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Workers’ have expanded efforts to unionize Starbucks shops from a localized effort in Buffalo, New York into a massive nationwide campaign in less than a year. Coffee industry and cafe workers have been on one of the leading edges of service industry organizing for years, though successes have been limited to regional companies, like Colectivo, Tartine Bakery, or the Augie’s Coffee union that was the basis for Slow Bloom coffee co-op. The rapid turnaround of union filings across a national behemoth like Starbucks is unprecedented, at least in recent decades.  Starbucks worker Brick Zurek, who is fighting for a union at the Wabash & Randolph store in Chicago, Illinois, kindly took time to discuss some of the dynamics of the organizing drive, some of which are shifting as the union movement continues to expand. This interview was conducted in early February.

Part I 

Jason Flynn: Restaurants, and service industry shops on the whole, have been notoriously difficult to unionize. Yet, it feels like this Starbucks campaign has spread so quickly, and with a ton of enthusiasm, since the initial wins in Buffalo. What’s happening with the Starbucks unionization effort that’s made it successful? 

Brick Zurek: What’s happening here is really a new model of organizing, which I think can be adapted. Obviously, Starbucks is a massive corporation that is all over the country, and a lot of restaurants are just single locations, but in terms of how it operates it’s very ground up. We approached the union and the organizers, and I think that is the same in Buffalo. We don’t really go to a new location and say, “You guys should unionize. Let’s get things started.” It manifests there, and then we bring them in, and we plug them in with different resources and training that they might need, and help them out. But…

ultimately, every single store is leading their own campaign.

So, this is very, I hate the word grassroots, but that’s really how it is. Traditionally, with organizing projects the union will send people in, and you’ll gather support that way, and that can work sometimes. The fact that this is working so well, and so seemingly spontaneously, it shows a lot of credit for this strategy that we’re doing.

JF: I feel like we’ve heard a lot of that echoed on Restaurant Organizing Project calls. I think one of the Buffalo workers mentioned they only approached Workers United because they had a good reputation locally. It sounds like WU has been sort of hands off, and Starbucks workers are coming, having already done a lot of the work.

BZ: Workers United is, so far, taking the calls, and vetting, because otherwise management will get in. So there is that level of vetting, but, from what I understand, a lot of it is people are already hyped about it. People are already trying to figure out how they do it [unionize]. There’s a little guidance. There’s a little bit of, “This is a really good way to have an organizing conversation,” or advice. There’s the actual logistics of, “Let me get you the union cards, and show you how to file.” But, largely, it has been people approaching and saying, “It turns out, I’ve already been doing the work, and I didn’t even realize it.” I called Pete Demay in late November, I think. For months before that I had been bringing up Buffalo, trying to try to have those conversations where it’s like, “Man isn’t it bullshit that we get paid this much,” or this wage discrepancy that we’re seeing going on, or that we’re in these conditions, that we’re overworked and understaffed. Having those conversations, people are having it already, and…

I think Buffalo was just a spark that made it very easy for anyone who wanted to organize to have that hard step of moving this negative feeling we have about the job to, “Well, here’s how we do something about it.”

Normally that step is really hard to get around because you don’t want to rat yourself out, but if you’re just saying, “You hear what’s going on in Buffalo?” And, now, all of a sudden, “You hear what’s going everywhere?” It makes it so much  easier to gauge support. And, people are already seeing and reading about unions, and learning about unions on their own. So much of that groundwork education is happening in real time. 

JF: That’s a good point. I know some former Chicago Starbucks employees that have worked together to file OSHA claims, or have had to push back on district managers about safety issues. I know at least one store where the workers all cosigned a petition they gave to management because of COVID and staffing concerns. Do you think those actions take a similar sort of energy? 

BZ: You learn through action. Presentations and trainings and stuff are good, but you learn through things like that, for good, or for worse. Before we did this, there was a lot of security issues at our store. We were on the same page about what we needed. We needed security. It was just getting real bad. We needed reduced hours for a while, we needed XY and Z, and we approached management. We asked for it, and they ignored it. They said no, and, so, that was a learning experience of, “Well, they don’t do anything just if we ask.” We need leverage. We need a reason to make them do what we want because they’re not our friends. It’s not in a legal framework of what a union is, but it still gets to the gist of it. Unions used to be illegal. There wasn’t a legal definition, but they still existed. The idea of workers coming together with their common interests, for themselves, starting from there, and then taking the legal framework, and then saying, “Okay, we have a common interest, and we want to fight for our rights, and for ourselves,” that’s a union. We may not have a legally certified union, but that’s a union right there. Gaining that legal recognition, and the rights, and the leverage that comes with that is a goal, obviously. I think reframing it, and starting to think about it differently [is important]. Agriculture workers, they can’t unionize, right? That’s against the law. But, obviously, they do organize. It’s just, they don’t have legal protections, which is obviously bullshit. Just thinking outside of the box in terms of what a union is, legally. I’m not sanctioning breaking the law left and right, but not being confined by it[…] The law is so constraining right now. The list of protected actions and things is ridiculous. Sympathy strikes are illegal, things like that.

I think the labor movement is completely held back by just operating within that framework.  I think that’s why those laws exist.

That’s why they do that. And, of course, not having those protections, does prove a challenge. You do have to do more work to make it work, to get away with doing it, essentially. But, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t, right?

JF: For sure. In some of our open meetings for the Restaurant Organizing Project we’ve heard that some people have used what limited legal protections there are as an organizing tactic. There are situations where people have publicly signed onto their organizing committee because they felt it would discourage retaliation. Has that happened in your store, or other shops you’ve heard from?

BZ: Sort of. There’s kind of a dual nature to this. There definitely has been some cases, it hasn’t happened here yet, but, in Tennessee, where people were getting harassed, people were getting written up for things they completely made up. There was that manager that quit, and has been telling everybody that she was told to lie. You know, things like that did happen, for sure. But also there is the bare minimum of legal protection when you do file that, for some people, feels important. That definitely did help some of our coworkers make that leap. When there is legal protection, if Starbucks does do anything, they’ll get fined. But that is still largely toothless. They’ll get a slap on the wrist, and you get your job back. But, what protected us more, I think, was the media. Not directly, but the fact that we were in the Chicago Tribune, we were in The Sun [Times], because our names were there, because it was so public, we were in the New York Times, that’s protection.

Starbucks in particular does care a lot about its brand, so I think that’s holding them back a lot more than a lot of other companies. I think, at least, that’s a strategy.

You know that Starbucks is a company that cares about its brand, that the brand is so important to Starbucks, it’s worth so much money to them. Doing something that was a big deal, that would generate media attention, to get as much media attention as possible, you do the gimmicky things. We had a picket line outside our [store on Wabash]. Doing things like that to generate the media attention, because that’s the thing Starbucks cares about. Put yourself in their shoes. Just assume they don’t want a union. Assume they’re going to do scummy things. But, remember what they do care about: money, what gets you money, how that works, and leverage that. In our case, it was branding, it was media representation, it was things like that, but that’s gonna be different for every company.

JF: You mentioned media coverage being a deterrent. Since the Buffalo campaign, I feel like I’ve seen a lot of media dedicated to promoting the workplace culture Starbucks has built. I don’t know if it’s obvious to everyone outside the media or the union campaign, but I’ve seen things that were clearly the result of Starbucks massive public relations operation pitching friendly stories to push back on, or bury, the union campaign. Do you think people should be working to organize more of these in-person events, like the picket or the sit-in that happened in New Jersey, to sort-of adjust? 

BZ: There’s no easy, quick answer to that. It’s not a hard and fast rule. It has to do with the conditions. Like what’s going on at the time. Maybe in the beginning, when this was a new story, that kind of buzz, all focused on one space in Buffalo, worked a little better.

More and more, as we grow, and the attention gets dispersed everywhere, that physical presence becomes more important.

Not necessarily because the people are physically there. It’s not about the bodies being there, but more so that there is this local group. There is the local community coming out. Because the media does generally only go so far. But, if there’s a strong presence in the community that’s saying, “Union, yes. Stop this union busting,” that means more to Starbucks than a minor article written that hardly anybody reads because it’s local news, now. I think there’s something important about having people there. Physically having people there, brings them into [the pro-union community]. When you ask somebody to come out to something, they feel more connected to it. There’s that level of it. But, I think the strategy for Starbucks Workers United has to shift a little, and I think that I think we’re doing a pretty good job of it. People are coming with unique solutions for their own communities. Virginia is having something like a music festival. Things like that, where there is, like, “Okay, we had this media buzz. It was fantastic. It did great. The effectiveness is starting to die down a little bit, because it’s been so long, because it’s gone so widespread. What are the ways we can get the local community informed and involved?” And, for [Virginia union supporters], it’s a musical festival.  For us, it was this [picket]. There might be more. I think that’s really what’s going to be important for the success of the campaign, and in the future, because it is growing. The strategy has to change to reflect that.