Around 50 Starbucks workers, organizers and community members gathered in front of the Starbucks on State Street as four Starbucks locations across Ann Arbor voted to unionize. The South University Avenue location was the only one out of five to vote against unionization.
Attendees at the rally watched over Zoom as the votes were counted by a representative from the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) before the final number was announced to the crowd over a megaphone. The four locations that voted to unionize — Glencoe Crossing shopping mall, Main and East Liberty streets, Jackson and Zeeb roads, and State and East Liberty streets — join a Grand Rapids location, which became the first unionized Starbucks in Michigan in May.
The Glencoe Crossing location voted in favor of unionization by a tally of 14–0, Main and East Liberty streets by a tally of 10–3, Jackson and Zeeb roads by a tally of 10–2, and State and East Liberty streets by a tally of 15–1. The South University Avenue location voted against unionization by a tally of 10–16.
Labor organizer Hannah Whitbeck was fired in April from her shift supervisor position at the Starbucks at Main and East Liberty streets following her efforts to unionize the store. Whitbeck is now attempting to be reinstated for what she claims was a retaliatory firing.
In an interview with The Michigan Daily, Whitbeck said her campaign for unionization stemmed from a desire for better working conditions.
“We wanted better pay, we wanted certain things negotiated, we wanted to talk to people higher up in corporate and have a voice,” Whitbeck said. “Those are all seeds of unionizing, but we just didn’t connect the two together.”
It was only after an organizer from the location at Jackson and Zeeb roads came to Whitbeck’s store to discuss unionization that the Starbucks at Main and East Liberty streets began to organize. Now, Whitbeck said, her former store’s push for unionization has more meaning than just improving the conditions in that location. “It’s so important, not only for us, that we do it, but for other places because everyone deserves a union if they want it,” Whitbeck said. “If you don’t feel like you have a voice in your workplace, you deserve to have one. Not just us, but Verizon, they’re trying to, Apple’s trying to, Amazon (is trying), all these major places.”
After a store in Buffalo, N.Y. became the first Starbucks location to unionize with Workers United in December 2021, the labor movement has grown to encompass over 100 unionized locations across the United States. Workers United is an American and Canadian labor union providing support for Starbucks Workers United, which seeks to organize Starbucks locations across the United States.
The push to organize hasn’t stopped at Starbucks: Employees at major companies such as Amazon and Alphabet have recently voted to form unions. Many of these unionized locations have become the first of their kind in their companies, leading the charge for other branches to follow suit. Union representation petitions filed through the NLRB increased by 57% in Fiscal Year 2022 (Oct. 1–March 31) from the first half of Fiscal Year 2021.
Daric Thorne is the president of the Huron Valley Worker Organizing and Research Center (HV-WORC), an organization aiming to help workers learn about unions and how organizing can improve working conditions. In an interview with The Daily, Thorne said he was satisfied with the outcome and hopeful for what the votes to unionize will mean for workers’ organization efforts in the greater Huron Valley community.
“I feel really good about it,” Thorne said. “I’m surely disappointed that workers have experienced a loss at one of the stores, but overall, four out of five ain’t bad. And I think it’s pretty indicative that workers in those spaces want change, and they believe that they can do it together instead of waiting for management to do it for them.”
Amir Fleischmann, a Rackham student and Graduate Employees’ Organization (GEO) member, told The Daily that it was great to witness other workers unionizing and reclaiming power as a collective.
“What we see here is workers choosing to take their fate into their own hands and standing up for themselves,” Fleischmann said. “I hope that whenever workers stand up anywhere, that encourages others to stand up. I know GEO is very encouraged to see this happen and (we) are inspired by the workers at Starbucks unionizing.”
Fleischmann went on to give his insights on the value of unions in a democracy.
“We tend to think of democracy as very restricted to the political sphere, something that you do when you cast a vote once every couple of years,” Fleischmann said. “But most of our life is governed in the workplace, so having a union is reclaiming power and saying, ‘I should have a say in my workplace, where I spend most of my time, and not just be told what to do by the boss.’”
Rackham student Lindsay Calka is a Starbucks Workers United spokesperson and organizer for the Starbucks at State and East Liberty streets. Following the votes, Calka said she believes transient student employees and union-busting efforts resulted in the South University Avenue location voting against unionization.
“All the organizing work that we did was kind of like ripped out from under us because students transferred to other stores, and they’re no longer on the roster, therefore no longer eligible to vote,” Calka said. “Union busting is real, and that was happening at South U. If individual workers — especially (if) they’re coming in for the summer and transferring in — aren’t prepared for that, it can totally increase the chances of a ‘No.’”
Despite the loss at one location, Calka said she was hopeful for that store and others in the area to form unions in the future. Calka also discussed her excitement for the newly-formed union to negotiate a contract and for the labor movement to continue at a national level.
“Starbucks Workers United this summer, we’re working towards organizing on the national level,” Calka said. “We’ve organized as a district, which has been super exciting and has given us a lot of power. And to think that that could happen at the national level is just insane. To craft a contract that’s unified in the hopes of getting a national contract, that is what I’m looking forward to.”
Thorne attributed the growing labor movement in the U.S. to an increasing awareness of poor treatment and working conditions among employees.
“We’re in a place right now where we see CEO salaries continue to rise, corporate profits continue to expand, despite the fact that inflation is rapid,” Thorne said. “Some people want to blame increasing worker salaries, but I think workers know what’s up. I think we’ve been seeing a wave of worker action across the country over the course of the pandemic … and (the movement) is hopefully going to continue moving forward.”
Fleischmann said he is looking forward to seeing the trend of increased labor organization continue to gain momentum.
“I think people are growing increasingly dissatisfied with the political status quo here in the United States, and I would say across the world,” Fleischmann said. “When politicians aren’t willing to give us the things we need, we need to do it ourselves. I think this is very encouraging and points to a broader trend of workers being more willing to take action to defend themselves.”
Summer Managing News Editor Eli Friedman and Summer News Editor Irena Li can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.