, like ours.” They also noted the forced management changes.
Some dissonance, some crossfire, but the most recent strike has ended. As the Workers United letter put it …
“We want to take a moment to thank every single person who took the time to join us on the picket line, talk to a striking worker, bring us food and water, donate to our strike fund, sign our petitions, and support us every step of the way. Keeping our picket line alive 24-hours a day for 64 days took a village of community supporters, union siblings, friends, and Starbucks workers-we absolutely could not have done this without each and every one of you. We are incredibly inspired by this display of solidarity, and we look forward to supporting y’all in the larger fight for worker power. Thank you for helping us secure these wins.”