Workers Claim Union-Busting at St. Louis-Area Starbucks

click to enlarge Starbucks in Bridgeton. - VIA GOOGLE MAPS
Starbucks in Bridgeton.

Over the past week, three St. Louis-area Starbucks stores have celebrated union victories.

At one store, though, the unionization effort failed.

On June 13, employees at a Bridgeton Starbucks voted against unionizing in a 9 to 14 tally. But the union, Chicago and Midwest Joint Board of Workers United, have maintained Starbucks used union-busting tactics to sway the baristas. They plan to contest the results to the National Labor Relations Board.

Alexia Fischer and Maddie Hagan, baristas at the Bridgeton Starbucks, located at 12419 St Charles Rock Rd., were part of the organizing committee at their store.

They tell the RFT that they had pro-union content stripped from the community board, an anti-union letter placed in their tip envelope and their hours cut as a result of their organizing efforts. They also say the store held two paid, closed-door meetings during work hours where managers expressed anti-union sentiments.

Mari Orrego, an organizer with the labor union who works with Starbucks employees across the region, says she has seen other examples of union-busting. But none in St. Louis like Bridgeton. She calls it a “special case.”

“They had been going through union-busting for many, many months, even before they launched their campaign,” says Orrego, who talked with the Bridgeton organizing committee every day.

In an email to the RFT, a Starbucks spokesperson denied accusations of union-busting.

“Any claims of union busting are false,” the spokesperson wrote twice.

In a previous email sent on June 14, directly following the news of the failed union vote, the spokesperson reacted positively.

“Regarding the store where the majority of partners voted to keep our direct relationship, we see this as a resounding vote of confidence in moving forward and continuing to partner directly with Starbucks,” the spokesperson said.

Fischer and Hagan jumpstarted the unionization efforts at the Bridgeton store began in October, not long after workers in Buffalo became the first Starbucks employees in years to support a union.

“I personally think that everybody deserves a union,” Hagan says. “Just because it bridges that power imbalance that comes with working at a corporate store.”

In the months after the unionization process started, Fischer and Hagan say their hours dropped from 40 hours a week to less than 20. The store hired more employees and almost everyone saw their hours cut, but Fischer and Hagan say their cuts seemed more drastic.

“They’re just kind of slowly squeezing me out of the store,” Hagan explains. “And the point of it is to keep me out of a store so that I'm not talking to people.”

On May 9 and 10, the week employees received their ballots, the store held two closed-door meetings during work hours attended by the district manager, store manager and employees. At the meetings, Fischer says management harped on the negative impact of unions, shared examples of failed unions and the need to pay dues. Orrego called them “captive-audience sessions.”

In the statement, Starbucks supported management’s right to share their viewpoint.

“Regarding complaints about our sharing facts and our perspective on this important issue, we do this so partners can make informed decisions when they vote,” the Starbucks spokesperson said. “Our hope is that the union would respect our right to share information and our perspective, just as we respect their right to do so.”

Then on May 17, four days after they received their ballots, Fischer and Hagan say they received a text message from a fellow barista in a group chat. There was a letter in their tip envelope, the text explained.

When Fischer and Hagan found the letter, it read across the top: “Please Vote and VOTE NO!”

“Vote ‘NO’ in favor of keeping your direct relationship with Starbucks,” it read.

“Vote ‘Yes’ to give up your rights to speak for yourself and have Workers United as your exclusive bargaining agent.”

Hagan says it felt like “a threat.”

click to enlarge Workers at a Starbucks in Bridgeton received this letter in their tip envelope encouraging them to vote against unionizing. - VIA ALEXIA FISCHER
Workers at a Starbucks in Bridgeton received this letter in their tip envelope encouraging them to vote against unionizing.

Fischer and Hagan say they are still searching for reasons behind the failure. Both say they felt confident the store would vote to unionize in the weeks leading up to the vote. The union claims some yes-voters had their ballots lost in the mail. Many people in the store won’t talk to them anymore.

Across the nation, 165 Starbucks stores have voted in favor of unionizing. Only 26 stores, or roughly 15 percent, have voted against unionizing.

Orrego says that the tactics used at the Bridgeton store have mirrored other Starbucks stores in the United States. Employees everywhere have accused the company of holding closed-door meetings and slashing the hours of unionized employees as a tactic to push them to leave.

But Orrego says she hasn’t seen a letter, like the one sent to Bridgeton workers, circulated at other Starbucks locations.

“These are people's livelihoods, and they take their jobs really seriously,” she says. “So when there's any type of perceived threat coming from supposed leadership, it does scare the worker, and that's just the reality of having that sort of power imbalance, which is why union-busting is so illegal in the first place, because it does have the power to sway employees.”

As some of the leaders of the unionization effort, Fischer and Hagan say they worry about losing their jobs. But they don’t regret what they did.

“I think these companies need to be challenged and challenged and challenged to continuously do better,” Fischer says. “And one of the companies that has always acted like they do better is not doing better.”

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