By Arthur Z. Schwartz

Starbucks workers at the Reserve Roastery at 61 Ninth Avenue in the Meatpacking District have been on strike since Tuesday, October 25, over urgent health and safety issues including the alleged presence of bedbugs and mold at the facility. Their union, Starbucks Workers United, filed an Unfair Labor Practice charge with the National Labor Relations Board asking it to investigate the NYC Roastery over its allegation that the company’s failure to provide information violated the law. Management confirmed that there had been prior reporting of the presence of bed bugs, and have said that they have remediated the issue. The Union has requested information (the inspection or remediation report), per its legal right, so that workers can make decisions regarding their health and safety. Management has thus far failed to provide this information.

Starbucks baristas at its New York City Reserve Roastery voted 46-36 in favor of forming a union in March. The Reserve Roastery was the ninth company-owned Starbucks to unionize. There are now 260 unionized stores.

To date, only one location has held an election and voted against unionizing under Workers United, an affiliate of the Service Employees International Union.

The win for Starbucks Workers United represented more than just another location in the growing tally of unionized cafes. Starbucks opened the nearly 23,000-square-foot cafe in Manhattan’s Meatpacking District in December 2018, during the tenure of CEO Kevin Johnson. But the luxurious store and others like it was actually the brainchild of former CEO Howard Schultz, who returned to the job several days before the union victory, after Johnson retired. 

The vote at the New York City Roastery was the first election for Starbucks conducted in person, rather than via mail-in ballots.

The New School adjuncts went on strike on Nov. 16, joined on the picket line by students. Photo by Manasa Gudavalli for Washington Square News.

Starbucks’ growing union push has been one of the challenges that faced Schultz as he once again assumed the chief executive role. During his prior stints as CEO of the coffee chain, Starbucks gained a reputation as a generous and progressive employer, an image that’s now in jeopardy as the union gains momentum and workers share their grievances.

Early union victories in Buffalo have galvanized other Starbucks locations nationwide to organize. More than 260 company-owned cafes have filed for union elections with the National Labor Relations Board, including other New York City locations. Workers at the Astor Place cafe in Manhattan started casting their ballots in November for their mail-in election.

That’s still only a small fraction of Starbucks’ overall footprint, though. The company operates nearly 9,000 locations in the U.S.

The union faces its next real challenge: negotiating a contract with Starbucks. Labor laws don’t require that the employer and union reach a collective bargaining agreement, and contract discussions can drag on for years.

Workers at over 100 unionized Starbucks stores around the U.S. walked off the job on Thursday November 17, for the day, coinciding with Starbucks’ Red Cup Day, a promotional day where customers receive a free red reusable holiday Starbucks cup when they order a holiday seasonal beverage.

The strike was launched to protest against Starbucks’ failure to bargain and failure to adequately staff stores, especially on one of Starbucks’ busiest days where no pay differential is offered to workers. About 2,000 workers at 112 stores participated in the strikes in 25 states.