Unity Fest: Richmond Rallies for Starbucks Workers

RICHMOND, VA – Spirits were high on Sunday, April 24th at the National in Downtown Richmond as supporters of Starbucks Workers United gathered to celebrate the union’s historic victories in five stores in the Richmond area.

While Unity Fest’s musical acts and speakers like Bernie Sanders undoubtedly captivated the audience, Starbucks workers themselves drew the impressive crowd. Creighton, a professional union organizer, told the Virginia Worker that he attended the event because “ I just think it’s really important that anybody that’s not even just in the labor community but the left at large to show these workers support… it’s really important that as many people as possible get out here and show these workers that they’re not alone.”

Robin, a retired healthcare worker, put it even more succinctly when we asked her reason for attending Unity Fest: “the union!”

Starbucks is a behemoth that rakes in tens of billions of dollars in revenue every year and has exploited baristas for decades; why has such a tidal wave of union elections occurred at this particular moment? Starbucks workers explained to the Virginia Worker that an array of intolerable conditions, including pay, hours, a lack of respect, and premature rolling back of COVID protocols all contributed to workers’ desire to organize.

“A lot of us were just waiting for a spark to happen, and what’s happened in Buffalo ignited that blaze”, Starbucks worker Cory Johnson told us, referring to the first Starbucks Workers United union drive in Buffalo, New York. Meridian Stiller agreed, stating, “we had been watching what was happening in Buffalo and there’s quite a few progressive labor movement supporters who work at my store. So we saw the store in Buffalo happen and thought, ‘this is the time, now is the time to move forward with a union.’ So a few months passed and after Buffalo won their victory in December, we immediately started organizing.”

SBWU’s efforts may have spread like wildfire following the Buffalo victory, but that doesn’t mean that workers’ struggle for a union was easy in Richmond. Workers detailed the climate of intimidation meant to derail their campaign. As Stiller told the Virginia Worker: “We’ve had one on one meetings, we’ve had managers calling people on their days off to tell them that they had to vote in the election. We’ve had intimidating paperwork mailed to our houses. We’ve had people disciplined for things they ought not have been disciplined for. So it’s been a struggle, but we’ve overcome it.”

Johnson observed, “A lot of what we’ve seen has been extra managers coming to work on the floor, who are there just to monitor the union… And there’s retaliation. Partners are suddenly getting final write ups for things they never got a first warning for, for things that happened six months or a year ago. For policies that were never enforced before, management is now saying that they’ve got to follow the code now. So if you’ve always worn graphic t-shirts to work, the dress code says you can’t do it, but people have done it for 2 or 3 years and it was never enforced. Now they’re telling you you’ve got to change your shirt or go home. They’re inspecting people’s shoes to make sure they’re up to standard.”

Stiller identified another weapon in Starbucks’ arsenal: weaponizing the bureaucratic procedures of the National Labor Relations Board: “something Starbucks will do is that they’ll make these hearings where they’re arguing that a single store is not valid to bargain, and it should be a whole district instead, which they’re doing because they know that it’ll be much harder for us to get the votes of a whole district. But there’s a lot of precedent against that. The law is that a single store is a perfectly acceptable bargaining unit and instead of just holding hearings and saying that one Starbucks store is fine, they’ve done dozens of them, and the NLRB keeps letting them do it, even though they’ve ruled in every single hearing [that a single store is a valid bargaining unit].”

So far Starbucks’ strong-arm tactics have failed spectacularly in Richmond. The class struggle is surging ahead regardless of employer intimidation, Glenn Youngkin’s upset election, and Democrats’ broken promise to pass the PRO Act (a piece of legislation that would make it substantially easier to form a union; Obama similarly promised workers he would pass the Employee Free Choice Act during his 2008 campaign, only to discard it after his fellow Democrats argued against it).

Even in these adverse conditions, Virginia Worker’s correspondents could not find so much as a scintilla of pessimism in the air at Unity Fest. Workers are leading the way with enthusiasm and determination, and are not waiting on politicians.

Unity Fest also attracted unions other than Starbucks Workers United. For example, city employees organized with the Service Employees International Union were out in force, exhorting attendees to support their battle to get the Richmond City Council to recognize their union.

Phil, a city worker and member of SEIU, explained why recognition of his union is so vital for the city: “Across the board in every department it’s understaffed, which means that anyone who is there is overworked… A strong union is going to result in better city services. We got into public service because we care about the city, we care about these jobs, and we want to provide these services to the best of our ability. And we need a union in order to do that… The cost of living is rising here and we are just losing seasoned employees in every department.”

SEIU is asking that all Richmond residents who support unions attend the City Council meeting on May 2nd. “[Members of the City Council] need to see that city residents, the people who live in Richmond, are not going to be happy if they keep delaying. They need to know that Richmond is for unions!”

What’s next for Richmond-area Starbucks workers? Barista Owen Franklin put forward two interlocking goals– get more stores organized and win a good contract. “So when it comes to the contract, I think we are going to see even more support. And we are going to find other stores in the district that want to get organized. There’s 12 in our district, and we’ve got five unionized.”

While workers themselves are the most important actors in their own workplaces, Franklin sees community solidarity as a boon to the workers’ efforts. “Events like Unity Fest are keeping morale high. And public support helps even when things are difficult because Starbucks is still moving with their union busting efforts and trying to persuade people not to sign a contract or vote yes. Even in stores that have unionized, they want to get people not to join the union. So we have to combat the misinformation Starbucks is spreading, and community events help keep morale up.”

Johnson is confident that members of the community will rise to the occasion: “Starbucks has always presented themselves as a progressive employer and take a progressive stance on any number of issues but when it comes to unions, they’re just as vicious as any employer out there, if not more vicious. People see through that and they don’t like that hypocrisy. At the end of the day, [the public] are going to stand with these baristas they see every day and do anything they can to help them get a fair contract before they take instructions from [billionaire Starbucks CEO] Howard Schultz.”

Starbucks organizing efforts show no signs of stopping, and other unionization efforts have felt a burst of optimism in this moment. Richmond Starbucks workers have already made history. But perhaps their ultimate achievement is that they are inspiring countless others to make history, too.

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