Starbucks workers at Santa Cruz store file union petition, joining a national push

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A sign bearing the corporate logo hangs in the window of a Starbucks open only to take-away customers in this photograph taken Monday, April 26, 2021, in southeast Denver. Starbucks is no longer requiring its U.S. workers to be vaccinated against COVID-19, reversing a policy it announced earlier this month. The Seattle coffee giant says, Wednesday, Jan. 19, 2022, it's responding to last week's ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)
Workers at a Starbucks in Santa Cruz who are trying to unionize say they feel unsafe and unsupported by management. (David Zalubowski / Associated Press)

Workers at a Starbucks in Santa Cruz filed a union petition with the National Labor Relations Board, the first California store to join a growing national push to organize baristas and shift supervisors at the coffee giant.

Twenty-two of the store's 31 workers signed union cards, said Joseph Thompson, a shift supervisor at the Starbucks who is leading organizing efforts.

Thompson said the Santa Cruz store experiences a high rate of incidents of harassment, indecent exposure and threats of violence, and employees don't feel supported by management or corporate executives. Union discussions began in November, and the petition was filed Friday afternoon.

In early December, a Starbucks store in Buffalo, N.Y., voted in favor of forming the chain's first union in the U.S. Since then, workers at a cascade of stores across the country announced their own organizing campaigns to join the union, Starbucks Workers United. The organization is part of Workers United, an affiliate of the giant Service Employees International Union.

"We know at the end of the day they don't care about us," said Thompson, who has worked at the company for two years and watched as Starbucks awarded hazard pay bumps and additional food benefits and then rolled them back, even as the pandemic has dragged on.

A group of 13 former and current workers at the Santa Cruz store said they had a "moral obligation to organize" in a letter addressed to the company's chief executive.

Wages do not meet the cost of living in Santa Cruz, baristas are scheduled for shifts without being consulted during days they are not free to work, and workers of color are disrespected by management, former worker Katheline Vanegas wrote in a statement attached to the letter. She alleged baristas sometimes aren't compensated for the full time they worked, with time sheets edited down if they punch out any later than the time for which they are scheduled.

She criticized the company for mishandling a large number of security incidents that began to happen during late hours: "Rather than hiring a security guard to keep baristas safe, police were called to drive around the area and treat homeless people like criminals."

"The day I quit, other partners decided enough was enough as well and partners will either keep quitting or unionize until Starbucks does something to fix these company-wide issues," Vanegas wrote.

Starbucks spokeswoman Sarah Albanesi said she did not have enough information to respond to specific issues at the store and said the company is "listening and learning from the partners in this store as we always do across the country."

Albanesi said the company is opposed to a union. She referenced a statement by Rossann Williams, president of Starbucks North America, published last month after the Buffalo union vote.

“Everything we love most about Starbucks is thanks to partners who work directly together with care, partnership and respect. From the beginning, we’ve been clear in our belief that we do not want a union between us as partners, and that conviction has not changed. However, we have also said that we respect the legal process,” Williams said.

After the U.S. Supreme Court blocked the Biden administration from enforcing a vaccine mandate for large employers last week, Starbucks announced it would no longer require its U.S. workers to be fully vaccinated or submit to weekly coronavirus testing — one of the most high-profile companies to do so.

The Santa Cruz store temporarily shut down operations earlier this week because of the number of staff members isolating due to COVID-19, and probably won't reopen for another week or so, workers said.

The NLRB has received 28 petitions from workers at Starbucks stores across the country. Two stores in Buffalo already won their union certification. A handful of other stores in Buffalo have their election dates set, but the majority are in earlier stages in the process, according to the labor board.

"I don't think anyone quite expected the explosive response we got," said Ian Hayes, a lawyer working with the union who filed the Santa Cruz store's petition, as well as the earlier Buffalo store petitions.

The experience of going through the pandemic as food service workers highlighted already existing inequities and "made people feel more of a sense of urgency in taking control over their lives," Hayes said.

He alleges Starbucks has raised baseless challenges on every petition so far, forcing parties into a formal administrative hearing process before the NLRB can order an election. "That’s slowed down the process significantly in every case," he said, adding that the labor board "has completely, comprehensively dismissed the argument as nonsense."

If the company takes the same course with the Santa Cruz store, it would take about two months for the labor board to set an election date, Hayes said.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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