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Why one Starbucks worker in Buffalo supports the drive to form its 1st union in the country

Richard Bensinger, left, who is advising unionization efforts, along with baristas Casey Moore, right, Brian Murray, second from left, and Jaz Brisack, second from right, discuss their efforts to unionize three Buffalo-area stores, inside the movements headquarters on Thursday, Oct. 28, 2021 in Buffalo, N.Y. (Carolyn Thompson/AP)
Richard Bensinger, left, who is advising unionization efforts, along with baristas Casey Moore, right, Brian Murray, second from left, and Jaz Brisack, second from right, discuss their efforts to unionize three Buffalo-area stores, inside the movements headquarters on Thursday, Oct. 28, 2021 in Buffalo, N.Y. (Carolyn Thompson/AP)

Starbucks workers from three stores in the Buffalo, New York, area may soon form a union.

More than 80 baristas and shift supervisors will turn in their ballots by Wednesday to determine whether their stores will join Workers United, affiliated with the Service Employees International Union. The votes are set to be counted Thursday afternoon.

If successful, it would mark Starbucks’ first union in the country.

Starbucks has a reputation for being a fairly good company to work for. But the way the company launches new drinks like the pumpkin spice latte speaks to what Starbucks needs to revamp, says Gianna Reeve, a shift supervisor at the Camp Road Starbucks in Hamburg, New York.

The company needs to take a new perspective on big launches that draw crowds of customers to its stores, she says.

Starbucks has changed the business model from being a cafe focused on personalization and knowing the customers to “suddenly needing to pump out as many pumpkin spice lattes as possible,” she says.

Forming a union can sometimes be fraught, and reports say that this effort is no exception. Reeve says she’s among a group of Starbucks workers who the company texted and encouraged to vote against unionizing.

Last week, Reeve says she received text messages daily saying things like that voting yes will destroy the relationship between Starbucks and its partners — what the company calls its employees.

Starbucks says it wants to listen to its partners and foster camaraderie between upper management and baristas — but the company doesn’t hear its employees out during so-called listening sessions, Reeve says.

“They say that they want us to have all the facts,” she says. “But if we attempt to get the facts from a source that isn’t Starbucks, suddenly the game changes.”

If her store votes to unionize, Reeve hopes to see the support from the community continue. Even after unionizing, the workers will need to “fight to get Starbucks to the table for our contract,” she says.

Reeve wants to see better seniority pay and paid leave in the contract.

“There has been a partner at my store that has worked there for 17 years and she is in the same position as me and she makes a little over $1 more than me,” Reeves says. “It makes my jaw drop every time I think about it.”

Workers get paid sick time, but Reeves says that she only has four hours of paid vacation time after more than a year and a half at the company.

Reeves believes that country will have its first unionized Starbucks on Thursday, though she expects a close vote for her store.

Three additional locations in Buffalo have filed petitions, she says, and many people have come to their union office and asked how to start the drive.

“Those people need the help too, and they need to see that this is something they can do,” she says. “And having a good contract, having the best contract that we can possibly get, is just doing that tenfold.”

Upon request for comment, Starbucks directed Here & Now to an open letter CEO Kevin Johnson wrote to employees.

“We respect the process that is underway and, independent of any outcome in these elections, we will continue to stay true to our mission and values,” he writes.


Jeannette Jones produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Peter O’Dowd. Allison Hagan adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.