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Workers Protest Starbucks Chair Mellody Hobson’s MoMA Award

On Monday, two worlds — elite liberal philanthropy and grassroots union organizing — collided outside the iconic Midtown museum.

Molly Morrow Jun 9

Read also: The Starbucks Union Battle Comes to Queens

On the evening of Tuesday June 7, about 25 Starbucks workers and supporters rallied outside the Museum of Modern Art to protest Starbucks’ Board of Directors Chair Mellody Hobson receiving an award from MoMA for her “extraordinary philanthropy.” She shared the award with movie director George Lucas.

Baristas, however, say that Hobson’s generosity doesn’t extend to Starbucks. With workers at 135 Starbucks stores in 28 states (as of June 7) voting for unions in the past six months, and those at over 150 seeking to join unions, the company has embarked on what the Starbucks Workers United union calls an “aggressive union-busting campaign.”

The coffee chain has hired the Littler Mendelson law firm, one of the largest “union avoidance” firms in the country. In February, it fired seven union supporters at a Memphis store on the pretext that they had violated security rules by letting a reporter in — but on June 7 labor prevailed and the remaining workers voted 11-3 for a union.

Mellody Hobson and George Lucas at the 2016 Ambassadors for Humanity gala. Photo: YouTube/Carnegie Medal of Philanthropy.

“Charity is fine and good / But we’re working for our livelihood,” the protesters chanted. They included baristas and representatives from the Laundry, Distribution and Food Service Workers Joint Board of Workers United, the Service Employees International Union affiliate the Starbucks union is part of.

In May, the National Labor Relations Board issued a complaint (roughly equivalent to an indictment) that Starbucks had illegally fired six baristas in Buffalo — where the first two stores in the nation unionized — during the union campaign there last fall, and illegally retaliated against other workers.

On June 3, Starbucks told workers at one of its three Ithaca shops that it would be shut down in a week. The company claimed it was closing the store because of a clogged grease trap workers had complained about. The workers have filed a complaint with the NLRB charging that the closing was retaliation for them voting for the union in April, and that Starbucks had a “legal duty to bargain over the closure.”

“At my store, there were a lot of first-hand and second-hand accounts of intimidation and pulling partners into the manager’s office encouraging them to vote no on the union vote,” said a barista at the rally whose store recently unionized, and who would like to remain anonymous.

Protesters handed flyers to attendees of the award ceremony as they entered the MoMA. Photo: Sue Brisk for The Indypendent.

In the New York City metropolitan area, six Starbucks have voted for the union, the most recent in the Rockland County suburb of Nanuet on June 3 and on Astoria Boulevard in Queens on June 6. Workers at four others have filed for union elections, and one, in Great Neck on Long Island, voted against the union. Workers United is contesting that result, on the grounds that managers retaliated against union supporters before the vote by threatening to cut their hours or deny them promotions.

“What pushed our store to unionize is the cultural change we saw before and after the pandemic,” said Sammy, a barista at the Starbucks Roastery, the store in Manhattan’s former meatpacking district that in April became the first Starbucks in the city to unionize. “Starbucks made a lot of money during the pandemic, and seeing them offer less pay for new hires who had to do more work during the pandemic was eye-opening. It was hurtful to see people’s livelihood go down.”

A police officer, award ceremony attendee and Starbucks worker at Tuesday’s rally. Photo: Sue Brisk for The Indypendent.

The protesters demanded that Starbucks agree to stay neutral — neither opposing nor supporting the union — in the union election process.

Hobson, the only board chair of a Fortune 500 company who is a Black woman, has been praised as a successful businesswoman and trailblazer. She said in a company publicity interview in 2021 that she wants Starbucks to be a place where “people want to work, where they feel heard and feel the opportunity to speak their truth.” She is also a board member of the JP Morgan Chase investment bank. 

Tickets for MoMA’s “Party in the Garden” started at $2,500. The afterparty cost $300, and featured a DJ set by DJ PEE .WEE (Anderson .Paak), who the museum praised for his 2020 single “Lockdown,” which “was inspired by participation in a Los Angeles protest against police brutality,”

Workers United says it has filed more than 180 unfair labor practice charges against Starbucks, and that the NLRB has issued nine official complaints.“My store saw everything that was happening in Buffalo, and that really inspired us,” Brandy, a Starbucks worker, told The Indypendent. “Considering that we also dealt with short-staffing and underpay, we chose to ride the wave with Buffalo and take a lead from the Roastery, which also unionized recently.”

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