As workers at the Starbucks store at 28th and Powell in Southeast Portland prepare to receive ballots for the union election on April 22, shift supervisor B Morris-Brand is feeling confident.
“I’m just excited to see all the hard work that all of my partners have [done] pay off,” Morris-Brand said.
The 28th and Powell store is one of four Starbucks locations in Portland that is set to hold a union vote later this month, making them the first Starbucks stores in the city to have the opportunity to vote to unionize.
Barring a dramatic twist in the next several weeks, Morris-Brand said that the 28th and Powell election won’t be close.
“As I understand it, the only [worker] that is against my specific store unionizing has left,” they said. “They now live in another state. So it does look like [we] will be successful and we will go to the bargaining table with Starbucks.”
In addition to the 28th and Powell store, workers at the W Burnside, SW Oak, and NE Grand stores will begin casting their ballots on April 22.
That’s not all. Several more Starbucks locations in the metro area—including the first three to file for union elections back in early February—are still waiting for the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to set dates for their union elections, and still more locations are preparing to unionize in the coming weeks.
“I’ve connected with a lot of awesome people who have been working in the labor movement that have been so helpful as we moved from being underground in this process to above ground,” said Isabelle Loverich, whose Jantzen Beach Starbucks store filed for a union election last week. “Having that community to answer questions and offer support has been really great.”
Though Starbucks has for years enjoyed a reputation as a generous employer, with benefits including paid time off and health insurance, the current unionization push reflects long-simmering discontent with the imbalance of power within the corporation.
Starbucks’ revenue increased by more than 25 percent in 2021—easily exceeding its 2019, pre-pandemic profit level. But some workers haven’t been able to share in that success. Loverich said workers at their store, for instance, were pushed towards unionizing after the store suddenly cut their hours at the end of the last quarter.
“Nobody is asking for a million dollars an hour,” Morris-Brand said. “No one is asking for $50 an hour. We just want to be able to pay bills, pay our rent, and eat all at the same time. We want a fair share of what we're providing the company with.”
Morris-Brand said that the store manager at their location has been entirely supportive of the unionization push and that workers at their store have not faced any retaliation for their organizing efforts—a welcome surprise for many who had braced for pushback.
Workers at other Starbucks locations have not been so lucky. Quentin Kanta, one of the lead organizers at the SW Walker store, left his position with the company in late February after a worker who was not supportive of the unionization effort filed a complaint against him.
Kanta said that he was never told what the exact nature of the complaint against him was, but he has no doubts about what it concerned.
“I wholeheartedly believe it was because of my organizing,” Kanta said.
Kanta was enrolled online at Arizona State University seeking a degree in political science through a Starbucks-funded program, but had to leave school when he left the company. In the weeks since, he’s continued his organizing efforts while looking for a new job.
The particulars of Kanta’s case aside, Starbucks has increasingly pushed out union organizers across the country. The highest-profile case came in February when the company fired seven workers—comprising the entire union organizing committee—at a store in Memphis for minor offenses. In recent weeks, Starbucks has also fired union organizers in Buffalo and Scottsdale.
A Starbucks spokesperson told the Mercury that any claims of anti-union activity by the company are “categorically false.”
Despite the corporate resistance, the union has been on a winning streak. The union has won nine consecutive NLRB elections, including two in Mesa, Arizona, while scores more stores across the country have begun unionization campaigns.
The success of the unionization drive has coincided with a major shakeup at the top of the company, where longtime CEO Howard Schultz returned to the position earlier this week to replace retiring CEO Kevin Johnson. Schultz, who has long been a fierce opponent of union organizing, said Monday at a town hall workers that companies are being “assaulted” by unionization campaigns.
In one of his first moves back in power, Schultz announced that he is canceling plans for the company to buy back $20 billion of its own stock—a move that he said would allow Starbucks “to invest more profit into our people and our stores.”
To Kanta, who predicted that the union will “win every single store in Portland no matter what,” it’s a sign that the company is trying to appease workers.
“I think Starbucks is incredibly and increasingly terrified of our union movement,” he said. “It was, at least to me, very transparent that the only reason Howard Schultz was brought back was that shareholders trust him and they're trying to stabilize the stock value of the company.”
According to Morris-Brand, the union’s level of coordination across stores and states is one reason for its success thus far. Organizers at stores in Oregon and Washington are in frequent contact in a private chat group with other Starbucks union organizers that Morris-Brand estimated includes representatives from some 50 stores across the two states.
Loverich has felt that support at their store.
“We’ve already had an awesome show of solidarity with a big group of people who came in the day that we filed,” they said. “It’s great, because if you need the support, people will show up.”
Last week, Morris-Brand took their organizing further afield, appearing on a panel with Nevada organizers to share their pro-union message. In Portland, where workers will begin voting to unionize in just over two weeks, that message seems to be breaking through.
“They’re only doing it because we’ve won so many stores,” Kanta said of potential new Starbucks benefits. “If nine unionized stores can get a package for all workers, imagine what it’s going to look like when we have hundreds stretching into the thousands of unionized stores across the country.”