Starbucks union drive is spreading from Buffalo to Arizona

Store managers in Buffalo area have left as unionization efforts press on; workers in Mesa, Ariz., are now looking to unionize

Efforts by Starbucks Corp. workers to unionize have spread to Arizona, while stores in the Buffalo, N.Y., area have seen a shake-up in leadership amid the union drive there.

Employees at one of the coffee chain’s stores in Mesa, Ariz., have formed an organizing committee to consider unionization. In a letter addressed to the company, the workers said they shared many of the views of employees now voting whether to unionize in the Buffalo area.

"We are forming a union to bring out the best in all of us," the workers said in the letter, released by Starbucks Workers United on Thursday. "We want the company to succeed and we want our work lives to be the best they can be."

A Starbucks spokesman said the company was aiming to address the concerns of its employees, and it was committed to listening to workers.

Starbucks workers in the Buffalo area say they want to unionize to have more leverage in matters with the company. Employees have said their stores are understaffed, and they need more training and company support.

Maeve O’Brien, a barista in the Buffalo area who is in favor of unionizing, said two reasons she wants to unionize are understaffing and compensation. "We deserve a living wage," she said.

Starbucks’ workers attempts to unionize come as workers across the U.S. are increasingly demanding more from their employers. Workers at Deere & Co. , Kellogg Co. and Mondelez International Inc. have gone on strike at various points this year. These standoffs have also come amid a tight labor market where many businesses have struggled to grow their ranks.

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Starbucks is one of many companies that has boosted wages for employees. The Seattle-based company said last month it was raising the average hourly pay to $17, up from roughly $14, by next summer for its U.S. staff. The company has said that increase in pay and other recent wage raises make up an additional $1 billion in spending on staff.

Starbucks has been increasingly focused on the unionization drive in the Buffalo area, with top executives, including former Chief Executive Howard Schultz, making their case on why they think the company can represent their employees’ interests best.

Starbucks baristas in New York state’s second-largest city are now voting on whether to unionize under Workers United Upstate New York, an affiliate of the Service Employees International Union. Workers said they have begun to receive and return ballots for the election overseen by the National Labor Relations Board.

Five Starbucks store managers have recently either resigned or been fired in the Buffalo area, according to people familiar with the matter.

Ticker Security Last Change Change %
SBUX STARBUCKS CORP. 111.71 +0.29 +0.26%
DE DEERE & CO. 347.70 -2.84 -0.81%
K KELLOGG CO. 63.14 +1.20 +1.94%
MDLZ MONDELEZ INTERNATIONAL, INC. 60.08 +0.61 +1.03%

The managers either resigned or were let go after the company brought in other support managers to help oversee the stores, the people said. Store managers were no longer in charge of interviewing new people or promoting and hiring staff amid the unionization effort, one of the people said.

Starbucks has also become more involved in hiring decisions in Buffalo, including bringing in recruiters to bolster staffing. Tickets in stores—which are filed to fix problems from leaks to broken technology—were also recently addressed, people familiar with the matter said. Stores also received new espresso bars and new ovens, according to people familiar with the matter.

The Starbucks spokesman said the company has said it would address issues in the Buffalo market, and that some store managers have resigned in the process. Some of those managers may haven’t been comfortable with the changes under way and left, he said.

Starbucks said it isn’t uncommon for the company to bring in other managers to a market for support. The company took more responsibility for hiring in markets earlier this year after acknowledging that it needed to do more to make sure stores were fully staffed.

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The company said it has a long history of responding to employee complaints when they are vocalized. Starbucks executives have said that the Buffalo market needed improvements, and that they realized the problems in equipment, staffing and operations after touring stores and speaking to employees.

"We are asking you to not rush into this and give us more time," Starbucks wrote in a letter to Buffalo workers last week that encouraged them to vote against the union. "We’re making great progress in Buffalo and would like more time to make this the full Starbucks experience for you."

Starbucks said they want all workers to participate in the Buffalo election. The company recently released a video guiding employees there on how to fill out their ballots so they will be properly counted.

Employee baristas inside Starbucks Coffee. (Jeffrey Greenberg/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Starbucks Workers United filed a complaint with the NLRB earlier this month against the company alleging that it was interfering with the union vote. They allege the company had engaged in threats, intimidation and surveillance during the union drive.

Casey Moore, a worker affiliated with the union, said she has put Starbucks Workers United material up in her store, only to have it removed. Losing so many store managers in the market also feels like a means to tamping down unionization efforts, she said.

The company has denied any claims of interference. The NLRB is investigating the allegations, the agency spokeswoman said.

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Ballots are due Dec. 8. The NLRB is still considering an appeal by Starbucks as to the vote’s structure, where individual stores are holding elections as to whether to unionize. The company wants a vote to take place across its 19 stores in the Buffalo market.

Voting is now taking place in three stores. The Starbucks Workers United union petitioned earlier this month for three additional locations to hold votes as well. The NLRB will hear the petitions for the three new stores on Dec. 2, an agency spokeswoman said.

Workers in other Starbucks markets said they are watching the Buffalo election closely. Some employees said they are agitating for improvements in their own areas, including in company stores in Orlando, Fla. and in Chicago.