Each day of late surfaces Starbucks’ union headlines. Employees in Utah on Wednesday. Five locations in the Richmond, Virginia, area a day earlier. More New York venues earlier in the week.
BTIG analyst Peter Saleh expects unionization efforts to stretch across the year before reaching a crossroads in December. That’s when Buffalo anniversaries its initial vote. Saleh said Starbucks risks tarnishing its brand, and alienating certain consumers that support unions, if an agreement fails to be reached. However, how sizable is the risk truly? Thus far, it appears nominal.
BTIG surveyed roughly 1,000 Starbucks consumers nationwide to get a picture of their allegiance to the brand and probability of going elsewhere if the rift between the company and unions doesn’t resolve. Federal law requires Starbucks to negotiate with unions, but does not require the company to sign a contract.
In Saleh’s study, 4 percent of respondents indicated they would “never visit again” if no agreement was struck. The vast majority—68 percent—said it would have no impact on their visit frequency. Among the rest of consumers polled, 15 percent suggested they’d visit Starbucks less often, while 13 percent noted they’d even become more frequent users, essentially canceling each other out. “In our view, this suggests that Starbucks customers aren't willing to give up their morning ritual to support unionization,” Saleh wrote in a note.
Additionally, BTIG asked consumers to determine if they would be willing to pay more for their coffee and experience to support union labor at these stores. Results were mixed. Fifty-three percent said they were unwilling to fork up more, while the balance were happy to if unionization efforts succeeded. In sum, roughly half of the field was OK paying extra for their Starbucks experience to support higher wages/income for green apron employees.
Saleh said this could act as a common ground of sorts, “where Starbucks enhances the tipping options for in-store and digital purchases to support employee income and avoid the unionization drive, as nearly half of customers seem willing to pay more to support higher wages.”
Saleh has held conversations with consultants in recent weeks to get a feel for the potential fallout, one of which negotiated more than 500 labor contracts with 20 national and local unions over a 40-year career. From those, he believes investors should focus on Buffalo as the market that will set the precedent for any negotiations and contracts. “Our understanding is that Buffalo, as the first market to vote to unionize, has one year from the end of December 2021 to execute a contract,” Saleh said, “or else face the possibility of dissolving the union.”
“Given the industry-leading average hourly earnings of $17 per hour [this summer] for Starbucks employees, in addition to healthcare benefits, tuition reimbursement, paid-time-off, we are unsure what concrete resolution the unionization effort seeks to achieve,” he added.
From what Saleh has heard, Starbucks’ employees are frustrated by the same ailments plaguing countless brands sector-wide. Things like shortages and burnout, scheduling, poor training, and high turnover. Starbucks, as its espoused throughout, especially in recent weeks following founder Howard Schultz’s return as CEO, claims it's working to temper those challenges with menu simplification, technology, and other efficiency-driven efforts. Issues, Saleh said, difficult to resolve with a contract.
Saleh said unionization can take two forms: an agency shop in which Starbucks can hire traditional non-union employees, or a union shop in which workers are required to join the union if they want to work at Starbucks.
“Given the historically high turnover in the restaurant industry [currently 80 percent of Starbucks employees have been there less than one year], which has been about 150 percent, and is much higher today, we believe union negotiators will focus on securing a Union shop designation to ensure consistent union dues,” Saleh predicted.
If that happens, the designation could force the union to negotiate away certain wage increases, healthcare coverage, paid time off, or education benefits in the initial contact, he added. Following those lines, Saleh said, since the industry is rife with part-time employees and quickly churning ones, it’s hard to pinpoint the benefits a union could provide employees in exchange for roughly 2.5 hours per month of dues, which amounts to $42.50 going off the $17 per hour mark.
Saleh, in turn, feels it’s possible Starbucks Workers United negotiates or accepts a materially sub-par contract to secure a union shop designation at Starbucks. The result would mean negotiating nominal pay increases, reducing healthcare coverage or tuition reimbursement over the next three years, in an effort to achieve the union shop designation and secure a first contract.
These types of contracts are typically effective for a duration of three years, with only a 30-day window post expiration for union members to vote to decertify the union.
So what happens if this unfolds? Saleh’s view is both Starbucks and its employees lose. “While on the surface this might mean better margins for Starbucks over the next three years, it could also mean that the brand won't attract the best talent, leading to poorer customer service,” he said. “After the expiration of the first contract, [calendar year 2026] the union would then push for more meaningful pay increases and greater contribution for healthcare benefits and education.”
Starbucks Workers United has yet to file a formal list of demands. Employees have been quoted as wanting $20–$25 in hourly pay, better tipping options, and more comprehensive healthcare coverage.
Saleh said there’s no concrete precedent for wages at that level in this arena. McDonald’s is on track to hit $15 by 2024. Chipotle raised its average pay to $15 last June. Starbucks’ current $17 sits atop industry trends already, as do its medical, education, and paid-time off benefits, Saleh said.
“Given the industry-leading pay and benefits package, we believe Starbucks risks tarnishing its brand and losing market share if it cannot find a common ground with unions,” he said. “With that said, we believe the impact will be nominal and short-lived as Starbucks competitors don't operate with a union either.”
Schultz has been busy trying to address the pulsing narrative. In the week since coming back on April 4, taking over in an interim standing for Kevin Johnson, who retired, Schultz held open forums called “collaboration sessions” to gather feedback. Starbucks said it will share actionable changes, stemming from the meetings, on May 3.
But meanwhile, Schultz has been direct. He said the company was trying to progress talks “constructively” with employees, but can’t be “distracted by the different vision being put forward by union organizers at some Starbucks stores.”
He also claimed less than a percent of more than 200,000 Starbucks employees in the U.S. had voted for unionization. And in elections that took place in Starbucks stores, Schultz added, roughly 65 percent of employees chose to abstain.
“Going forward it will be important for all of you to recognize that outside labor unions are attempting to sell a very different view of what Starbucks should be,” he wrote last week, addressing employees. “In stores where any union election occurs, it is important for all partners to have a voice—by voting—because otherwise these important rights may be dictated by what a minority of partners actually support.” Starbucks created a FAQ page as well.
According to More Perfect Union, which has followed every location where workers announced plans to unionize, as well as dates of upcoming votes and election results, more than 20 stores have voted to unionize since the original Buffalo effort. Roughly 200 of Starbucks’ company-owned stores have filed the paperwork to unionize in recent months.
Last week, CNBC reported Schultz was considering offering extended benefits packages to non-union workers.
According to the report, Schultz informed U.S. store leaders he was reviewing Starbucks benefit programs for employees. But workers who voted to unionize at corporate locations would be ineligible. Schultz cited federal labor law and advice from the company’s legal counsel, saying it would be illegal to extend benefits unilaterally with unionized locations in the equation.
Federal labor law requires employers to bargain with the union that represents workers when it comes to changes in compensation, benefits, or other terms of their employment. However, companies can still ask unionized employees if they want additional benefits.
Starbucks Workers United said in March it expected Starbucks to reveal new benefits as the union push gathered steam. One of Schultz’s first decisions as CEO was to stop stock repurchases so “Starbucks could invest more in employees and locations.”
Starbucks Workers United has also accused Starbucks of union-busting activity—the labor board issued a formal complaint against Starbucks in March for retaliating against two Arizona employees, a step it generally takes after finding merit in accusations against employers or unions. Starbucks denied the claims.
According to the Desert News, citing Jacob Lawson, a shift supervisor, Starbucks has put up “anti-union propaganda” in stores throughout Northern Utah and as far north as Boise.
The company’s current share price, in the $80 range, is down about 30 percent from the start of the year.
As of Thursday, it had fallen 12 percent since Schultz’s appointment, which brought the company’s market value down to $92.2 billion, according to CNBC. The S&P 500 dropped 2 percent in the same time period.
A concern for some analysts, CNBC added, is the price tag of pushing back. JPP Morgan analyst John Ivankoe wrote in an April 11 note that “addressable problems in the near-term are probably much more expensive and time consuming to bear results.”
Starbucks delivered record Q1 revenue of $8.1 billion as U.S. same-store sales climbed 18 percent, including a 12 percent increase in transactions.