Lately, it’s been busier than usual near the Starbucks at the corner of 34th and Walnut streets. Waves of customers approach the store and notice the doors are locked and lights are turned off inside. A small poster at the entrance reads “Sorry For the Inconvenience.” But in front of the closed store, enthusiastic volunteers can be seen talking to incoming customers, handing out flyers, or passing around clipboards. Several of these off–duty workers and volunteers wear pins that have the words “Starbucks Workers United” imprinted in all caps, outlining an image of a raised fist and coffee mug.
Since November 2021, workers at the 34th Street Starbucks have been spearheading a unionization effort at the store. It began by word of mouth, with workers floating around the idea of joining Workers United, a labor organization that advocates for service workers. Through countless hours of dialogue and advocacy, organizers at the store have been rallying support among the staff. Now, workers are preparing to take an official vote on the establishment of a labor union.
At the beginning of the process, many of the workers at the 34th Street Starbucks were unfamiliar with unions—member–based democratic organizations that advocate on behalf of workers. They negotiate wages, benefits, and hours with the employer, ensuring that workers have a say in their working conditions. Currently, only 10.3 percent of Americans are involved in unions and 1.2 percent of all food service workers are formally organized. Unions represent all the workers in a particular region or district and can cover various occupations, such as teachers or dockworkers. But this isn’t the case for Starbucks, where each store is treated as an individual bargaining unit and must form independently. As a result, these new Starbucks unions will join the larger Workers United organization, where they will have the support of successful unions from across the country. This also gives union organizers access to the knowledge and experience of fellow labor organizing members.
The unionization effort at this particular Starbucks location is part of a broader movement that began in Buffalo, N.Y. where multiple stores successfully voted to unionize despite the hostile response from the company’s corporate management team. Following the success of organizers in Buffalo, employees at over 100 stores nationwide joined the unionization process. In Philadelphia, employees at several Starbucks locations and local chains like Good Karma and Old City Coffee have started to agitate for democracy in the workplace.
Tiernan, a union organizer and Starbucks shift supervisor, is passionate about bringing the union to University City. They and their fellow organizers believe that a union is the best way for their demands to be heard. “We want to have a say in this place where we spend such a large portion of our lives,” Tiernan says.
At stores like Starbucks, the workplace can be highly volatile and unpredictable. Because of a nationwide employee shortage, Tiernan notes that management expects unfair hours from workers, often asking them to come in on their off days. Additionally, they have not respected employees’ concerns around COVID–19 safety and lifted the mask mandate without fully consulting their workers. Customer safety remains another critical issue across Starbucks locations in Philadelphia. Tiernan points out that employees are expected to handle customer issues without any real oversight or set policies.
These complaints could be directed through a union. Rather than one or two employees approaching management with their opinions or suggestions, workers can come together and democratically decide what they think is best for their store. Through contract negotiations, a Starbucks union gives workers an avenue to create more predictable schedules and influence other store policies regarding safety and customer relations. Critically, unions allow employees to negotiate a just cause clause in contracts to protect individuals from unfair discipline or firing.
Store management hasn't responded kindly to the unionization effort. Tiernan says that every week until the union election, management subjects employees to captive audience meetings, where the store is shut down and employees are fed anti–union messages. Starbucks and other corporations are not allowed to explicitly discourage employees from voting against the union, but instead present the “facts”—fixating on the cost of union dues or the current benefits that Starbucks already offers.
Worker solidarity has been central to countering these misleading messages from management. Tiernan notes that throughout the process, it has become clear that “this whole thing is built on relationships.” When union dues or other concerns come up during meetings, the organizers are able to work through these issues in a collective and transparent manner. They acknowledge that their fellow workers may have to support a family or work multiple jobs in order to make ends meet. But they also present the facts of unionization—paying dues allows the union to build resources, advocate for workers, and fight for higher wages.
In addition to talking to fellow workers, the organizers are committed to educating the general public about the benefits of unionization. When Penn students and other customers are confused about why Starbucks is closed at 11 a.m. on a Wednesday, organizers take the time to explain the unionization process and answer the many questions some people might have. Customers often have significant sway over how a store is managed, and the customer is always right mentality could change the tide of a unionization effort.
To support the unionization efforts at Starbucks, Tiernan encourages customers to keep coming in to buy their daily coffee. Workers have a stake in their business succeeding just as much as the owner does, and it’s especially critical for the store to perform well during the unionization process. When ordering through the Starbucks app, Tiernan recommends giving good ratings, as “metrics really matter to corporate.” When visiting the store, congratulating or commenting on the union effort is another key way to show your support for the employees.
On a less material level, shifting the narrative around unionization is essential. Since such a small fraction of Americans participate in organized labor, many don’t have an already–formed opinion besides what they might have heard in the media. Sharing a story about an uncle who’s in the electrical workers union or talking about one’s involvement in local unionization efforts can help clarify the value of democracy in the workplace.
Tiernan wants their fellow organizers to remember that they are part of this “powerful tradition of organized labor” and represent an “emerging new chapter in the labor movement.” In Philadelphia, it’s easy to draw upon a rich history of organized labor when contextualizing the Starbucks unionization. The first labor union in the country was founded in Philadelphia by shoemakers resisting the domination of their factory owners. The radical IWW Interracial Longshore Union was founded here, centering racial justice in its unionization efforts. Tracing from this legacy of resistance, the new generation of workers is up to facing the injustices of the workplace and beginning to shift the landscape of organized labor.