Students attempt to unionize local Starbucks

A picture of the Tech Square Starbucks location. Starbucks employees across the country are increasingly pushing for unionization at their local stores, despite push back from the corporation at large. // Photo by Dani Sisson Student Publications

In recent decades, union membership has been subject to a sharp decline; in a report outlined by the International Labor Organization, 20.1% of the workforce is affiliated with a union, whereas in 2020, membership was down to 10.8%.

While regulation and expansion of unions is often regarded by most as an intangible federal issue unlikely to affect the majority of people, it is, even today, visible and prevalent in the Tech and greater Atlanta community.  Morgan Biagioni, fourth-year ME, is part of a movement of Starbucks workers hoping to gain traction for their local unionization efforts in order to access better pay and resources.

Page Smith, a shift manager who handles order placement and day-to-day operations under the store manager at the Howell Mill store in Atlanta, is spearheading the movement. The primary motivation behind the unionization push is the workers’ shared rhetoric of being undervalued, underpaid and overworked. 

Starbucks employees cite empty promises of raising wages to $15 every hour by the Starbucks administration, despite having been active “front-line” workers throughout the ongoing pandemic. Without the actualization of wage increases, workers argue, many have struggled to navigate daily life in a period of growing financial uncertainty and instability as a result of rising inflation throughout the country. 

The supply-chain shortages related to the pandemic have also resulted in stores being undersupplied with necessary items to serve customers; many workers feel that they have to act as intermediaries for angry and sometimes violent customers, despite having no control over national shipment and supply delays. 

The Howell Mill store’s workers are organizing on a local level, meaning that their unionization efforts will not result in policy change and unionization for all Starbucks stores across the nation. However, there is a growing movement amongst Starbucks workers across the nation pushing for unionization. In December of 2021, a Starbucks in Buffalo, NY caused a national ripple effect by becoming the first store to unionize, laying the ground work for other stores, such as the Howell Mill location, to follow suit. 

The Howell Mill Starbucks holds the distinction of being the first to take the necessary steps for unionization in the Atlanta region, but the sentiment surrounding necessary change in the workplace is spreading quickly throughout the country. 

The Twitter profile @SBWorkersUnited has updated information regarding Starbucks unionization efforts from stores across the nation and serves as a foundational networking tool in raising awareness and providing accurate information regarding current policies being challenged by workers.

Biagioni, alongside other partners at the Howell Mill store, crafted a letter of intent to unionize addressed to Kevin Johnson, the current President and CEO of Starbucks. In the letter, workers outlined their five goals for bettering working conditions at the store by creating a culture where workers feel safe, growing the company through open dialogue, ensuring that workers’ concerns will be heard and adequately compensating workers for their contributions.

Addressing her support for unionization, Biagioni emphasized, “I personally enjoy working at Starbucks. I love my coworkers and there are many aspects of the work that I enjoy, especially having a fast-paced environment. It’s for that reason that I personally support the union efforts, because I feel that Starbucks is an environment that has the capacity for improvement — improvement that arguably only a union can secure. It’s why I, and, while I can’t speak for everyone, I assume many others at our store are open to unionization as opposed to quitting or finding a different job entirely. We see potential for positive growth and would like to recognize that potential at our store.” While Starbucks has not yet taken an official stand on the Howell Mill store’s intention to unionize, they have previously expressed their belief that unions are unnecessary, as well as potentially detrimental, to their model, citing a desire instead to communicate directly with employees. 

In a statement, Starbucks stated that, “While Starbucks respects the free choice of our partners, we firmly believe that our work environment, coupled with our outstanding compensation and benefits, make unions unnecessary at Starbucks. We respect our partners’ right to organize, but believe that they would not find it necessary given our pro-partner environment.” 

With the movement ongoing, and Starbucks and its workers seemingly at odds with one another’s positions, only time will tell whether Howell Mill will see a union come to fruition.