Starbucks Seattle union vote passes unanimous vote in company’s hometown

Starbucks barista Janna Reeve, a member of the organizing committee in Buffalo, New York, speaks in support of employees at Starbucks locations in Seattle that have announced plans to form unions during a rally at Cal Anderson Park in Seattle, Washington on January 25, 2022.

Jason Redmond | AFP | Getty Images

Starbucks baristas in Seattle on Tuesday voted unanimously to unionize, a first in the company’s hometown.

The Seattle restaurant at Broadway and Denny Way, along with six other Starbucks-owned coffee shops in Buffalo, New York, and Mesa, Arizona, decided to form a union under the auspices of Workers United, an affiliate of the International Union of Service Workers. Only one seat in the Buffalo area voted against unionization, resulting in an 88% winning percentage for Starbucks Workers United.

Growing union pressure is one of the challenges new acting CEO Howard Schultz will face as he returns to the helm of the company that has propelled him into a global coffee giant. From April 4, Schultz will take over so outgoing CEO Kevin Johnson can step down and the board can look for a long-term replacement.

Under Schultz’s leadership, Starbucks has developed a reputation as a generous and progressive employer, a position now under threat as the union gains momentum and workers share their grievances.

Nine workers at Broadway and Denny Way voted in favor of unionizing, with none voting against. One ballot was contested and therefore not taken into account. Six other Starbucks locations in Seattle have filed for union elections, including the company’s flagship Reserve Roastery, a luxury cafe meant to compete with more upscale coffee shops.

The initial victories of the Buffalo union spurred other places around the country to organize. More than 150 company-owned Starbucks locations have filed for union elections with the National Labor Relations Board, all within the past six months.

However, only a small part of the company’s overall presence was involved in the union onslaught. Starbucks operates nearly 9,000 locations in the US.

The regional director of the National Labor Relations Board will now have to certify ballots in Seattle, a process that can take up to a week. The next challenge for the union is to secure a contract with Starbucks. Labor law does not require an employer and trade union to enter into a collective agreement, and negotiating an agreement can drag on for years.

At Starbucks’ annual shareholder meeting on Wednesday, chairman Mellody Hobson said the company understands and recognizes its workers’ right to organize.

“We are also negotiating in good faith and want a constructive relationship with the union,” she said.

Earlier in the day, on CNBC’s Squawk Box, she said Starbucks “made a few mistakes” when asked about union pressure.

“When you think about it, again, why we rely on Howard at the moment is that connection to our people where we think he’s exceptionally capable of interacting with our people in a way that makes a difference,” she said.

Schultz appeared in Buffalo before the union election to try to dissuade workers from voting for unionization, a move that may have signaled his return to the company and his approach to the organizing movement.

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