Starbucks Workers, Supporters Highlight the Company’s Union Busting on ‘Customer Education Day’

Starbucks patrons reminded of the company’s harassment and firings of its unionizing workers.

Elsie Carson-Holt Aug 10, 2023

On Monday dozens of  Starbucks locations across New York City were leafletted by labor advocates, Starbucks Workers United organizers, baristas and their allies to shed light on Starbucks union-busting and labor violations. Similar actions were held across the country. 

In New York City, the Customer Education Day event took place across all five boroughs and was joined in support by labor unions such as SAG-AFTRA the Writer’s Guild of America East, Workers United, and the Transport Workers Union, to name a few. It was also supported by elected officials such as Congressmember Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, City Councilmember Tiffany Cabán and State Senator Gustavo Rivera, among others. 

“Our purpose today is basically … both spreading awareness of the attempts to unionize across various Starbucks stores, as well as Starbucks union busting. And their violations of labor laws that have led to the need for a union,” Said Max Pilcher, who was leafleting a Starbucks on Church Street in Lower Manhattan. 

Pilcher has worked at Starbucks for around a year. He was joined by fellow workers, Starbucks Workers United organizers and 32 BJ SEIU, the largest service employee’s union in the country, at the 120 Church St. location. They passed out leaflets as a part of Customer Education Day, which seeks to “educate Starbucks’ customer base about the mega-corporation’s historic union-busting tactics,” according to 32 BJ SEIU. 

Starbucks customers walking by were handed flyers reading, “Starbucks has broken labor law over 200 times: will you support your Starbucks barista & demand an end to union-busting?”

The goal, said Pilcher, is not to dissuade anyone from purchasing coffee from the company, but “to make sure that they’re aware that they can help support the workers that are part of this campaign.”

Pilcher has personal experience with Starbucks’s violation of labor laws. In New York City, according to the Fair Workweek Act, employers cannot cut workers hours more than 15% without just cause or legitimate business reason. Pilcher says Starbucks cutting his hours from 33 hours to 23 hours, which caused him to have to take on a second job.

Other unions joined in including 32 BJ, the Writer’s Guild of America East, SAG-AFTRA, Workers United, the Transport Workers Union and more.

“It impacts my ability to budget, but more than that, it impacts my ability to pay rent. I’m barely able to make rent as is. But when my hours are predictable, when I’m getting the right amount, I can usually make it work,” said Pilcher. “When my hours are cut, I need to find other ways to do work” he added as he stood next to his bike — which he has been using to make deliveries on the side in order to make extra money. 

Stationed by the door was Zoey Custer, a supervisor who has been trying to unionize the store. She says that although they have a good manager at her location, being in a union is still important. 

“We lucked out with a really great manager for now. But you never know when Starbucks is going to take that away,” Custer told The Indypendent. “So we want to make sure that we’re protected. We want to make sure that all the other locations are protected.” 

City Comptroller Brad Lander was also present at 120 Church St., handing out leaflets. He was there to support an independent investigation into Starbucks’ labor violations and an end to the corporation’s rampant union-busting. 

“The way a company thrives for the long term is by respecting its workers freedom of association, including when they exercise their rights to form a union and to bargain collectively,” Lander said in a statement to the press. “It is not by union busting, firing workers, by closing stores, by refusing to bargain in good faith.” 

“Today’s efforts represented only the opening salvo of a series of national days of action to activate customers and allies to hold Starbucks accountable and demand they live up to their progressive values,” 32 BJ said in a statement. “Together, workers and their allies intend to send the message that they will keep the pressure on Starbucks until it ends its union-busting practices and makes real commitments to respect worker rights.” 

Riley Fell has also has grievances against Starbucks. She successfully helped unionize her store in Baltimore, one of the 340 unionized Starbucks in the country, but said that she “experienced a lot of union-busting tactics that were clearly given to my store manager by corporate.” Fell said that workers were pulled aside and encouraged to vote No, and that she herself was threatened with not being able to transfer stores when she planned to move.

“He would employ those tactics in order to have us not vote for the union, which didn’t work in that situation, but it is a company-wide issue.” Fell recently left Starbucks after two years, worn out by understaffing, union busting and homophobia from her coworkers, she says. Still, she remains involved in the fight to create fairer workplaces for Starbucks workers.

“Everyone who is working for Starbucks — and across different industry — deserves a union, deserves representation outside of themselves.”

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