Second Columbus Starbucks seeks unionization representation

Taijuan Moorman
The Columbus Dispatch
Gabriel Santohir is a Starbucks shift supervisor at the South State Street location in Westerville and is closely involved in his store's move to get union representation.

A second Starbucks location in Columbus has begun unionization efforts, following nationwide efforts that have helped stir interest in the labor movement in recent months.

Employees at the Starbucks at 533 S. State St. in Westerville have begun the process, which has been slow, especially in light of the pandemic, said Gabriel Santohir, a shift supervisor at the location.

In January, employees started the unionization process with the Chicago & Midwest Regional Joint Board of Workers United, which is helping store employees do things "the right way," Santohir said. But the work has mostly been employee-led.

"They helped us start the process, talking to co-workers to collect signatures, building up support. And they provided some guidance, but this has mostly been an in-store led thing," he said.

Employees at Starbucks around the country have joined the movement to unionize, starting in Buffalo, New York, and now reaching Westerville and a Downtown location at 88 E. Broad St.

In a statement, a Starbucks spokesperson said that the company considers these efforts a barrier, but that it is committed to following National Labor Relations Board rules. The company was sued by the NLRB in April for retaliating against three employees seeking to unionize.

"We are listening and learning from the partners in these stores as we always do across the country," read the statement. "From the beginning, we've been clear in our belief that we are better together as partners, without a union between us, and that conviction has not changed. We respect our partner's right to organize and are committed to following the NLRB process."

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Esau Chavez, a union organizer for CMRJB Workers United, said over 60 stores in the Midwest, including several in Cleveland, have announced their intention to file petitions with the NLRB. More than 250 of Starbucks' 15,000-plus U.S. stores have filed.

He said that over 50 have successfully formed unions so far, with losses in the single digits. In a few of those cases, unfair labor practice charges have been filed against Starbucks.

"The union is really energized by the resolve for the Starbucks workers to get better working conditions," said Chavez. "They've taken the challenge to organize their union. It's their movement."

Marc Dixon, an expert on unions and social movements, professor and chair of the Department of Sociology at Dartmouth University, and author of Heartland Blues: Labor Rights in the Industrial Midwest, said the series of union organizing victories for Starbucks workers and the independent group representing Amazon workers in Staten Island would have been unthinkable even a year ago.

"These are really hard places to organize. They are marked by high turnover. In the Starbucks case, we are talking about thousands of small workplaces," Dixon said. "It is difficult to build durable organizations in this context. But actually seeing peers organize and win goes a long way towards making change seem possible and appealing."

These victories are also in the context of the Biden administration and National Labor Relations Board, he said, which have been pro-union and pro-worker.

Dixon also noted that these are "bottom-up, worker-driven" campaigns, which has made typical anti-union arguments less effective.

"When the company calls out the union as a greedy third party, it has a lot less bite," he said. "It is hard to make traditional anti-union strategies like this work when it is baristas training other baristas how to organize."

The demands of Starbucks' employees share common threads, including increased hours and pay, better staff scheduling and changes to how tips are handled.

Santohir said when he became shift manager, there were people who worked at Starbucks much longer than he had, yet their pay differences didn't amount to much.

The problems were exacerbated by the pandemic, when employees who were told they are "essential" had their hours shortened and were expected to perform the same level of work with fewer people, said Santohir.

"I couldn't keep coming in and seeing the level of stress that my co-workers were going through every day to make a simple cup of coffee for people in our community," he said. "I have partners crying in the walk-in by the end of their shift."

Santohir expects an "overwhelming majority" of the store's nearly 30 employees to favor union representation, but he said some have reservations, especially given the company's response in other cities.

Santohir said he has not experienced any backlash from company leadership. But Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, in comments to store managers over a video call in mid-April, characterized unions as an "outside force" seeking to disrupt the company, which was discouraging, he said. But he said his store manager and district manager have not stood in their way.

"I don't necessarily know how they feel one way or another about the union. But they've been supportive of having this process peacefully," he said.

Westerville Starbucks employees will begin receiving ballots at the end of May. Their vote count will take place on June 29.

Workers' ballots at the Downtown Starbucks are already out and are due back at the end of May, said Chavez.