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A Possible Breakthrough for Starbucks Workers United?

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In the wake of Hot Union Summer and the UAW strike, it’s definitely been a very busy and unusually positive period for the American labor movement. In all of the hullabaloo, however, the Starbucks Workers United drive which began in 2022 has somewhat fallen below the radar. This is for the mostly understandable reason that, while the drive has seen a respectable number of successful elections (360+ stores out of 8,900 owned by the parent company), Howard Shultz’s decision to fully embrace the anti-union playbook has meant that SWU has been stuck in the familiar limbo of having won elections and fought many strikes but with no collective bargaining agreement. It’s rather difficult to fight that kind of union-busting-by-attrition strategy, because it’s challenging to keep yourself visible when nothing is happening.

According to both SWU and Starbucks, this state of affairs may have just changed. SWU and Starbucks had been involved in litigation over Starbucks attempting to union-bust by offering credit-card tipping to workers in non-union shops while denying it to workers in unionized shops, and more recently, over SWU’s logo (which resembles but is obviously distinct from that of the corporate entity) and SWU’s social media posts about the war in Gaza, which apparently Starbucks saw as damaging their reputation. (If that’s what prompted management’s change of heart, I am deeply amused. Truly an ill wind.)

That being said, I think this agreement should be understood as something a bit more complicated than a complete victory. As Starbucks’ statement notes, this is a “foundational framework designed to achieve both collective bargaining agreements for represented stores and partners.” In other words, management are engaging in damage limitation by ceding the 360+ stores they’ve already lost at, while being much more vague about “a fair process for workers to organize” in the other 8,500-odd stores where there hasn’t yet been a union election. It remains to be seen how much of an opening this will grant organizers at those stores.

Nothing should take away from the momentous nature of this win, however. Getting a commitment to bargain in good faith and settle contracts by the end of the year, and whatever that might mean for getting management to be at least neutral on recognition at the 8,500 other stores, is huge in translating SWU’s grassroots energy into an enduring union presence in the company and the industry. As Erik and I take every opportunity to remind our students: most auto workers did not join the UAW until after the Flint sit-down strike was won, because they were rightfully worried about getting blacklisted if the strike failed as previous strikes had done. What made Flint so important was that workers saw that you could join the union and not lose your job – so they felt free to join and did in their hundreds of thousands.

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