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They “Started Treating Us as Expendable”: Inside the Push to Unionize My Local Starbucks

A chat with one of the leaders of the movement to unionize three of the coffee franchises in Ann Arbor, Michigan

Starbucks baristas and supporters protest
Mario Tama/Getty Images
Starbucks baristas and supporters protest outside a Manhattan location.

As we emerge (we hope) from the worst throes of the Covid-19 pandemic, millions of workers are taking stock of what the crisis has meant for them. For those privileged enough to have worked from home throughout the pandemic, the question of a return to the office looms large. For those forced to work in person throughout the ordeal, the profound toll of the crisis is setting in: Millions contracted the virus—millions more feared contracting it. Though Covid relief checks had helped ease the financial burden early on, inflation is now chewing up paychecks at a faster pace.  

Together, the human costs of providing labor in the pandemic era coupled with its meager returns have driven a push to unionize sectors of the economy hit hardest by the pandemic—and previously unorganized by labor. 

Earlier this month, despite the long odds and vicious union-busting by Amazon corporate leadership, Chris Smalls and the Amazon Labor Union made history by successfully unionizing an Amazon facility in Staten Island. It’s an important milestone in the long march to unionize one of America’s largest and most powerful companies. 

But even before them, a store in Buffalo, New York, became the first Starbucks location to unionize, in December. Ever since, the corporation has taken a staunch anti-union stance under once and current CEO Howard Schultz, who has compared the effort to unionize to an “assault” on companies: “​​We can’t ignore what is happening … as it relates to companies … being assaulted in many ways by the threat of unionization.”

To better understand the motivations driving Starbucks unionization and the impact of the pandemic on workers’ choices, I reached out to the workers attempting to unionize our local Starbucks stores. For context, if you’ve never been here, Ann Arbor, Michigan is a lovely town. Home to the University of Michigan, it’s got just the right mix of town and gown: a real camaraderie between the university the town is known for and the people who animate this community even during the summer months. Plus, Michigan is union country—with a staunch history of labor activism and support. 

Bennett Proegler is a shift supervisor at Starbucks and one of the leaders of the movement to unionize three stores in Ann Arbor. I reached out to him to learn more about why.

What was life like for you as a Starbucks employee before you decided to unionize?

For context, I started at Starbucks in August 2020, so I have never known a pre-pandemic Starbucks. I started in Kalamazoo (where I was going to school), and I loved my job. I got excellent training, I loved the people I worked with, and we rarely had an understaffed shift. Then when I transferred to Ann Arbor in January 2021, things started off pretty good. We had proper staffing, decent training, but we were way busier. 

It was in June 2021 that things started to take a turn. We got a notice that we were no longer going to be receiving about 170 SKU [stock keeping units; the store was notified that they would be receiving less inventory—and would faces shortages on items popular with customers] and it would be “detrimental to the customer and partner experience.” For the first several months of this, Starbucks didn’t acknowledge that this was an issue with the customers, and they pretended that everything was normal to the public. This meant that we were dealing with more angry customers than we had previously. Through all of this, we had received a small pay bump, but this came with Starbucks forcing their drive-thru stores to have faster “out the window” times, and when shifts were super short-staffed they refused to turn off mobile order and pay, about 50 percent of sales at the time. 

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This was a period that caused many of my partners to quit at Jackson & Zeeb [Streets], leaving us so short-staffed and broken down that they had to reduce our hours and modify our operations to be drive-thru only [this change happened in August/September]. From September to January, my store was operating without a manager and still short-staffed, but we were building back our store morale and trying to get our feet back under us. We were finally in a place where we didn’t dread coming to work. 

We had several incidents where management wasn’t supporting us in the way we thought they should. That being said, we were in a relatively good place before we filed.

How did the pandemic affect your experience at work? 

I have only known Starbucks during the pandemic, but when I first started, they seemed to care about partner [“partner” is a Starbucks corporate term for employee] safety really deeply. But that care and thought have since diminished. Last summer they tried lifting the mask mandate and allowing customers back in the café, and this caused many partners across our district to get Covid and go on their isolation, but many people had reached their max of three paid isolations.

In my opinion, this is when they truly started treating us as expendable. I had called my [shift manager] and let her know that my mother had Covid and I likely did too, and she said I still needed to come to work until I had a positive test. It took a strike at the Elmwood Starbucks in Buffalo for them to reinstate their stricter Covid policies.

Were you worried about going in during the height of it?

I was worried going into work some days, especially when they would run Triple Star Days or “Frappy Hour” [buy one, get one free on frappuccinos]. These caused the stores to be packed, and they restarted them after removing masks and other safety measures from the stores. 

Did management provide you with all you needed to stay safe?

They have been providing us medical masks and, more recently, KN95 masks, but they are no longer required by the corporation.

Why are you unionizing—what brought you to this moment?

We felt unsafe, we felt unimportant and underappreciated, and we felt ignored. My wage for an hour is [the equivalent of] three average drinks, and it is only two for a barista. [Here Bennett is quantifying his hourly wage in terms of the price of an average drink—meaning he earns the equivalent of three average drinks per hour of work, or just under $18 per hour.] That means we are making our hourly wage in less than a minute in most cases. For the amount of work that we do for this company, and the living wage in Ann Arbor being so high, we feel we need to make more. Starbucks hasn’t been supportive of Covid policies, and we feel we need a union to protect us. And our management doesn’t care to assist us—they are only worried about making enough sales to get their end-of-year bonus. I have had conflicts with customers that our upper management has sided with the customer on, and it didn’t make me feel good coming to work. A union can help us feel safe and supported at work.

What’s management’s response been?

Many store managers have been ambivalent to the issue, but our district and regional managers have been having one-on-one conversations with everyone, trying to spread propaganda about how a union will actually hurt our relationship with them and the benefits that we receive. Though this might be unrelated to the union but probably is [related], Starbucks has cut the labor hours that our stores can use. We are now running skeleton shifts, and it starting to feel like last August, when everyone had quit. Their strategy is changing every day, and it is hurting my partners’ experience.