One Monday afternoon last August, a drunk man stumbled into the Ditmars Boulevard Starbucks in Queens and began throwing syrup bottles, food and hot coffee at the baristas. He then tried to push an espresso machine on top of a worker, but failed. No managers were present, leaving the employees on their own.
“We reported it after, but you know how that goes. It’s essentially, ‘Thoughts and prayers,’” barista Austin Locke told The Indypendent. “That’s usually how incident reports go.”
Another barista, who asked to remain anonymous because she fears she could be fired, said she saw a customer throw a metal basket at a worker who was eight months pregnant, bloodying her head. The manager told the woman to file an incident report and continue working.
Even before the pandemic, problems included insufficient staffing, erratic schedules, low wages, stressful work environments, and a lack of communication between baristas and managers.
“It’s disgusting to me. She didn’t do anything. She didn’t care,” said the anonymous barista. Both she and Locke said they’ve witnessed other incidents where a customer treats a worker with violence, verbal abuse, sexism or racism.
Workers at the Astoria Boulevard Starbucks filed for union recognition in March, and the Ditmars Boulevard workers followed suit on April 14. They hope having a union will force the company to give managers better training and hold them accountable for their actions.
Starbucks baristas across the country have been signing up with Starbucks Workers United, an affiliate of Workers United-SEIU. Last December, a store in Buffalo became the first in the United States to unionize. On April 1, the Starbucks Reserve Roastery in Chelsea became the first in New York City. As owe go to press, 75 Starbucks stores across the country had voted to unionize and more than 250 are in the process of organizing elections.
Brandi Alduk, Josue Cruz and Kevin Cunningham, workers at the Astoria Boulevard store, have all had similar experiences with unruly customers. Even before the pandemic, workers at both Queens stores say, problems included insufficient staffing, erratic schedules, low wages, stressful work environments, and a lack of communication between baristas and managers.
Both stores are so understaffed, the anonymous barista said, that during rush times, she and two coworkers serve about 80 customers every half hour. “It’s almost impossible to do with just three people,” she said.
Cruz said the Astoria Boulevard cafe would have benefitted from hiring an extra person during the height of the pandemic to enforce the mask mandate and run drinks to customers waiting outside. When indoor dining was reintroduced, things got worse. He and his coworkers struggled to check vaccine cards, uphold social-distancing guidelines and enforce the mask mandate, all while making drinks and dealing with irritable customers.
Toward the end of February, Cruz said he and his coworkers had to work at other Astoria locations for two weeks while his store was being remodeled. The environment was even more stressful there, he said: The managers criticized baristas in front of their coworkers, instead of pulling them aside to speak privately.
“Seeing the baristas at the other stores was heartbreaking. They’re scared to talk to their managers,” he said. “We all have stuff going on outside of work, so we don’t need to come to work and be stressed out. I want them to be able to express their opinions without being shut down. I think a union would help amplify their voice.”
Many baristas’ hours were reduced during the pandemic. “We’re not making enough money to survive,” said Austin Locke. “The store is making thousands of dollars a day and each of us is making about $50 a day. We want to be treated like human beings. We shouldn’t have to worry about making rent, paying our bills or just getting food. We all have multiple jobs because Starbucks doesn’t give us enough money or hours.”
“People will come in and order a grande water and put $20 in our tip jar and say, ‘We think what you’re doing is great.’”
The anonymous barista said she juggles two jobs, and sometimes works shifts at both on the same day, with little time to rest or eat in between.
Meanwhile, then-CEO Kevin Johnson received a 40 percent pay raise. According to the company’s annual proxy statement, filed with the federal Securities and Exchange Commission in January, his salary was increased from $14.67 million in 2020 to $20.43 million last year. (Johnson retired in March, and was replaced by company founder Howard Schultz, who told store managers in April that unions were “trying desperately to disrupt our company.”)
Starbucks boasts about its culture of inclusion, benefits and opportunities for growth — many of the reasons Brandi Alduk and her coworkers wanted to work there. However, Alduk says, many of those benefits don’t help much. She has the “silver” level health insurance plan, but “it really only covers emergency situations. If you want a higher-tier plan, your whole check basically goes into paying that insurance. Starbucks talks about their fertility treatment plan, but you would be spending your entire paycheck in order to achieve those benefits.”
Starbucks refers to its workers as “partners.” “We call our employees partners because we are all partners in shared success,” the company says on its website. That rhetoric is part of how Starbucks gained a reputation as a progressive company that values and listens to its employees, many of whom are quick to point out its hypocrisy.
We shouldn’t have to worry about making rent, paying our bills or just getting food. We all have multiple jobs because Starbucks doesn’t give us enough money or hours.”
“You’d think that that term implies equal ground,” said Cunningham. “As time went on, that rhetoric got old and almost irritating, because the company is still making ridiculous profits. They call us partners. Okay, then let’s see that.”
In February, Starbucks fired seven workers in Memphis for trying to form a union. The Queens workers say they’re afraid of similar retaliation, but the support they’ve been getting from the community has been overwhelming.
“People will come in and order a grande water and put $20 in our tip jar and say, ‘We think what you’re doing is great.’ Even before this, our customers always ask us about our lives. Some of them know I do jiujitsu and I compete in other states. I tell them about my wins and losses,” said Cruz.
The National Labor Relations Board will be sending ballots to the workers at the Astoria Boulevard store on May 6. They have until May 26 to vote.
The election for the Ditmars Boulevard store will be held in-person there on June 3. On April 30, they posted a list of demands on Twitter, including a raise to $25 an hour, the option to work full-time, free and full-coverage health care regardless of hours worked, more paid vacation and sick time, and expanded child care and maternity leave.
“Howard Schultz seems to think that if you’re for unions, you’re anti-Starbucks,” said the anonymous barista. “But we’re doing this because we actually enjoy working at
Starbucks. We don’t hate Starbucks, we just want a better work environment. We love the customers and I love my coworkers. We’re like family.”
Please support independent media today! Now celebrating its 22nd year publishing, The Indypendent is still standing but it’s not easy. Make a recurring or one-time donation today or subscribe to our monthly print edition and get every copy sent straight to your home.