Insights From the First Starbucks Union
Michelle Eisen is a theater artist and a member of Starbucks Workers United. In 2021, she and her co-workers in Buffalo, N.Y., formed the first Starbucks labor union in the U.S. She spoke with Sojourners' Christina Colón.
STARBUCKS STAYED OPEN for the entire pandemic. And we all worked through it for a company that was recording record-breaking profits. We weren’t seeing any of that—the workers whose labor was responsible for those profits. Starbucks refers to its employees as “partners.” It goes back to the early ’90s when we were given grants in stock. But since then, it’s been reduced to manipulate us into thinking we’re all at the same level—from barista all the way to the highest level of corporate.
[Unionizing was] about taking a stand and realizing that we had more power than we thought—we had the ability to stand up and demand better. Some of us were just discovering that we could do this. The corporate response changed things dramatically. I was not anticipating the all-out war they waged on us and are continuing to wage.
[The day of the union vote was] the most emotionally charged experience I have ever had in my life, short of being in the room when a loved one passed. Three separate stores had votes counted that day. We needed a simple majority to win. And we exceeded that. Then we had to go through the process of hearing the vote counts for the other two stores, the second of which did not win. And that was awful to be in that room with those workers who had worked so hard.
Starbucks could be the company they claim to be and recognize their workers’ rights to organize. We can come together at these bargaining tables and negotiate a contract that the company and the workers can be proud of. It’s assumed that if you have [a service industry] job, you should be okay with some level of disrespect. My hope is that this movement allows people who have these jobs to be proud of the work that they’re doing.