How the Starbucks Union Movement Kicked Off in Texas

by | Jun 1, 2022 | Labor, News

More and more Starbucks stores in Texas are beginning to unionize, part of a nationwide trend that has seen dozens of locations in the country organize and win union representation. 

In Texas, several have already filed petitions and are awaiting an election to certify a union to officially represent workers and negotiate a contract on their behalf.

Workers at one store in Austin have already began to vote by mail and the results will be revealed this Friday. 

If the organizers are successful, it will be the first Starbucks in the Lone Star State to officially unionize. 

Employees of the store would be represented by Southwest Regional Joint Board, Workers United, an affiliate of Service Employees International Union (SEIU). 

It would be big news and undoubtedly inspire others to make the same commitment with their coworkers, not just at fellow Starbucks stores, but anywhere where workers are seeking a seat at the table.

The first Starbucks store to petition to become a union in Texas was in San Antonio. Seven employees at the store formed a union committee and made their intentions public in a letter to Kevin Johnson, then CEO of Starbucks.

Johnson stepped down from the company in March and founder Howard Schultz returned as CEO. The transition came four months after a Starbucks in Buffalo, New York became the first in the nation to unionze. 

Shortly after, Rossann Williams, executive vice president of Starbucks in North America, distributed a company-wide letter to employees (or as they are internally referred to, partners) explaining that while the company did not want unions, it would respect the legal process and bargain in good faith with the store that had unionized in Buffalo. 

For Starbucks workers in Texas curiously watching the developments in New York and already whispering among themselves about organizing, it was off to the races.

“That letter was the catalyst that allowed myself and a couple of other partners to start having very real conversations on the floor with our fellow baristas and shift supervisors, talking about union organizing,” said CJ Craig, one of the seven San Antonio employees who signed their name to the pro-union letter.

When Craig began talking to coworkers about organizing, he said many didn’t understand what a union could offer or what an organized workplace looked like.

“A lot of those conversations really did end up being more about educating people and just kind of walking them through like, this is the process, this is what happens when you form a union, and these are the ways that it can materially improve your life and historically has,” Craig said.

For those that were quickly onboard or already eager to form a union, the initial talk immediately after Buffalo was whether it could be replicated here. The discussions were also more philosophical, about their responsibility to labor rights, and their moral obligation to follow through on a fierce organizing movement that was already in motion.

These conversations began to take place around September 2021, and by January of next year, the organizing committee had penned their letter to Kevin Johnson and become the first Starbucks in Texas to file a petition to unionize. 

“Honestly, one of the major selling points for my store was being the first in Texas,” Craig said. “It’s exciting, of course, to be a little bit a part of history in that way.” 

“But more so the sentiment among my coworkers was how exciting it’s gonna be that we get to be ones to change the narrative in the state,” Craig continued. “Almost every single store that we’ve spoken to since we went public with our intention to unionze has told us that is exactly what happened: because our store organized and filed that petition, they realized that they were capable of doing the same thing and that it could be done in Texas.”

An election for a union to be certified for Craig’s store is now scheduled for June 14.

“Regardless of the outcome of our vote count on June 14, that in and of itself is such a massive victory that it doesn’t matter whether we win our union or not at my store,” Craig said. “We changed the narrative and we changed the conversation, that’s enough for us.”

Craig says he never had any intentions of forming a union at Starbucks. He was a former employee who returned to the company in 2021 after the pandemic temporarily ended his career as a professional stage actor. He knew a lot about labor rights and organizing, in part because of membership with the Actors’ Equity Association and the Industrial Workers of the World (the “Wobblies.”)

Since the San Antonio petition went public, Craig has helped other stores begin the same organizing process. By now, at least 10 stores in Texas have filed or signaled their intent to file a union petition.

Each store is organizing as independent locals and must organize and bargain for their own contract. Some stores in Oklahoma and Texas are currently in talks to form a regional organizing committee to pool their resources and make themselves more available to infant unions. 

To form a union at your own workplace, Craig says the most important step is being friends with your coworkers. 

“You need to like them, and you need to care about them, and they need to care about you,” he said. “That’s the only way that you can get on the same page, know what each other’s needs are, know what people are looking for out of their work environment, and be able to come together and make those demands of your employer as a union.”

As for organizing in Texas, a state with anti-union right-to-work laws that allow employees to join a union without paying dues (a way to financially damage them), Craig said it wasn’t a problem in the slightest, since one of the major anti-union talking points by Starbucks was bringing up union dues anyway. 

“It doesn’t apply here, it doesn’t,” Craig said of the corporate argument over union dues. “If we have any partners in our store who did not want to be a part of the union, they’ll still be working under the same union contract that the rest of us have negotiated and ratified, but they don’t have to pay dues if they don’t want to. So if anything, it honestly made it an easier sell for everybody.”

fernando@texassignal.com | + posts

Fernando covers Texas politics and government at the Texas Signal. Before joining the Signal, Fernando spent two years at the Houston Chronicle and previously interned at Houston’s NPR station News 88.7. He is a graduate of the University of Houston, Jack J. Valenti School of Communication, and enjoys reading, highlighting things, and arguing on social media. You can follow him on Twitter at @fernramirez93 or email at fernando@texassignal.com

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