Do unions at Starbucks mean the labour movement is picking up steam?

With seven years of experience as a barista, Sarah Broad knows how to make all kinds of coffee. 

Now the Starbucks worker also knows what it feels like to be a union member and the face of a growing campaign by the United Steel Workers (USW) to unionize Starbucks stores in Canada.

“I never realized how passionate I would feel about the labour movement,” said Broad in an interview from her basement apartment in Victoria, B.C.

Broad, a shift supervisor at a Victoria location, helped organize her store in August 2020, the only one in Canada at the time. She’s one of a number of service industry and retail workers in North America joining the labour movement since the start of the pandemic. 

The surge in interest has some labour leaders and experts wondering if this moment could mark a turning point for unions who have seen declining numbers in the sector for years. 

In addition to efforts to unionize Amazon warehouses, in the U.S there are efforts to bring unions into Apple stores and Trader Joe’s. In Canada there’s been a successful campaign to organize a handful of Indigo locations and a PetSmart store

A recent poll in the U.S. showed 68 per cent of Americans approved of labour unions, the highest number since 1965.

“I think this could be a watershed movement for Canadian and U.S. unions,” said Nicole Denier, an assistant professor at the University of Alberta in Edmonton who studies unions. 

“We’ll see over the next year whether or not the momentum will continue to build.” 

WATCH | Workers trying to unionize hundreds of Starbucks stores:

Unionizing efforts come to Starbucks, food service workers

Starbucks is the latest major food service company to see unionizing efforts spread across Canada recently.

Baristas battle iconic brand   

Starbucks is facing a wave of union drives.

An online tracker and map based on numbers from the U.S. National Labour Relations Board (NLRB) shows about 300 Starbucks shops in the U.S have filed to unionize in just six months,  including the flagship roastery in the company’s hometown of Seattle.  According to the tracker, run by a non-profit media organization that focuses on labour stories, more than half have been certified.

In Surrey, B.C., a second Canadian Starbucks just unionized and a half dozen stores in Alberta are trying to do the same, including five in Lethbridge

Broad says health and safety issues related to the pandemic, abusive customers and the high cost of living In Victoria made her and her coworkers seek union representation to make their working conditions better and improve their wages.

While the process was “a little intimidating,” she said that getting workers onboard in her store didn’t take long because most were “super gung-ho.” 

It took a little over a month to get the store’s union certified under B.C. law, but took almost a year to negotiate a collective agreement with Starbucks Canada. 

For USW it will be expensive to organize and support many small locations one at a time compared to organizing large factories, lumber mills or offices. But the small bargaining units are not the only challenge in organizing the service and retail sectors.

“The major issue is turnover in employees. It’s a younger, transient workforce,” said Mike Duhra, a USW representative for Western Canada.   

Another factor, says Duhra, is that unions are so rare in the sector that some workers just aren’t familiar with them or don’t recognize how they can help. 

Mike Duhra, a USW representative for Western Canada, says companies like Starbucks are hard to organize because of employee turnover is high and there are many locations, but the union is looking to expand in sectors like food service and retail. (James Dunne/CBC)

Starbucks pushback

Another factor is Starbucks’s opposition to unions. Acclaimed past CEO Howard Schultz recently returned to the company’s helm, and he’s been vocal about his opposition to unions for years. 

Company executives have visited stores to discourage workers from unionizing in the U.S., and workers claim one location was shut down earlier this month because it recently unionized.

Starbucks announced company-wide enhanced benefits and wage increases in May, but they’re not being offered to workers in unionized stores in the U.S. or Canada.   

A spokesperson for Starbucks Canada told CBC News the company believes it is better without a union, but it continues to “respect our partners’ right to organize.” 

In addition, wage increases are not being offered to the unionized location in Victoria because it has “its own collective agreement, including its own unique wage increase schedule.” 

Broad believes the unionized stores aren’t getting a raise because “they’re just trying to make us look bad and retaliate against us for unionizing.”

Economic conditions primed for union growth

Mikal Skuterud, an economist at the University of Waterloo, says the current tight labour market and high inflation both favour union growth.

“Unionization rates are procyclical,” says Skuterud, “so when the economy goes into a boom, unionization rates tend to go up.” 

According to the NLRB, applications to start unions in U.S. workplaces are up 57 per cent this year compared to the first six months of 2021. 

Equivalent data about union organizing in Canada is not available but Bea Bruske, the president of the Canadian Labour Congress said “we are seeing growing momentum in Canada towards unionization, especially amongst young workers.” 

While there’s movement at big companies, young workers also organized unions at a video game maker and a liquor store.

Workers from an Indigo location in Mississauga, Ont., rally in September 2020 before their successful vote to join the United Food and Commercial Workers. (UFCW Local 106A)

Even so, Skuterud says unions in the private sector in Canada could desperately use a boost. 

“Unionization rates, particularly in the private sector, are the lowest they’ve ever been.” 

USW’s Duhra says unions are indeed looking to move into new sectors for growth. 

“We have to find new members … and this is a perfect industry where people need a union,” he said, adding that workers at Starbucks came to USW for help.

Will the momentum last?

Lawyer and professor Kenneth Thornicroft from the University of Victoria is skeptical that Starbucks will become a highly unionized company.   

“Unless a union is able to get pretty deep penetration across the store network,” he said, Starbucks “can just wait them out,” and as members get tired of paying dues, stores will decertify.

Thornicroft points out that’s exactly how it played out when a handful of BC stores unionized in the 1990’s.

He believes unions might have a better opportunity for growth in the banking and financial services sector than in food service.

But Denier thinks the retail and food sectors are ripe for unionization because both industries have long been under-unionized. 

In her view, workers aren’t just committed to getting better wages “but to having a voice in the workplace.”

She adds that workers are also focused on making companies that market themselves as progressive accountable for their public image.

For her part, the new union activist Sarah Broad is eagerly serving up advice and support to  potential barista brothers and sisters trying to organize other stores.

“I’m so excited that they’re wanting to join and it’s going to be challenging,” she said, “but it’s so worth it.”

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