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Starbucks partners, ASU students win election to unionize

More than 100 Starbucks across 26 states have filed petitions to unionize — five Arizona stores join them

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A Starbucks sign hangs outside of the coffee shop's Taylor Place location in downtown Phoenix on Wednesday, March 2, 2022.

A Starbucks in Mesa became the third unionized store in the country last Friday, securing labor protections for its 28 workers. The store at Power and Baseline roads is the first unionized Starbucks in Arizona.

Starbucks partners in Mesa — including a prospective ASU student, an ASU online student and a recent graduate — voted 25 to three to form a union. Starbucks workers cited staffing levels, training programs and COVID-19 safety, in their decision to support the union.

The vote was the first for Starbucks Workers United since two stores in Buffalo voted to unionize in December. Workers at more than 100 Starbucks stores across 26 states have announced intentions to unionize. 

Tyler Ralston, a barista at the Mesa store who plans to enroll at ASU in the fall, said the movement to unionize is breaking new ground.

"Now is the time to show people that we're willing to fight," Ralston said. "This is bigger than just me. This is bigger than just Starbucks Workers United. It is a labor movement, a new wave of young people, fueled by the mistreatment during the pandemic."

What the first Starbucks union recognition means for ASU students

Union supporters expected to get results of the vote last week on Feb. 16 but a Starbucks request to the National Labor Relations Board postponed the count to Feb. 25. ASU Young Democrats expressed support for the partners throughout unionization efforts.

The Young Democrats, a political organization on campus, boosted workers and students with a solidarity statement as early as Jan. 26 after Starbucks filed a request to review the election.

"We strongly urge Starbucks to immediately cease its interference in the union election process," ASUYD spokesperson Ian Sherwood wrote in the letter. "We stand with the Mesa Starbucks employees and call on the NLRB (National Labor Relations Board) to uphold its previous store-by-store ruling in order to protect the democratic will of workers."

Sherwood said Young Democrats decided to back the union due to the sheer size and speed at which Starbucks partners and Workers United, an affiliate of the Service Employees International Union, is organizing the service industry.

"If this Starbucks unionization effort works out, it's going to pave the way for student workers at ASU to possibly form a union," he said in an interview before the election.

Starbucks is challenging the union one store at a time and contested the voting pool before the NLRB in late January. Starbucks launched a website explaining its opposition.

"We do not believe unions are necessary at Starbucks because we know that the real issues are solved through our direct partnerships with one another," the website reads.

How Starbucks partners, students turned the table on union-busting

Michael McQuarrie, director of the Center for Work and Democracy at ASU, explained the union drive is facing resistance because "there's real inequality built into the employment relation."

"Right now, in the United States, we're in a moment when our democracy is under threat and inequalities are at historically unprecedented levels, those two things are not unrelated," McQuarrie said.

Unionization rates were the lowest in food preparation and serving related occupations in 2021, with 3.1% of workers also being members of a union, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In addition, workers aged 16 to 24 had the lowest membership rate at 4.2%.

Young people may not be unionized in significant numbers yet, but they are overwhelmingly in favor of organized labor.

A recent Gallup poll found that approval of labor unions is at its highest point since 1965, with 77% of people aged 18 to 34 supporting them.

Students have been at the heart of the Starbucks Workers United campaign since the beginning.

Veronica Brown, a Starbucks barista and recent ASU graduate, is learning how to be a union organizer in Mesa.

"The amount of disrespect that I was treated with there was really frustrating," Brown said. "At the time, I was also learning about unions in my classes. Labor laws were not respecting workers who were on the frontlines."

Brown didn't realize the disparities in pay and workplace treatment until partners started openly talking, she said. Concerned about unionization – the company sent several additional managers to Mesa, according to Ralston.

Partners, including students enrolled in the ASU Starbucks College Achievement Plan, demand Starbucks work with them to improve the training program and staffing levels.

Starbucks maintains a partnership with ASU in which they cover 100% of tuition at ASU for their employees who wish to study at the University. It does not cover books and supplies.

Four more Arizona stores went public with their union campaigns: two in north Phoenix, one in Avondale, and one in Mesa, on Crimson Road and Southern Avenue.

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Tori Gantz Politics Reporter

Tori is a politics reporter covering voting rights, labor, and University Student Government Polytechnic at the State Press. They are currently working for the News Collab and Wick Communications to create the Voices Listening Project, a collaborative research project in Arizona funded by the Google News initiative.

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