Teens help lead union drive at Starbucks

Before graduating from high school, Mill Valley teen Ella Clark has already checked her to-do list by calling up a big company that doesn’t believe in the value of organizing. Then she plans to study constitutional law.

Clark is the reason the emerging movement to unify Starbucks is making its way into the Bay Area. Because she has contacted Starbucks Workers United, a collective of Starbucks employees in the United States who are negotiating better working conditions, a local National Labor Relations Board election is due to take place soon.

It all started when Clark (17) watched the company react to a union campaign by a group of workers in Buffalo, New York. After submitting their voting cards, workers are said to have been the target of anti-union sentiment.

“I saw the way Starbucks responded to the union being formed and petitions being filed at other stores. I was frustrated that (the company) did not respect their right to organize,” said the junior at Tamalpais High School. “I sent an email and said, ‘Hey, I love my job. I don’t know if a union is best for us, but how can I help?’”

It turns out organizing works at the Strawberry Village location. Of the 17 voting members, more than half signed union cards for the June 6 election, according to Clark. The interest is there – especially from Clark’s colleague Emma Orrick, also 17.

“We were some of the youngest employees here when we were hired about a year ago and we were in touch right away,” Orrick said of Clark. “So, Ella talked to me about organizing and we met the local Workers United representative. He prepared us for what our managers would try to do.”

The representative was on site. While Orrick hopes to focus on medicine after college, her passion for advocacy grew even more when she and her friends took on the challenge, she said.

“In the back there have been posters about what a union is, ‘a third party trying to get in,'” Clark said. “We also had one-on-one with the store manager.”

The high school students, who have coordinated with another teen in a group chat they call “Union Babes,” have a clear picture of what they want: disable access to credit card tips and mobile orders, pay increases, expanded COVID payments, and more viable health plans.

“We can do this because we are high school students. We can afford to stick our necks out, lose hours or get fired for this because we don’t need this job,” Clark said, reflecting on how little $16 an hour can be stretched in Mill Valley. “We learn about unions in school, campaigns against big national stores. But this is our store and it will be specific to our needs.”

A growing movement

The teenagers are part of the growing movement among workers at the coffee chain.

Workers at two Santa Cruz stores voted last week to become the first unionized Starbucks in California.

Clark and her comrades are ready to follow suit, even if the first step is to wait for better terms until the election takes place.

“We are listening and learning from the partners in these stores, as we always do across the country. We have been clear in our belief that we are better together as partners, without a commitment between us,” said Starbucks spokesperson Sarah Albanesi.

The strategy of listening and learning has lost the company more than 60 elections.

The roots of the union organization in San Francisco run deep—so deep that if one traced back its origins, they would find gold. Union campaigns near and far, however, give a new energy to organizing, says John Logan, a professor at San Francisco State University.

“I think the change will happen here. Starbucks Workers United is really strong across the country, but it’s especially strong in college towns like Ithaca, Ann Arbor… It’s now starting to spread faster, reaching major stores, even the Seattle store and the Roastery in New York City. ,” he said.

Logan, who grew up in Scotland in the 1980s, was never interested in unions. They were common where he grew up; both his parents were union members.

“If you look at what has happened to unions in recent decades, there has been a decline in the United States,” the professor added. “There are two main reasons: relatively weak legal protections for (one’s) rights to a union and strong employer opposition.”

This is what the young people running the campaigns are dealing with. Logan says the NLRB electoral system weighs heavily in favor of the employer, as several court decisions over the decades have supported employer property rights and freedom of expression over employee rights.

“Employers may threaten to fire employees if they fail to attend anti-union opposition or public meetings. They subject them to endless non-stop anti-union propaganda during a campaign,” Logan said. “Of course they have the resources.”

Amazon spokesperson Barbara Agrait said employees have a choice whether or not to join a union and they always have.

“As a company, we don’t think unions are the best solution for our employees. Our focus remains to work directly with our team to continue to make Amazon a great place to work,” she said.

NLRB General Counsel Jen Abruzzo has spoken out against public gatherings in captivity, Logan noted in his own writing on the Labor and Working Class History Association blog. But there are new techniques: About two weeks ago, Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz announced that significant raises would be given to non-union members, not union members, the New York Times reported.

“It actually adds up to about an extra dollar per hour,” Clark said. “Starbucks knows exactly what it’s doing.”

Abruzzo and associates seem unwilling to give free rein to such practices. A week ago, the Times reported that merit was found in claims that both Amazon and Starbucks had engaged in union breakdown, particularly in violation of labor laws in Staten Island and Buffalo.

Clark and Orrick hinted that workers at a nearby location may start organizing, but wouldn’t disclose where.

A customer handed a $20 bill to Clark and Orrick, who wanted to donate to the campaign after seeing their pro-union shirts. They tossed the money into the tip jar for their shift colleagues, a box not far from a new blackboard advertising the benefits of working for Starbucks.

“We’re not trying to fight Starbucks. We’re not trying to fight our manager or assistant store manager or anything like that. We just want to help Starbucks be the best company it can be,” Clark said.

[email protected], @_melissahartman

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