Workers at four Starbucks stores in Portland have voted overwhelmingly to unionize, becoming the first stores in the Portland metro area to join the Starbucks Workers United union.
A number of Starbucks workers and their allies gathered in a meeting room at the Oregon AFL-CIO headquarters in Southeast Portland to watch the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) vote count for elections that began on April 22.
There wasn’t much suspense. Workers at the SE 28th and Powell St. location voted 14-2 to join the union, workers at SW 5th and Oak and Convention Center locations voted unanimously to join, and workers at the 28th and Burnside St. location voted 7-2 in favor of unionization.
In total, by the end of the afternoon, 35 workers across the four stores voted in favor of unionizing. Just four workers voted against it.
“I talked with one of the organizers beforehand, and he had said that there were maybe a little bit of concerns about their store, and they ended up only having two votes against them,” former Starbucks worker and current union organizer Quentin Kanta said. “Each one of the wins today was resounding.”
These four union victories might be just the beginning. Eight more stores have filed for union elections in the Portland area, with workers at several stores—including the first three that filed for elections back in January—currently voting in advance of early June election dates.
The union also has a significant imprint in Eugene, where three stores have unionized and five are waiting to vote.
In total, more than 230 Starbucks stores across the country have filed for union elections in the last six months and more than 50 have voted to unionize—making this one of the biggest unionization movements of a period that has seen a resurgence in labor organizing in industries across the country.
The union’s success has come in spite of a furious push from Starbucks to stop the progress of the unionization drive.
That effort has been multifaceted. Longtime CEO Howard Schultz returned to the top job on an interim basis in March following the retirement of former CEO Kevin Johnson and immediately told a group of workers that they could not ignore “companies throughout the country being assaulted, in many ways, by the threat of unionization.”
In early May, Schultz announced that Starbucks was adding new benefits—including credit card tipping and expanded sick leave and job training programs—but only for stores that were not in the process of unionizing.
“We do not have the same freedom to make these improvements at locations that have a union or where union organizing is underway,” Schultz told shareholders at the time.
That stance drew the ire of the union, which filed a complaint with the NLRB that Schultz’s position constituted “illegal threats” against unionizing workers. Starbucks is, by this point, no stranger to NLRB trouble. The NLRB regional director in Buffalo earlier this month cited the company for 29 unfair labor practice charges and more than 200 violations of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA).
This pushback isn’t limited to Buffalo. Starbucks management has been accused of illegally firing union organizers in cities around the country—including in Portland, where union representatives and members of local labor-aligned organizations protested the firing of Jantzen Beach store worker Matt Thornton over the weekend.
Isabelle Loverich, who organized alongside Thornton at the Jantzen Beach store, said that Thorton was just a year away from graduating from Arizona State University through an online program funded by Starbucks when he was fired by the company’s district manager. According to Loverich, the store manager said the firing was “out of her hands.”
“People are even more riled up now,” Loverich said. “I have a lot of people reaching out and asking questions who weren't asking questions before, and people who are really excited for our vote now. Because it was very blatant and in their faces.”
Workers at the Jantzen Beach location will be voting to unionize within the month.
The success of the Starbucks unionization effort has tracked with a broader change in public sentiment: support for labor unions is at its highest point since 1965, with 68 percent of Americans in support. That number includes 47 percent of Republicans, who now approve of unions at a rate 15 percentage points higher than they did in 2016.
Portland and the Pacific Northwest in particular have seen a surge in labor activism over the last year, and Kanta said that plans are already underway to ensure that the region is a leader in the fight to come: ensuring that Starbucks recognizes and negotiates in good faith with the union.
“We’re going to make sure that all of our stores become strike ready,” Kanta said. “That’s already been happening in the PNW—we’ve had more strikes here than anywhere else across the country—and we’re going to be ratcheting that up over the next couple of weeks.”
Before that, however, union organizers have June 3, the NLRB vote count date for workers at three more Portland area stores, circled on their calendars.
“We expect to continue winning,” Kanta said. “I think that this was a huge way to start, and we have so much momentum… We have plenty of opportunities for celebration coming up soon.”