Teens help lead union drive at Starbucks

Before she graduated from high school, Mill Valley teenager Ella Clark will already have checked off her to-do list calling out a major corporation that doesn’t believe in the value of organizing. Then, she thinks she plans on studying constitutional law.

Clark is the reason the nascent movement to unionize Starbucks is making its entrance in the Bay Area. Because she reached out to Starbucks Workers United, a collective of Starbucks employees across the United States bargaining for better working conditions, a local National Labor Relations Board election will take place soon.

It all started when Clark, 17, saw the way the corporation was responding to a unionization campaign by a group of workers in Buffalo, New York. After filing their voting cards, employees were said to have been targeted with anti-union sentiment.

“I saw the way Starbucks was reacting to the union being formed and petitions being filed at other stores. I was frustrated that (the company) wasn’t respecting their right to organize,” the junior at Tamalpais High School said. “I sent an email and said, ‘Hey, I love my job. I don’t know if unionizing is the best thing for us, but how can I help support?’”

As it turns out, organizing is working at the Strawberry Village location. Out of 17 voting members, more than half have signed union cards for the June 6 election, according to Clark. The interest is there — especially with Clark’s colleague Emma Orrick, also 17.

“We were some of the youngest workers here when we got hired around a year ago and we immediately connected over that,” Orrick said of Clark. “So, Ella talked to me about organizing and we met with the local Workers United rep. I have prepared us for what our managers would try to do.”

The representative was spot on. Though Orrick hopes to focus on medicine after college, her passion for advocacy burned hotter when she and her friends faced the challenge head on, she said.

“In the back, there have been posters about what a union is, ‘a third party trying to come in,’” said Clark. “We’ve also had one-on-ones with the store manager.”

The high school juniors, who have coordinated with another teen in a group chat they call “Union Babes,” have a clear vision of what they want: Access to credit card tips and turning mobile orders off, wage increases, more extensive COVID pay and more viable health care plans.

“We are able to do this because we are high schoolers. We can afford to stick our necks out, to lose hours or get fired for this because we don’t need this job,” Clark said, reflecting on how little $16 an hour can be stretched in Mill Valley. “We learn about unions in school, campaigns against big national stores. But this is our store and it’ll be specific to our needs.”

A growing movement

The teens are part of the growing movement among workers at the coffee chain.

Workers at two Santa Cruz stores voted last week to become the first unionized Starbucks in California.

Clark and her comrades are ready to follow suit, even if the first step is holding out for better conditions until the election takes place.

“We are listening and learning from the partners in these stores as we always do across the country. We’ve been clear in our belief that we are better together as partners, without a union between us,” Starbucks spokesperson Sarah Albanesi said.

The strategy of listening and learning has lost the company more than 60 elections.

San Francisco’s unionization roots run deep — so deep that they’d strike gold if one were to trace back its origins. Union campaigns happening near and far, however, are bringing a new energy to organize, argues San Francisco State University Professor John Logan.

“I think the change will happen here. Starbucks Workers United is really strong all over the country, but it does have a particular strength in college towns like Ithaca, Ann Arbor… It’s beginning to spread more rapidly now to reach big stores, even the Seattle store and the Roastery in New York City,” he said.

Logan, who grew up in Scotland in the 1980s, never found unions that interesting. Where he was brought up they were common; both of his parents of him were union members.

“If you look at what’s happened to unions over the last few decades, a decline has taken place in the United States,” the professor added. “There are two primary reasons: Relatively weak legal protections for (one’s) rights to a union and strong employer opposition.”

This is what the young people running the campaigns face. Logan says the NLRB elections system is heavily weighted in the favor of the employer as various court decisions in past decades have supported employer property rights and free speech over worker rights.

“Employers are allowed to conduct a threat of dismissal to employees if they don’t attend anti-union opposition, or captive audience, meetings. They subject them to endless nonstop anti-union propaganda during a campaign,” Logan said. “They have the resources, of course.”

Amazon spokesperson Barbara Agrait said employees have the choice of whether to join a union and that they always have.

“As a company, we don’t think unions are the best answer for our employees. Our focus remains on working directly with our team to continue making Amazon a great place to work,” she said.

NLRB General Counsel Jen Abruzzo has spoken against captive audience meetings, Logan pointed out in his own writing on the Labor and Working Class History Association blog. But there are new techniques: Approximately two weeks ago, Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz announced that sizable raises would be given to non-union members while none would be given to union members, the New York Times reported.

“It really only amounts to about a dollar extra an hour,” Clark said. “Starbucks knows exactly what it’s doing.”

Abruzzo and associates do not seem to be willing to let such practices fly. one week ago, the Times reported that merit was found in claims that both Amazon and Starbucks had engaged in union busting behaviors, violating labor law in Staten Island and Buffalo especially.

Clark and Orrick hinted that workers at another nearby location may begin organizing but wouldn’t disclose where.

A customer handed a $20 bill to Clark and Orrick, wanting to donate to the campaign after seeing their pro-union shirts. They dropped the money into the tip jar for their coworkers on-shift, a box that doesn’t sit far from a new chalkboard advertising the advantages of working for Starbucks.

“We are not trying to fight Starbucks. We are not trying to fight our manager or assistant store manager or anything like that. We just want to help Starbucks be the best company it can be,” Clark said.

mhartman@sfexaminer.com, @_melissahartman

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