At 9 a.m. on a dreary November morning, a line of customers stretched outside the door of the Starbucks in the base of the The New York Times building across Eighth Avenue from the Port Authority Bus Terminal. A young woman working at the front of the store shouted over the crowd that those who ordered online must queue to the left. Patrons, mostly tourists milling around the Times Square area, expressed frustration at the long wait and odd nature of this Starbucks. It wasn’t like the ones they’d been to before — it was also a workerless Amazon Go market.
Opened in July, it is one of only two “Starbucks Pick Up with Amazon Go” markets in the United States. The first one opened on the Upper East Side in November 2021. The project combines “the coffee chain’s order-ahead feature with e-commerce firm’s Just Walk Out cashierless technology,” PCMag reported in July.
“Meet a completely different Starbucks built on effortless convenience,” the store’s opening announcement read. The baristas that staff the location beg to differ. They began organizing a campaign for representation by the Starbucks Workers United union in late August.
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The Starbucks-Amazon Go stores feel like an entryway into a dystopian world created by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos and Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz — one where human interaction is minimized and frictionless shopping is the ideal.
At the Times building location, shoppers can buy cafe-style snacks and pre-prepared meals at Amazon Go, which occupies half of the store. In order to enter this half, customers must insert a credit card into a waist-high, transparent electronic gate. Thermal cameras that dangle above sync the card with its owner, triggering the gates to open. Shoppers are charged if they leave with any items.
The dysfunction that plagues the location as a result of the contactless market is remedied with live, breathing workers that assist customers. The problem: They are hired and paid by Starbucks, and receive nothing from Amazon except the occasional unpaid training. Despite the additional job duties they must perform, the baristas enjoy no additional pay benefits. Their wages are the same as any Starbucks barista in the area, between $15.50 and $18 per hour.
“The biggest portion of stress comes from the fact that we’re an Amazon Go store as well,” worker-organizer Greyson Lee told The Indypendent. “It’s two of the biggest corporate entities known for union-busting and capitalist nonsense coming together.”
The joint venture has generated the same working conditions Starbucks baristas have denounced during a surge of unionization at the company beginning in late 2021: Erratic schedules, sporadic and targeted enforcement of company policies, low pay, and understaffing. Workers also complain that the presence of the Amazon Go means dealing with irate customers who are confused by the location’s set up and glitchy technology.
“It sounds confusing because it is confusing. It makes no sense to the partners [Starbucks workers]; it makes no sense to the customers. It gets taken out on us,” said Hal Battjes, another member of the union’s organizing committee. “There are positions that were specially designed for these Amazon Go-Starbucks combos: Inventory support, hot foods, expiry, concierge.”
More than 265 Starbucks have voted to unionize with the worker-led Starbucks Workers Union (SBWU) since December 2021, and at least 40 others are currently preparing for union elections. At Amazon, where the workplaces are much larger and management equally anti-union, only one shop has voted for a union so far: the JFK8 warehouse on Staten Island, where workers voted 2,654 to 2,131 for the independent, worker-formed Amazon Labor Union (ALU) in April. Organizing efforts have been launched in at least ten other states.
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The line of perturbed customers stretching out the door that early-November morning was mainly a result of the store’s layout. Shoppers entering the Starbucks-Amazon Go are quickly forced to pack in tightly. The location was built under the theory that it would primarily serve customers who ordered in advance, like the Times workers who occupy the offices above. This has not been the case — one worker estimated that 60% of orders are made in-person and 40% online.
Workers told The Indy that during “peak time,” from 8 a.m. to 10 a.m., they serve an average of six or seven customers per minute. Furthermore, baristas say customers harass them verbally, make racist remarks and even engage in physical confrontations. Management’s usual response is to reprimand the workers for not providing the ideal “customer connection,” they say.
One barista recounted a time when a customer, confused about the electronic gate, got in their face and berated them. After the incident, the worker was scolded by their manager for “not handling the situation correctly.” Starbucks describes their workers’ obligation to provide the ideal customer experience as “making the moment.”
Another worker faced a customer who yelled, “I don’t want that [n-word] making my coffee.” A third barista described being physically assaulted while closing. She said she defended herself by raising her arms to the assailant’s face, as the security guard on duty fled the scene. She was subsequently scolded by management for not “correctly de-escalating” the situation.
One of the main complaints workers organizing with SBWU are aiming to address is the lack of communication with Amazon. “The design team at Amazon talks to our district manager, our district manager then tells our managers, then our managers tell us what the deal is with the Amazon stuff,” says Battjes. “The only time we’ve really had any direct contact with Amazon is every once and a while, they’ll come in to do these specialized trainings. These trainings aren’t compensated; our extra labor isn’t receiving extra pay.”
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When Starbucks-Amazon Go opened, its stated intent was to bring together the “best of the best” Starbucks employees in the area. “We didn’t sign any transfer papers that usually go along with changing stores and we were basically sent over [here] without really a choice at all,” said Battjes, who worked with Geyson Lee at a Starbucks on West 46th St. before they were both transferred during the summer. The two had casually discussed unionizing at their previous location, and upon arrival to the new store, connected with Aaron, another member of the organizing committee.
“If I can take my position to make it better for partners at my individual store and simultaneously increase benefits for people all over the world, then I can go to sleep at night,” Battjes said. They and many of their coworkers are young adults struggling to live on their own.
Battjes, Lee, Aaron and the other five members of the organizing committee do most of their organizing in the shop because of the busy schedules of everyone involved. The store is open from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. and the workers are forced to put up with erratic schedules.
“You wake up at three in the morning to get to a shift and the next day you have to close,” said Battjes. “How are you expected to have any semblance of a sleep schedule or normalcy?”
Although management doesn’t like it, organizers spent non-work time in the break room, talking up the benefits of a union with coworkers who were undecided about how to vote. Worker-organizers delivered union cards signed by more than 70% of the 31 employees to the NLRB when they filed for an election. The lack of additional compensation for their additional duties is driving the support, organizers say.
On Nov. 17, this year’s “Red Cup Day” — one of Starbucks’ busiest days, when customers can purchase a reusable holiday cup that gets them 10 cents off each purchase — a total of 112 U.S. stores, including seven in New York City, staged one-day strikes. At least 20 workers from Starbucks-Amazon Go picketed outside it. They were unable to shut down the store, as managers and scabs filled in, but their continuous presence over nine hours drew the support of other unions as well as media coverage.
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The Indy sat down with worker-organizers on Nov. 4 during a day of action. They had set up an all-day tabling session in the Amazon Go cafe section of the store, where fellow Starbucks “partners” could come to learn about the union push. They had also called for workers to wear their SBWU shirts that day, in response to a crackdown from management, specifically against Battjes, for wearing union shirts. Workers said they were threatened with “no call, no shows” — missing a shift without calling in, a fireable offense — for wearing the shirts.
Aaron handed out SBWU shirts and buttons accompanied by a legal slip for any worker told to remove it by management to his co-workers.
Customers sitting near the union table largely ignored it, but the supervisors on duty hovered close by. Two Amazon representatives also made an appearance.
Throughout the day, workers finishing their shifts approached the table to greet one another and express their frustrations. The tone of their voices and the visible exhaustion on the faces of those completing the morning shift made it clear that frustration was brewing like hot coffee. They asked each other when their next shifts would be, and expressed a shared need for rest in anticipation of a similar day tomorrow.
Before beginning to work at Starbucks, one 18-year-old barista, Milli (a pseudonym) had been bed-ridden for five years due to lupus and rheumatoid arthritis. Sitting at the table, she said management had repeatedly complicated and delayed her attempts to receive accommodations for her disability.
When she was hired, Milli listed her availability as Monday through Saturday because she comes from a religious family and goes to church on Sunday with her mother. But when a supervisor asked if she would be able to work on a Sunday in case of an emergency, she said yes, feeling the pressure of being at the beginning of her probationary period. She was quickly scheduled to come in for the 5 a.m. opening nearly every Sunday morning. To arrive on time from her home in East New York, she has to wake up at 2 a.m. She claims that her request to work at least some midday shifts instead of solely mornings was rejected, leaving her having to wake up at 2 a.m. up to six days a week.
“I see at least two partners a day just spending their breaks wallowing in our small, back break room, just staring off into space,” Milli said. “And you want to help them: ‘Do you want water, did you eat today?’ And they go, ‘No, I used my markouts so I don’t have any money to afford anything,’ or, ‘I can’t walk anywhere because I only have a 10-minute break,’ or ‘I can’t afford to eat anywhere else.”
Another worker showed the listing for their position on Indeed.com, which reads as a standard listing for barista positions at any of the thousands of Starbucks locations across the country. It did not mention of the dual nature of the role or the extra functions workers are required to take on.
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Starbucks profits briefly dipped in 2020 at the onset of the pandemic but have since resumed climbing. The company made $32.3 billion over the past year while carrying out a scorched-earth union-busting campaign that has resulted in the firing of more than 100 worker organizers across the country. Store managers frequently hold “captive-audience meetings” — labor-speak for when an employer forces workers to attend anti-union sessions during a union drive.
When asked what he would say to Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, Lee offered, “No longer will we stand for being treated like dirt. No longer will we stand for you and your yacht while we can barely make rent.”
Regardless of the difficulties faced day to day and management’s refusal to accommodate her schedule, Milli was adamant that she had no plans to leave the fight for the union behind. “My parents are just telling me to quit but I can’t quit, I’m too deep in,” she said.
“Me, Greyson and Aaron have put too much effort into this to walk away,” said Battjes, sharing the sentiment. “Without Starbucks, I don’t know what I’d do. Right now, I can get by, and I don’t have the mental strength to remove myself from this environment, because not only is it my livelihood but it’s my social group; it’s how I’m able to function and be an adult.” But Battjes fears homelessness and wants to make a fair wage. Their $15.50 pay for a 30-35 hour work weeks puts them at the city’s poverty line.
Just before The Indy went to press on Dec. 15, the NLRB announced that the workers at Starbucks-Amazon Go had voted 14-13 against unionizing. The worker-organizers at the store say they will contest the election result, citing intimidation tactics used by management. “This isn’t the end of the road for us, but another uphill battle,” barista Hal Battjes said. “We aren’t going to let them bog us down and silence us.”