Starbucks employees at one Buffalo store voted in favor of unionizing, becoming the first to do so among the chain's more than 8,000 U.S. corporate locations.
The measure passed by a 19-8 vote. The employees are supported by Workers United, an affiliate of Service Employees International Union.
Three locations petitioned to vote in August. A second store declined by a 12-8 margin and a third unit voted 15-9 in favor of a union, but seven ballots were challenged, so a definitive ruling couldn't be reached.
Backers of the Starbucks Workers United group are hoping for more of a voice in organization policies, rights on the job, health and safety conditions, protections from unfair firings or unfair discipline, seniority rights, leaves of absence rights, and benefits and wages.
"Starbucks is the leader in the coffee industry, and one of the most successful and companies in the world," the group wrote on its website. "We want to share in that success, and we want to have a voice in determining what that looks like for us. We think there is a disconnect between corporate and us. The company says that partners come first, but all too often puts large shareholders above all else."
Throughout the process, Starbucks leadership pushed back, citing all 19 stores in the Buffalo market should vote on the matter as a region, instead of by individual locations. The chain filed to impound votes already counted and stop the process entirely, but the National Labor Relations Board rejected the request unanimously.
The Wall Street Journal reported that while labor organizers led a grassroots campaign with yard signs and pins, Starbucks executives met with employees and sent texts to vote "no" to unionization. In the past few months, the Starbucks Workers United group accused the brand of several "union busting," efforts, including sending a host of managers and executives to monitor stores, anti-union messaging through texts and emails, and padding the vote with 30 more employees from other locations.
The company denied these allegations, and CEO Kevin Johnson said the brand has already worked toward improving pay and benefits. In late October, the chain announced that it will raise its minimum wage to $15 per hour by next summer and that average pay for all U.S. hourly workers will rise to nearly $17 per hour, with rates ranging from $15 to $23.
However, Starbucks Workers United believe more is warranted, and so does Sen. Bernie Sanders, who has been vocal about his support.
"You know what, if Starbucks can find the money to pay their CEO nearly $15 MILLION in compensation, I think that MAAAAAYBE they can afford to pay their workers a decent wage with decent benefits! Not a radical idea!" The congressman said in a tweet.
In 2020, only 1.2 percent of workers at food services and drinking places were unionized, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, making it one of the least organized industries in the nation. However, with the historic Starbucks vote, that could change. Three more Buffalo stores petitioned to hold a vote, and so did one restaurant in Mesa, Arizona.
Outside of the coffee giant, Wisconsin-based Colectivo Coffee voted to unionize with roughly 440 employees, making it the largest unionized coffee chain in the country. Previously, Buffalo-based Spot Coffee was the biggest with around 130 members. Also, Burgerville and the Burgerville Workers Union agreed to the U.S.'s first fast-food labor contract after three years of negotiations.