Before Starbucks Baristas Had Unions, They Had Peer Petitions

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Workplace organization The Coworker platform was just one year old when, in 2014, a Starbucks worker launched his groundbreaking campaign: a petition to allow baristas to have visible tattoos at work. Since then, Starbucks employees have grown into one of the largest and most active Coworker networks. Now that many of these workers are channeling that energy into unionizing, the nonprofit is rethinking the role it can play in helping their struggle.

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Long before the recent wave of unionization that swept the country, Starbucks workers used Coworker to voice their grievances and organize better working conditions. Some believe that the coffee company did not live up to its proclaimed progressive values ​​that repel employees in a purposeful pursuit of profit. One longtime ex-employee described Starbucks as a “hustle culture” because baristas with no guaranteed minimum hours often put together shifts from different stores to make ends meet. Coworker’s campaigns have demonstrated the power – and limitations – of issue-based petitions.

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Veteran SEIU organizers Jess Kutch and Michelle Miller launched Coworker in 2013, at the height of the labor movement. Frustrated by the obstacles to joining a union, they wanted to make workplace organization more accessible. “We thought the only way to revitalize the labor movement was to get as many people into it as possible and not get too hung up on whether they joined a formal union or not,” says Miller. “But more importantly, they have a collective advocacy experience to increase the sense of possibility that you can make a difference in your workplace.”

They started with online petitions, a deceptively powerful tool. “Petitions often need to name the decision makers,” Kutsch says. “You write down exactly what you want to change, who can change it, and why it matters.” They also often include strong stories that grab the attention of other employees and the media. Kutsch and Miller saw that online campaigns could shorten distances and unite distant compatriots in a way that offline initiatives could not. And since the petitions could be signed by anyone, they carried the power of public pressure.

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The Coworker campaigns seem to have made a real difference. On a hot August afternoon in Atlanta, the air conditioner at Kristy Williams’ Starbucks broke down. As the heat grew more oppressive by the minute, Williams and her colleague were eager to roll up their long sleeves. But Starbucks had a policy banning visible tattoos, and Williams and her colleagues’ forearms were all tattooed.

Williams became worried when she glanced at the hot espresso machine and saw that her colleague had fainted. So she decided to take action. Returning home in the evening, she went to a colleague.

Her petition is called “Let’s have visible tattoos!!!” collected over 25,000 signatures, including almost 14,000 from Starbucks baristas, in over 40 countries. In October of that year, Starbucks changed its dress code so that baristas could now flaunt their tattoos. Williams was shocked. “It was a crazy moment,” she says. “I really just did it on a whim, thinking, ‘This isn’t going anywhere.'”

The tattoo petition inspired Skechers, Publix and Jimmy John’s to similarly successful efforts. Since then, more Starbucks employees have launched almost a hundred campaigns. Approximately 80,000 baristas have taken action at Coworker and 43,000 are currently active. While many petitions were not granted, Starbucks employees have claimed victory in several notable changes ranging from six-week pay store closure during pandemic to extended paid parental leave to needle boxes in bathrooms.

Starbucks spokesperson Reggie Borges denied that Starbucks based any of its policy changes on employee petitions. He says the company receives feedback from employees through a range of channels, including weekly meetings, surveys, a hotline and a social media platform for managers. “Of course they said they were already considering it, and it had nothing to do with my petition,” Williams says. “But I’m like, ‘Of course.

For Casey Moore, a barista in Buffalo, New York who has been active in both the union and the Coworker program, it’s no surprise that Starbucks employees have made a difference. “They are known for hiring LGBTQ people and people who see themselves as activists outside of work,” she says. “We want to have a say in where we operate, too.”

Even if they don’t result in tangible change, peer petitions can raise awareness. In 2016, Starbucks workers began to notice that their work hours were being cut and their stores were understaffed. The timing couldn’t have been worse; Summer was approaching, and with it an unquenchable thirst for intricate frappuccino drinks. A Californian barista named Jaime Prather wrote a letter to CEO Howard Schultz about this issue and posted a petition on Coworker titled “Starbucks, labor shortage is killing morale.” Coworker conducted a barista survey on its platform and found that labor shortages are a constant experience.

Shortly after the publication of his report, Prather received a phone call from Schultz himself. “It was exciting,” Prater says. He thought, “If the CEO of this company calls me, Mr. Nobody, the action will take place. But that did not happen”. Prather says Schultz kindly listened to his concerns and then transferred him to Cliff Burrows, president of Starbucks Americas. The company paid Prather back for a promotion he should have received, he said, but never fixed the shortage. “It was like calming the messenger and refusing the message.”

The petition remains active on Coworker, where it has garnered 25,000 signatures, 17,000 of which belong to Starbucks employees. The collection of signatures continues to this day. Some workers refer to the lack of staff as motivation for the union.

Borges disputes that Starbucks is understaffing stores and attributes the perceived shortage to seasonal fluctuations, though Prater published his petition long before Starbucks usually lays off staff at the end of the summer. Borges says store managers can turn off various ordering channels, such as mobile ordering, if there is a shortage of staff.

Although Prater’s campaign was unsuccessful, it helped bring additional attention to Coworker and expand the barista network, with more than 10,000 self-identified Starbucks employees signing the petition in less than six weeks. Prater has appeared on news outlets such as CNN and has gained notoriety among Starbucks employees. Through the connections he made, he put together a document outlining key employee concerns and their impact on shareholders, employees, and customers, and delivered it to the corporation. Even though he left the company in 2018, he says he still receives emails about Starbucks almost every week.

After this first series of calls, Prather says, “I never heard from any of the corporate representatives again.” He found the experience enlightening. “The people who supported me were the people from Coworker.”

Prather has found that single-question petitions get you to a certain point—if they get you anywhere at all. It’s a lesson that Moore, a Buffalo barista, took to heart when he helped launch one of the first three Starbucks stores to come together in December. “Instead of fighting personal battles, we want to fight for our union,” she says.

Like most of the 150-plus Starbucks stores that have merged since December, Moore’s store didn’t use Coworker to merge. But they still found it played a role in the face of what she and other workers describe as ruthless anti-union campaign. Starbucks has dismissed union organizers, closed union shop, presumably threatened workers with lost benefits and handed out pay raises, but only shops without unions. Rossanne Williams, vice president of Starbucks North America, has been a regular at Buffalo’s stores for months, Moore said. “It seemed like they had given up running the international coffee company and focused on destroying our union.”

Borges denies the company’s actions were retaliatory and says Starbucks is not destroying unions. He says Williams visited the company to address employee concerns related to the pandemic.

This month, Moore and two of her Starbucks colleagues launched their first petition to Employee. He urges Schultz to stop fighting the unions and sign an agreement on fair elections. principles prepared by Workers United representing Starbucks stores. These principles include non-retaliation, freedom from bribes or threats, and equal time for union leadership and messaging. They are meant to be adjusted, says Moore, “because [US] labor law is terrible. The current law, for example, allows employers to hold mandatory anti-union meetings without admitting organizers to company premises, while bribery, threats and retaliation often carry too light penalties to serve as a deterrent.

According to Moore, the petition serves two purposes: to pressure the company to stop fighting unions, and to reach out to other Starbucks employees around the country, “because some people may not understand why flyers are now hanging in the back of their stores with anti-advertising”. union propaganda.

This is an example of the role a Coworker can play in supporting a unionized workforce. Miller says petitions and polls can serve as barometers for unions. “Coworker remains a place for workers to test things that might not currently be available. [union] contract to see what kind of support there is among their peers.”

And even if some Starbucks employees outgrow the platform, workers in other sectors rely on it more than ever. In response to tech workers starting to band together in 2018, Coworker has expanded its offerings to suit their needs. This includes Know Your Rights trainings and the media, as well as Solidarity Fund, a mutual aid fund for workers in the technology industry and its supply chain. He also launched bossware database last year, tracking the growth of surveillance technology at work.

Of course, many Starbucks locations have yet to unionize, and where this has happened, this is far from the first collective bargaining agreement. The workers will need all the tools at their disposal for the upcoming battles. Dozens of petitions remain online on Coworker, some of which were added last year. Shortly before the petition for fair elections was raised, another barista posted his own union-themed poster. He titled it:The Starbucks board must get its head out of the sand and treat union organizers with respect.

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