The Starbucks on the intersection of East Robinson Road and Niagara Falls Boulevard where Kayla Sterner worked had a “major” bee problem. During one shift, staff captured 14 bees under plastic cups, which lined the back counters.
During another shift, one of Sterner’s co-workers, who was allergic to bees, got stung. The worker was instructed to walk to Tops, buy Benadryl and immediately come back to work.
“She just had to put a Band-Aid on it and hope it would be alright because we were short-staffed, so we couldn’t not have somebody,” Sterner, a UB sophomore psychology major and Spectrum staff writer, said. “If they had had us adequately staffed, then [the response] could’ve been like, ‘Oh, you’re having an allergic reaction? Why don’t you go to the doctor.’ Luckily, it wasn’t bad enough that she needed to go to the ER, but that could’ve easily been the case.”
When Sterner and some fellow UB students who work for Starbucks in the area heard that their co-workers were organizing a unionization effort in several Buffalo-area stores, they joined in.
“I’m very excited for this because I didn’t realize it could get better until the opportunity was shown to us,” Ash Goldenberg, a freshman public health major who works at a Starbucks store that recently filed for unionization, said. “I had a lot of complaints about the store I used to work at [on Long Island]. There were just so many issues. Then I came to Buffalo, and [my co-workers] were like, ‘Actually, we’re trying to change these things.’ I was like, ‘Oh my god, that’s an option? We’re allowed to do that?’ I’m very excited about it.”
Six Starbucks stores in total are seeking representation from Workers United, a Service Employees International Union-affiliated labor union. Three Starbucks locations — one on Elmwood Avenue in Buffalo, another on Camp Road in Hamburg and a third on Genesee Street in Cheektowaga — filed for a union vote with the National Labor Relations Board in August. The NLRB has sent ballots to workers at these stores and is scheduled to count them on Dec. 9, according to WIVB. Three more stores — located on Transit Road in Depew, Sheridan Drive in Amherst and Walden Avenue in Cheektowaga — filed for a vote last week, but no date has been set.
Out of the nearly 9,000 company-owned Starbucks stores in the U.S., not a single one is unionized. That would change if even one of the six stores voted to unionize.
“We don’t have a seat at the table”
Pro-union baristas said that, above all else, they want a seat at the table — literally.
“To represent us baristas, they have an empty chair at their corporate meetings,” Sterner said. “Not an actual barista to tell them what’s going on and our concerns, just an empty chair to represent us. We don’t have a seat at the table.”
And once employees have a seat at the table, there are a lot of issues they want to address. Baristas brought up COVID-19 policies, consolidated training periods and “how stressful” working the floor can be as reasons for supporting the union, but some issues stood out more than others.
“We need better staffing, that is so bad,” Goldenberg said. “We’re often short [by] up to three or four people. And then people are showing up to these [job] interviews, and no one’s there to [conduct] the interview.”
Sterner said that while the store she worked at had enough workers, they were frequently understaffed because of scheduling directives.
“[Starbucks was] being cheap and not letting our store managers schedule enough of us, even though we had enough people hired, which made no sense,” she said. “We were understaffed for literally no reason.”
Starbucks is aware of understaffing in the Buffalo area and has hired more partners to fix the problem, a Starbucks spokesperson said. The spokesperson also added that store managers are responsible for scheduling their employees.
But those new hires aren’t necessarily good news for Jaz Brisack, a union organizer and barista at one of the first three stores to file for a vote.
“There are a lot of them in the last period, and at my store, long-term partners’ hours are being cut because there are so many people on the floor,” she said. “It wasn’t a necessary hiring decision to bring in that many people. I think, again, the timing is suspicious given the votes that are about to happen.”
Starbucks has followed all NLRB rules, the spokesperson said.
Starbucks has long touted pay raises as a sign of its commitment to workers, but baristas said that what they’ve done so far is only a start.
“It’s great that we’re [earning] above minimum wage right now, but we’re in New York, [one of] the most expensive states to live in,” Goldenberg said. “And it’s not cutting it for anyone. We need better pay.”
Starbucks implemented pay raises of 5% for partners hired before July 2021 and raises of 6% for tenured employees in October, the third raise in the past two years, according to Business Insider.
Those raises were originally supposed to go into effect in January 2022, but Starbucks moved the implementation date forward because the company wanted partners to share in the company’s success, according to the spokesperson.
Vianca Colon-Barreto, an Erie Community College student and barista at the Starbucks in The Commons, doesn’t buy it.
“I see it as a last ditch effort to convince us that, ‘Oh, yes, we’re here to listen to you,’” they said.
The spokesperson disputed that characterization.
Pro-union baristas also said they would like more say over what benefits Starbucks provides.
For example, Starbucks expanded its employee meal and drink credit at the start of the pandemic, allowing employees to get one free food and drink item every day.
Starbucks did away with the daily food and drink credit in early October — meaning employees can only use the benefit on days they work a shift.
Goldenberg described the cessation of the program as a “slap in the face.”
“One, we’re still very much in the pandemic, so I’m not sure why those were retracted,” they said. “And secondly, in the email they said this is based on ‘feedback from our partners,’ as if one of us told them, ‘Hey, we actually decided we want to pay for this on our day off.’”
That feedback came from surveys on the company’s Workplace platform and in-person and virtual meetings in which partners said they would rather keep benefits like isolation pay, according to the spokesperson.
Gianna Reeve, a junior psychology major who works at one of the first Starbucks stores to file for a vote, said she didn’t know anyone who wanted to get rid of the daily food and drink credit and that Starbucks comment forums were “flooded” with negative comments from partners across the country.
“I know partners from my store who were working overtime and still didn’t know where their next meal was going to come from because all their money went to rent, who relied on this benefit,” Reeve said.
The spokesperson further added that Starbucks doesn’t have unlimited resources and couldn’t keep both benefits. They also emphasized Starbucks’ recent pay raises.
Starbucks made $20.322 billion in gross profit between Oct. 1, 2020 and Sept. 30, 2021, a 28.43% increase over that same period last year, according to Macrotrends.
“It’s definitely putting our backs against the wall”
Both Sterner and Reeve joined the union’s Organizing Committee, a group of more than 100 partners from stores across the Buffalo area, who are responsible for informing their fellow partners about the union, gauging support in various stores and “fact checking” Starbucks.
Working for the committee is hard work, according to Reeve, but she says it’s paying off.
“We work, we go to school, we have families,” she said. “It’s definitely putting our backs against the wall, but it hasn’t stopped baristas from UB from reaching out, learning more and being interested. It’s really exciting to see.”
Reeve and a couple other baristas have attempted to maintain that on-campus momentum by painting the bull in front of the Student Union green and placing pro-union signs around campus.
For her part, Colon-Barreto has taken notes for the union at the company’s “listening sessions” with regional executives and pushed back on their anti-union arguments.
“For example, I pointed out that while we appreciate that we’re getting new fridges, new microwaves and new nitro systems, we’ve also needed them for a very long time,” she said. “Even in my short [two years] with the company, ...we’ve always needed new things. And we’re getting them now because people are trying to unionize... I just point that out.”
Improvements Starbucks has made since the union effort began are not meant to dissuade partners from joining a union, according to the spokesperson, who added that Starbucks holds over 2,000 listening sessions each year and sometimes concentrates those in certain markets.
For her part, Colon-Baretto says that Starbucks is “digging its own grave” with the meetings and that she was more supportive of the union after attending one.
Colon-Baretto, Sterner and Reeve have all garnered support for the union by talking with their co-workers on the job.
But the strategy isn’t necessarily risk-free or effective.
“My store did not seem very with it,” Sterner said. “When I have tried to mention [the union], people have been really rude to me. Before my leave, nobody would talk to me because I was guilty by association. It was like I was some big, bad guy when I was just trying to help people. When there were people who were actually interested, we’d have to be so quiet and low-key [when] talking about it because there was just such a fear factor in the atmosphere.”
Colon-Baretto’s store is less union-averse, but they’re still careful when discussing the union with their co-workers. A Starbucks questions and answers sheet advises employees who are bothered by union-related “pressuring” from co-workers to contact Partner Relations or Ethics & Compliance. Regional Starbucks executives have flocked to Buffalo-area stores to discuss the union vote with workers and assist on the floor. (Colon-Baretto described the executives as “disruptive;” the spokesperson disputes this.)
But for all her effort, Colon-Baretto says her store in The Commons would only unionize if their “amazing” manager either left the store or publicly supported the union.
But those same students have struggled to balance union organizing and their jobs with school, family, friends, mental health and other commitments. Sterner, unable to keep up with her studies and meet Starbucks’ work hour requirements, quit her job earlier this semester after a leave of absence. Goldenberg has struggled to work 20-30 hours a week while staying on top of his first semester of classes and taking care of his mental health. Colon took a three-week leave of absence over the summer because the stress of their job was getting to them — and she considers herself one of the lucky ones.
“I had my vacation hours saved, whatever,” she said. “I can live that way. Some people can’t. It’s really f---ed up that this job basically has been a chokehold for survival [for some]. I’m one of the more fortunate ones.”
“The first thing I did was text my co-workers back home”
No Starbucks stores outside of Erie County have filed union petitions with the NLRB.
But that could change in the coming years, thanks partly to UB students.
“The first thing I did was text my co-workers back home,” Goldenberg said. “They were really excited about [the union]. They were kind of disappointed that they weren’t a part of it. ...I would love to [unionize Long Island Starbucks stores] because my store in particular has a lot of issues.”
Grant Ashley is a senior news/features editor and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Grant Ashley is the editor in chief of The Spectrum. He's also reported for WBFO, WIVB and The Buffalo News. He enjoys taking long bike rides, baking with his parents’ ingredients and recreating Bob Ross paintings in crayon. He can be found on the platform formerly known as Twitter at @Grantrashley.