Although each unionized workplace is small, with a couple dozen employees apiece, the campaign is already, by my reckoning, one of the most successful unionizing efforts in recent U.S. history, with victories in 28 states. Over 100 additional Starbucks outlets have petitioned to unionize and are awaiting elections in the coming days and weeks, and several other votes are awaiting resolution. Starbucks has strongly opposed the campaign, and the union has lost about 22 elections so far.
As a result, record numbers of workers – especially in the service sector – began quitting their jobs in mid-2021 in what became known as the “great resignation.” The labor shortages created more pressure on overworked employees, and the huge rise in mobile app orders compounded the workplace stress for Starbucks baristas.
These workers that didn’t quit their jobs, however, became more emboldened and seized an opportunity to get organized. Today, support for unions in the U.S. is at its highest since 1965, at 68%.
2. A role model
Starbucks Workers United’s strategy involved unionizing one store at a time by using a worker-driven model that could be replicated easily and quickly.
This allowed workers to organize each store one at time and develop a replicable model, enabling it to spread rapidly. In fact, when commentators describe the campaign as spreading “like wildfire” or similar terms, it obscures the innovative and deliberate process that has been behind its remarkable success.
Workers typically find out about the campaign through traditional or social media, and then reach out to organizers behind the campaign. They then have a Zoom meeting with a worker-organizer at a union store who explains how to print cards, how to discuss signing up for the union with co-workers, how to write a letter to Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz requesting union recognition, and how to petition the NLRB for an election. This pattern has been repeated multiple times throughout the country, even in places in which private-sector unions are rare.
There is no obvious reason why a similar model could not work at other nonunionized companies with young, progressive workforces, such as Trader Joe’s, Apple and REI. Indeed, Trader Joe’s employees at a Massachusetts store just filed to create the company’s first union, and REI employees in Manhattan voted to form the company’s first unionized store in March 2022.
A group of fired Starbucks employees celebrate the result of a vote to unionize one of the coffee company’s locations on June 7, 2022, in Memphis, Tenn. Starbucks says the ex-employees were fired for violating company policies, but the so-called Memphis Seven say they were let go in retaliation for unionization efforts. AP Photo/Adrian Sainz
Unlike labor union drives of the past, which have been more typically directed by national or regional leaders, Starbucks workers have driven the unionizing campaign largely on their own. This decentralized, grassroots dynamism is what has allowed the unionizing campaign to spread so widely and so quickly.
When workers take the lead, it means you’re more likely to have local buy-in – the organizers are inside the workplace and known and trusted by their co-workers – and doesn’t require them to wait for other union leaders to recognize interest in forming a union. And in this way, the activist workers don’t simply feel like they are part of a union but they themselves are the union.
For these reasons, I believe there is every chance that eventually a majority of Starbucks stores will become unionized. And if the Starbucks model continues to be successful, it could encourage workers at other companies to adopt the same playbook. In fact, we may be on the cusp of a union revival like American workers haven’t seen in almost a century.
John Logan does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.