EXCLUSIVE: An Interview With Roanoke Starbucks Workers United


Recently The Virginia Worker sat down with J and X, members of Bridges Starbucks Workers United in Roanoke, after they went public with their union campaign.

They’re the first Starbucks workers in both Roanoke and southwestern Virginia to unionize, joining close to 100 other stores across the country, with numbers growing everyday.

Starbucks Workers United is affiliated with the Philadelphia-based union Workers United, which is under the Service Employees International Union (SEIU).


VW: So why did you all decide to unionize?

X: We’re very lucky in that we weren’t the first ones. The stores in Buffalo, NY started that process and seeing them succeed inspired us to go for it as well. In terms of the wider Starbucks community, unionizing has been a long time coming.

This job requires so much physical and emotional labor. It’s a job that has hazards like burns, volatile customers, unsafe environments, air conditioning and heating not working, and on top of that Starbucks hires people that genuinely adhere to its values it claims to have. We feel Starbucks is not upholding those values

J: We’re not against Starbucks, we are against the ways we have been treated and the outcomes that haven’t been favorable to us.

We went from someone getting COVID and being told to keep coming to work, but once Buffalo won their union election Starbucks is now offering paid sick leave. A lot of partners don’t have sick pay. We are required to wear masks, but the customers are not. It’s just not safe.

VW: It sounds like the pandemic has been a contributing factor

X: Absolutely, but there were issues before the pandemic. We were given the option of taking paid time off for two or three months, and those who wanted to keep working were given hazard pay, and the cafes were closed, so we were just drive-thru only.

It’s astonishing. COVID cases continue to rise, all those measures have been drawn back. We don’t get hazard pay, the hazard is still there, but we don’t get paid for it, we don’t have any precautions.

VW: Do you think there’s a contradiction between the safety of workers in the middle of a pandemic versus the drive for corporate profits?

J: Yeah, we were all really upset about Kevin Johnson (Starbucks CEO) who recently put out a letter saying “look at how much profit we made!” “We made all this money, but we’re still helping our partners through the pandemic,” in reality he’s making something like $20 million dollars and we aren’t making hazard pay while he gets to sit in an office. It’s insane.

They try to tell us everything is fine, but COVID cases are spiking, workers are getting COVID around us and we’re just supposed to deal with it.

VW: What is the pay rate for Starbucks workers now?

X: Summer of last year was $10 dollars an hour and now it’s $12.

J: They removed hazard pay in summer of 2020. When Buffalo announced their union campaign Starbucks immediately gave us a pay raise. By Summer of 2022 everyone will be at $15 an hour.

It’s just really interesting to me. That’s a direct result of the inklings of a union. If that’s what they do when they’re scared of us unionizing, imagine what they’ll do when we actually have a union.

X: We have some partners who’ve been with Starbucks for 10 years, they’re only making a few cents more than someone who’s just started.

VW: Even with the announcement of $15 by this summer that still isn’t that much when you have 7% inflation and are living in the city – those are still poverty wages.

J: Absolutely, we have partners on food stamps. It’s deplorable.

VW: You mentioned Starbucks’ values, and how they’re not living up to those values, what are those values?

J: I think my favorite is “acting with courage and challenging the status quo to make the company better”. I think there’s nothing that embodies that more than forming a union. We also have values such as “wanting to inspire people” and “creating a culture of empathy and kindness”

X: Their whole idea is building up from small to big “one cup, one neighborhood a time” sort of like how one thing can make a difference. For me it relates to unionizing as well, if we want to make change we gotta start with us.

VW: Do you think Starbucks actually believes these values or they just say it because it sounds good?

X: Deep in my heart I want to believe someone up in corporate believes that, but in reality I honestly don’t think so.

I want to believe there are good people who started this, but for me even if there are people who believe that, it’s hard for us baristas to believe that when we are treated this way.

J: I’ve heard from baristas who’ve been with the company for upwards of 10 to 15 years say there probably was a point where the workers were considered more important than profits.

I’ve heard from plenty of tenured baristas how it’s been downhill ever since Kevin Johnson took over from Howard Schultz. Personally I don’t think any corporation really values much over profits, that’s just how things work in a capitalist society, profits have got to come first.

X: Big corporations say “we love people, we believe in them” but that comes after the money, that’s not how it should be, and we’re stuck in this.

VW: What are the specific demands you are putting forward?

J: Currently every store will be putting forth their own contract with their own specific demands.

One of the biggest things is having a voice and we want a democratic workplace. COVID precautions, living wages, better seniority pay, insurance premiums to be fully paid, the store in Buffalo is demanding digital tipping as an option for customers, we will probably do something that resembles their contract and demands.

A lot of people are asking for guaranteed hours, better training. And restoring our daily free food and drinks. 

X: Yeah our hours have been a hot button issue here. Every new launch that goes through we’re seeing a price increase, and I’m wondering where is all that money going? All I’m seeing is $12 an hour and not enough scheduled hours.

VW: What’s been the response from management since announcing your union campaign?

X: We put up materials about the union around the store and management took it down.

We had an MLK quote about unions on our community board and the manager erased it. There was community backlash, people were calling to complain, so they put it back up on a smaller board.

J: There will probably be multiple unfair labor practice charges in the future.

Management is not happy and very scared. As a company Starbucks has been trying to spread misinformation, pulling out all the stops, using every scare tactic they can think of. they just launched an anti-union website today.

VW: What are some of the arguments Starbucks is using to discourage unionization?

J: They’re basically saying all our benefits will be “up for negotiation” We feel they are gaslighting us, telling us to “do our research,” implying that we are not smart enough to do that and that we need to trust whatever they say on the issue.

They say we “might lose our benefits” “wont be able to work at other stores” “wont be able to borrow product from other stores”, which is just not true, but they’re trying to convince us that it is.

VW: Do you think this has been effective in scaring your coworkers?

J: I don’t think it’s been particularly effective, because I think we’ve already watched Buffalo have success and with that we already know what corporate will say.

We have documents of their scripts of what management will say to us. I don’t think any of us are scared, we find it kind of funny.

X: Another scare tactic they try to use are one-on-one meetings, thankfully we have the right to record these meetings.

VW: Have they done any captive audience meetings or flown in third-party union-busters?

J: There’s now well over 80 stores unionizing and they don’t have the resources to do that to all of us. They have switched over to management doing one-on-ones where it’s easier to pick off workers one by one.

VW: Do you think you all might have to strike to win your campaign?

J: We will have to wait and see. The Buffalo store did a short strike action over COVID hazards and won their demands after a few days.

It’s hard to say for the future though and this is spreading so quickly. Soon enough they’ll realize they are losing and will need to step out of the way.

VW: What would you say to people who say unions are no longer needed?

J: Unions got us the five day workweek, the weekend, overtime pay. I would say think bigger, we spend so much of our lives at work, don’t we want our work lives to be fulfilling? That’s what it’s about for me.

X: There’s still room for improvement, unions got us to this point, but it’s not a stopping point. Just because we’re not in those conditions anymore doesn’t mean our conditions currently are just.

VW: Why do you think unions have a bad rep?

J: There’s room in the conversation to honor the bad experiences people have had in unions. It serves the upper class to dissuade workers from organizing.

If we think unions are bad even if we’ve never tried to have one that makes sure Kevin Johnson can get away with a lot.

VW What can supporters do to help your campaign?

X: Help spread the word! We had a rally recently, it was fantastic, people were super sweet. Simple things like coming in and getting “union yes” as their names on their drinks. The support means everything.

J: Feel free to come on in and say “hi,” tell us you support us and appreciate us. People are free to reach out to us on facebook

X: The tips we get just goes to us, feel free to tip!

VW: When is the union election?

J: Likely in the next month or so, we don’t have an exact date, but we think this month or early-to-mid March.

X: We are hoping other stores in our district will follow in our footsteps. It’s cool we’re the first ones in Roanoke to do this and I’m excited to help and do all that I can to encourage other baristas. I’m excited for our future.

VW: Do you think you have a majority to win the election at this point?

X: We’re at over 70% of authorization cards signed

J: We have 80% of our store who’ve sent in union cards, so I think we’re pretty optimistic. 

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