Red Cup Day is one of the biggest sales days on the Starbucks company calendar. Customers can get a free reusable plastic Starbucks cup when they purchase one of the company’s many festive holiday drinks. Today, though, is a different story. More than 100 Starbucks locations from New York to California are picketing in what some are calling the “Red Cup Rebellion.”
I’m currently standing just across the street from the Starbucks Coffee location on the Capitol Square. Just outside, crowds of people holding union protest signs are chanting.
The organizer leading the chants is Shanelle Biami, the lead bargainer representing the state of Wisconsin with the union. Between chants, I spoke with her about the union’s goals and concerns.
[Erin]: “What sort of terms is the Starbucks Workers Union hoping to achieve with the company?”
[Shanelle]: “Better wages, consistent with different rules and regulations, and overall, just a better work environment.”
Starbucks workers at this location voted to unionize in July, a move Starbucks contested with the National Labor Relations Board, or NLRB. Since then, Starbucks Workers United has been negotiating with company executives, trying to determine the terms of their contract. Shanelle says that these negotiations have not been in good faith.
“They’ve continually agreed to meet with us, and they have stall tactics. They’re coming in the room, once they see that we have a negotiating committee that’s on via Zoom, they refuse to bargain with us. They’ve bargained with other places, but all of a sudden they refuse to bargain with us once they see the Zoom camera going,” says Shanelle.
Shanelle said the company has dug its heels on this point.
“In other places they’ve actually done bargaining on Zoom, so now they come with this stall tactic of not bargaining in good faith with us because we have a committee via Zoom,” says Shanelle.
I asked her why she thought that was an issue for the company.
“I think it’s just a stall tactic, and if it wasn’t this it would be something else.”
A Starbucks spokesperson tells NPR that remote call-ins to bargaining sessions are non-starters, since recording sessions are illegal under NLRB rules. Union workers responded to these statements by saying that they are only trying to include union members in bargaining sessions, which they claim is within their organizing rights.
With negotiations proceeding slowly, Starbucks Workers United decided to strike. By scheduling the strike on one of the company’s traditionally busiest days, the union is hoping to show Starbucks that they mean business.
Among the frustrated workers walking out today is Evan Mackenzie, a shift supervisor and union organizing committee member at the Capitol Square.
“We’ve been basically asking for Starbucks to bargain with us. They organized a bargaining session back in late October, but they showed up about twenty minutes late, and left within three minutes, as they did with all of the Starbuckses across the country that they agreed to bargain with,” says Evan.
Workers are feeling like Starbucks does not take them seriously.
“It’s not that they aren’t just driving a hard bargain, they aren’t bargaining at all.”
Despite the pace of negotiations with Starbucks, workers at the Capitol Square location are energized.
“Today the atmosphere is really, really good. Everyone is chit-chatting with members of the community, we have politicians out here, and it’s a bit of a cold day…”
It was at this point in the interview that a passing car honked in support of the protesters, causing a cheer to go up among the crowd. “That’s just a honk from some government workers who are supporting us,” Evan said with a smile. “But it’s a really cold day, and we are all out here having just a blast. We’re hoping that this shows Starbucks that we are organized across the country, and that strikes will continue to happen if they refuse to bargain with us.”
Starbucks workers are not new to company pushback. The effort to unionize this summer was full of allegations that the company was using illegal coercive methods to prevent workers from voting to form a union. Evan says that, so far, he hasn’t seen a strong pushback from the company since the strike started this morning.
“Here at our store, we have not seen our manager today and we do not expect any retaliation during the day today,” says Evan.
Previous disputes between workers and Starbucks have been mediated by the National Labor Relations Board, Shanelle expects that it is only a matter of time before they step in again.
[Erin]: “Do you expect that the National Labor Relations Board is going to get involved at any point?”
[Shanelle]: “Yes, and I’m sure- I’m hopeful- that the ruling goes in our favor, because we’ve made every single attempt to bargain with them in good faith, which to no avail on their behalf.”
If the NLRB does offer to intervene again, it will likely meet legal challenges from Starbucks.
Reporting for WORT news, I’m Erin Ashley.