Photo credit: Mike Sunnucks

Lessons from the drive to unionize Starbucks

Article published in the Philadelphia Business Journal on April 17, 2023.

Starbucks’ response to unionization efforts at some of its cafes across the U.S. provides a teachable moment for all companies. 

At 85% of the 300 U.S. Starbucks locations where an election was held, employees voted for a union. However, a contract has yet to be negotiated between the newly formed unions at those locations and Starbucks Corp. There are over 15,000 Starbucks in the U.S. 

Starbucks is fighting hard to limit the drive to unionize by granting pay and benefit enhancements to employees at their non-union cafes. 

Starbucks baristas earn at least $15/hour. The company provides its qualifying employees with benefits—health, dental, vision, life, disability and accident insurance, as well as sick days, parental leave, a 401(k) plan and Starbucks stock awards. 

Starbucks also provides its employees with full paid tuition and fees for online degrees at Arizona State University. This is a significantly more generous package of benefits than other companies within the cafe and restaurant business. Is there something else driving these employees to unionize?

A December 2022 Forbes article summarized the following contract proposals from Starbucks Workers United, an umbrella organization of employees working toward signing a union contract with Starbucks:

  • The right to organize, free from fear and intimidation
  • Non-discrimination
  • Freedom from verbal abuse, threats and harassment from supervisors, managers and co-workers
  • The freedom to defend against customer aggression without retaliation
  • Reinstatement of COVID-19 benefits
  • Disaster emergency pay
  • Zero tolerance for sexual harassment
  • A requirement of just cause for discipline or dismissal
  • No dress code and company-provided or paid non-slip shoes and fresh aprons
  • Guarantees of full-time status for those working 32 or more hours a week and benefits for those working less than 20
  • Formalization of job descriptions to prevent assignment of additional work without proper compensation
  • Guaranteed schedules
  • Seniority rights
  • A labor / management committee in each store
  • No reduction in wages, benefits or working conditions without negotiation
  • A union bulletin board in each store for communications and updates
  • The freedom to wear union paraphernalia while on the clock
Photo credit: Mike Sunnucks

During an interview with Injustice at Work, a Starbucks employee in Meza, Arizona, is quoted as saying, “We just want to be respected. We want to be listened to. We want to have our voices heard.” 

A Buffalo, New York employee said, “Most of the partners at my store have been there 3, 5, 10 plus years… These are the people that make Starbucks work and make it happen. Without them, our store would be a mess and they have good ideas… We just [don’t] feel appreciated or valued… Ultimately, it’s about having a voice at the table.”

In an interview published in Capital and Main, a Lakewood, California Starbucks employee said, “The kinds of things that drove us to organize were wages, inconsistent scheduling, lack of accountability and transparency from management in the workplace, and no true workplace protections from being unfairly fired or for being unfairly harassed.”

That employee continued, “There is even a routine for steaming milk that you must follow precisely. There’s an order for how you pull your shots of espresso and how to get syrup into drinks…There are expectations that we must produce a given number of items in a 30-minute period. People definitely get hurt all the time. Falling, tripping, they get burned. And those time demands are extremely hard to meet but some days we do.” 

The interviewer of this employee commented, “It seems highly regimented and reminds me of factory engineer Frederick Winslow Taylor, who developed this worker efficiency method in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.” It sure does.

Leading companies welcome suggestions from their employees to continuously improve work processes and in many cases, empower them to implement improvements if those are within their authority level. Given the need of Starbucks to provide a consistent product across all of their cafes, that level of empowerment is probably not possible. Starbucks need to determine the best way to engage their employees so they develop a sense of ownership in what they do so they feel that they matter and are not just cogs in a wheel.

Throwing money and benefits at their employees will not change the root problem—employees need to feel that they matter. Starbucks needs to change how their cafe managers lead by training them to be more effective leaders. 

Starbucks employee unionization efforts are a lesson for all companies. Listen to the concerns of your employees. Create an environment in which employees develop a feeling of ownership in what they do at the company. Do so before a movement to unionize occurs.

Stan Silverman is founder of Silverman Leadership and author of “Be Different! The Key to Business and Career Success.” He is also a speaker, advisor and widely read nationally syndicated columnist on leadership. He can be reached at

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