Hot Union Summer

A Q&A with the Maple Street Starbucks union organizers

On June 4, the Starbucks at 7700 Maple St. in New Orleans voted 11 to 1 to unionize their store, with two contested ballots, becoming the first Starbucks in Louisiana to join a union. Since a Starbucks in Buffalo, N.Y., became the first U.S. Starbucks to unionize in December 2021, to date over 150 stores have voted to unionize, including stores across the Deep and Gulf South.

In the middle of the union drive, lead organizer Billie Nyx was fired by Starbucks for closing their store early, a move Nyx says smacks of union-busting. In the heat of union fever, Starbucks has come out forcefully against the movement. This retaliation has included announcing a plan to increase benefits and wages in stores that do not have union drives or unions, threatening that employees will lose access to gender-affirming health care if they negotiate benefits through a union, firing employees who are organizing their coworkers, closing a newly unionized store, and cutting hours. There are currently several active National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) complaints against Starbucks, including one filed by the agency’s regional director in Buffalo that alleges over 200 violations of the National Labor Relations Act, and one filed by Nyx in order to win their job back as a now-unionized employee.

According to a report by the Joint Economic Committee of Congress and the House Committee on Education and Labor, union members make on average 10.2% more than their non-union counterparts (and this number is higher for Black and Latinx workers), are more likely to have health insurance provided by their employer, have a greater amount of health care costs paid by their employer, and have greater control over their work schedules.

The process for forming a union across most industries is the same—workers interested in forming a union talk with one another to gauge interest in unionizing. They decide whether to form an independent union or to join an existing one, and then they sign union cards signifying their interest. In many cases, at least 30% of workers must be in support of the union to be eligible to file for an election with the NLRB. The NLRB oversees official union elections and is supposed to protect workers against employer interference. If the workers win their union, then legally the employer must begin a contract negotiating process with their employees “in good faith,” to create a collective bargaining agreement. This is the stage the Maple Street team is in as of press time.

Leading up to, during, and after the union victory, I spoke to several of the Maple Street organizers about what it was like to unionize a Starbucks in New Orleans. Caitlyn Pierce, Nick (who preferred that only his first name be used), Adam Miller, and Billie Nyx have all been working on the union drive and spoke with me for this piece. Richard Bensinger, one of the union organizers from Buffalo who has been working with Starbucks organizers across the country, also joined the call.

Could y’all talk a little bit about where the organizing drive started? When did things get going? When did the idea start becoming more serious?

Caitlyn Pierce: For me, it originated with Billie looking into the process. But then Mardi Gras happened, and we were so slammed, and we were going to Starbucks [corporate] saying, “Hey, this is what’s going on. Can you please help us, we need support, we need direction,” and we were not getting that direction or any support from corporate. And that inspired us to be the support we needed, because we realized that we weren’t going to be getting it from our higher-ups. It was going to have to come from within the store itself.

Adam Miller: Yeah, I think also around that time they started cutting hours, right after Mardi Gras.

CP: Mardi Gras we were super slammed, but they also started cutting our hours. We were operating on even more of a skeleton crew. And we were nearly doubling our profits. It was insane, and working with half staff.

AM: There were certain partners that have been there for a while, saying we’ve been making more money and… were the busiest that we ever were. And yet we couldn’t get adequate staffing.

CP: And one of the things that irritated me the most was the lies about, “Oh, five people, that’s like a full amount to run a play.” Whereas it’s like five is the minimum, seven is well-staffed. The projections that they get are from our numbers last year. You know, people were still mostly in the house due to COVID [in 2021]. And whenever somebody talks to our district manager, [we’d say,] “Hey, these are numbers from COVID. They’re lower than they should be.” Our district manager was like, “Yeah, our numbers this year are gonna be higher, and that’ll be for next year, then you can get good staffing!” And it’s like, “Dude, that doesn’t help us!” And I think it just shows how bad that system is. It’s just solely off of past year’s projections.

Billie Nyx: Yeah, instead of just listening to the partners in the moment… My main motivation [to unionize] is getting paid fairly, because $15 an hour, it sounds good. But in comparison to the amount of work that we’re doing… We’re breaking our backs for this company and we’re getting $15 an hour for shift lead, and a couple of years ago they announced to the public, “Oh, we made our base pay $15 an hour now,” but that’s not true. The base pay is $12.94! They’re lying to the public to make it seem like they’re a fair company.

CP: From what I understand, I’m not making $12.94 [an hour], I’m making $12 an hour. I mean, you take taxes out of that. I think I’ve calculated that I take home $10.28 an hour every paycheck, and that’s not enough to keep up with rising inflation and also just to have a decent standard of living.

What’s it like working at Starbucks day-to-day and what are the challenges? Obviously there’s COVID risk, because you’re in customer service. And we all know living in New Orleans that service industry jobs are hard on your body. Talk a little bit more about what that’s like.

Nick: I’ve encountered people who seem to be under the impression it’s just, “Oh, you just sling coffee and you just pull a lever and coffee comes out,” but that’s not really true. You might be doing the job, even with proper staff, of two different people or three different people. You might be doing everything ranging from manning the register, dealing with customers and resolving complaints, then you might also be restocking things. Of course making drinks can itself be a very strenuous piece… You might have to then go rotate on to the ovens, then you’re bringing food back and forth, and then you might have to do some other weird task. If you’re somebody with a car: “Go pick up the materials we’re missing from this other location and come back.” Or you might do some other kind of little mystery job. So as a barista just on a normal day, you rotate through doing completely unrelated things.

CP: I remember DJ [another shift lead] calculated around for Mardi Gras, but he ran numbers and each individual person was doing the labor of 1.75 people. But we were being paid as one person!

AM: It’s weird, I’m used to being able to do like two or three positions and that’s just supposed to be normal.

BN: A lot of times the shift leader… is the one that’s doing the customer support position and also maybe doing the warming as well… It’s not something that’s easy to switch from: “I’ll put this down, and I’ll help the customer.” It is really stressful. I read a thing where your brain takes time to switch between tasks. And that’s what we’re doing, we’re constantly switching between tasks, because we don’t have enough staff to have a person on a planted position. Starbucks all over the country ha[ve] issues; I feel like our district is especially bad. Because even on the other side of the state, we don’t have staffing issues. It’s just ridiculous the amount of work that we’re doing. I’ll go in there in the closing shift, now that I’m a customer, and [there’s workers doing] work of three different people.

CP: And I mean, we’re just talking about physical labor here. We haven’t even mentioned the emotional labor that comes with Starbucks customer connections. Not only are we supposed to be doing all the tasks, we’re also supposed to be having deep, meaningful conversations with every single person who walks in the door. And if they walk in the door more than twice, we’re expected to know their name, have some idea of what their order is going to be, start making it ahead of time. You’re supposed to remember what’s going on in their personal lives, and ask about that. There are regulars that I do genuinely care about doing that [with], but the fact that it is part of my job takes away from the genuine experience.

That’s part of the guidelines from Starbucks?

N: I can talk about this because I mostly work register. And the corporate standards for dealing with customers are completely absurd. You’re supposed to know their name, their order, personal details—to some extent it’s doable, there are some genuine regulars… But sometimes it’s peak, and you have a line out the door. And if something goes wrong with a customer’s order, in their guidelines, assume it’s your fault and apologize. And basically bend heaven and Earth to fix it. No matter how much it impacts the work experience of the baristas or the wait times of the other customers. You’re expected to make these connections when, at best, people have limited time. They just want to get in, get out with their coffee, and you don’t have time… And then because part of their branding image that it’s friendly, it’s service-oriented… the customer gets incensed [if you can’t answer their questions], which then comes back to you because then you’re not maintaining standards. There’s been times where we’ve been reprimanded for not engaging with customers… How do you expect them to, when they’re focused on making the product? …How do you expect them to make four different drinks, have small talk with three people—because that’s also the expectation. How do you expect this to happen?

How does Starbucks enforce the connecting guidelines?

CP: Mainly through “coaching.” I have been “coached” several times post our union campaign by the manager for not greeting customers when they walk in the door. You can’t tell right now, but I am 4’11”. I cannot physically see over the bar. Also, I have my head down making drinks. The expected thing is to have these personal conversations with customers who simply should not be able to come in anymore. The most we can do with a problem customer is called an incident report. The New Orleans district has become a little notorious for not dealing with incident reports properly or at all.

So I know you’ve said in the past that these initial conversations [about unionizing] with other workers went positively. Can you talk about that? And can you talk about the response from corporate and the district?

BN: Well when it comes to those initial conversations, there wasn’t really anyone who I spoke to who wasn’t supportive.There were a couple of people that I wasn’t able to talk to because I wanted to have these conversations in person… As for corporate, we didn’t hear anything from corporate for a little while. Then this person none of us had ever met started coming in on a weekly basis, then that started happening more frequently, and they started putting up these anti-union fliers in the back area, and taking down our fliers.

Let’s talk about when Starbucks Workers United got involved. How did y’all decide which union to join?

BN: I was only aware of Starbucks Workers United. They got involved the day after I card-checked. I sent them an email and they took over from there when it came to the legal stuff. They got involved and filed for the election for us.

Can you talk through what filing an election process looks like, and how that went?

BN: For the NLRB, you have to have at least 30% support for the union before you file. I spoke to an NLRB agent… but that’s when Starbucks Workers United stepped in.

Tell us about what the role of Starbucks Workers United had in the union drive.

Richard Bensinger: It started with partners in Buffalo creating Starbucks Workers United and assisting partners around the country to get organized. They’ve been getting on Zoom calls, training other partners. At first we were just 50 people on the organizing committee in Buffalo, but now there’s close to 2,000 people on the organizing committees around the United States.

And can you talk about the support that SB United is able to give to stores that are trying to unionize?

RB: I think the biggest support is with social media… Those partners amplify any problem anybody’s having. If somebody is fired they can raise money very quickly. Legal help, but I think the main thing is experience in the union campaign.

BN: The biggest thing for me is the legal help. It’s an incredible weight lifted off my shoulders knowing that I don’t have to deal with doing all the paperwork. Our lawyer Manuel is incredible.

CP: The education they provided… like “This is the anti-union campaign they’re doing behind the scenes,” has been really helpful for talking to other partners. Before this, I was not up on labor law, I didn’t know anything about it. To go to these meetings and have people to educate me on the union has been super helpful.

BN: We didn’t see the type of union-busting that Buffalo did, but I was prepared to encounter anything that they threw at us, because Richard really told me about how they’re using the same strategies all over the country.

And can you all talk about what changes for the workers when you do have a union?

BN: So I actually don’t know because we haven’t started negotiating. There are things that we want to push for. The Starbucks union even in Buffalo is relatively new and they’re still facing pushback from [Starbucks CEO] Howard Schultz. He is saying that he doesn’t want to bargain with Starbucks Workers United, which is incredibly illegal. Howard is sticking his foot in his mouth with everything he’s saying. It’s so easy, he could have just retired from Starbucks with billions of dollars, and still had a good public image.

CP: I think that what he’s most afraid of is: A union provides checks and balances against corporate. It gives us the power to say, “We think that’s wrong! We need you to change this or we need to negotiate it.” It forces them to have a conversation about workers’ rights, and they don’t want that because it diminishes the amount that they can exploit the laborer.

BN: Especially if you’re coming together with the union saying, “If you don’t bargain with us, or if you don’t give us what we want, then we’ll just stop working. We’ll strike, and you’ll lose all of your profits.” What they care about is their profits. They don’t really care about the employees. It’s all about the money.

CP: With the union, we can bypass a lot of the managerial positions because in reality our store managers can’t do a whole lot… Having a union takes us more directly to corporate, to actually fix the problems.

N: Yeah. To corporate, we are not really workers… There’s no difference between a barista and a machine. We’re considered interchangeable or parts to be replaced as necessary to make their bottom line as strong as possible. And it’s blatantly immoral.

Can you talk about how a union contract might give workers more job security?

BN: So one of the things is just like a basic contract negotiation thing. So all of the Starbucks stores that are unionized are pushing for the same things; but also, every store has a unique situation. But there are these basic things that everyone is looking for, like the “just cause” clause, which ensures that employees can’t be fired without having just cause. If someone is fired and the union deems it to be suspicious, they have the power to investigate and take action if necessary.

Can you talk about how the community in New Orleans reacted to the union drive after y’all went public beyond your coworkers?

BN: It’s the most incredible thing I’ve ever seen. We had people from all over the city, and all these different labor organizations, come to support us. And even our regular customers were like, “This is really cool. I’m happy that you’re fighting for your rights, because you deserve better than what you’re getting.” These are people that we connect with on a daily basis that see the work that we’re doing… The labor community in New Orleans is incredible.

Billie Nyx (photo by jesse lu baum)

Billie, can you talk a little bit about your firing and where you’re at right now with the NLRB complaint?

BN: Essentially, what happened was I closed our store early because we were very understaffed, and we were very busy because it was Jazz Fest and finals week. So we had two large streams of customers coming in. And so I made the decision, which I thought was within my right as shift lead, to close early. I knew people in the district who had done it before with no repercussions, so I absolutely did not expect to be fired over this. And they didn’t say anything to me really, besides one conversation. Coming out of that meeting, I felt pretty secure with my job. And then two and a half weeks later, they come in and they fire me with no warning. And as far as my complaint with the National Labor Board, it’s moving slowly but surely. Right now we’re trying to get statements from other folks in the district that have encountered the same situation of having to close the store early. But of course, no one else has been fired for it in the district. And as far as that goes, it’s really all I know. The lawyers are handling that situation.

I know you’d mentioned that people from other Starbucks, Amazon, and other workplaces were coming in during the sip-ins and other times, talking to the Maple Street workers. Can y’all talk a little bit about that?

BN: Yeah, I’ve actually worked with quite a few people in different industries. Mainly with the DSA [Democratic Socialists of America], I’ve met a lot of Amazon workers. And, of course, the hospitality community in this city is very strong for labor rights. When we had the BBQ, we had partners coming in from Hammond, from Metairie, all different places, with questions to learn more about the movement. Really, nobody knows what they’re getting into, until they get into it. Being able to be that person that teaches people about the Starbucks union movement, and guiding folks to unionize their own stores—because I don’t have direct relationships with partners in other groups, and that’s what it really takes to organize. It’s been really awesome connecting with partners, building the union community in our stores.

CP: Some of the biggest support that we’ve gotten, in terms of people coming in the store, is people from the local teachers union saying, “We love what you’re doing, keep doing it. Because it is going to be so worth it.” …Also, I think the way that our store is set up, you’re all very much involved together. Everyone is there to support each other. And I think one of the most tragic things about the corporate union-busting is the way that they have been incentivizing a high turnover rate behind the scenes. At least in our district, turnover at Freret and Canal have been much higher than they were in the past, and really, across the nation, because Starbucks even two years ago was super proud of its low turnover rate. And that’s simply not true anymore.

BN: It’s a strategy that they started after Buffalo won their union campaign. They started cutting hours across the nation, because they want partners to be burned out. Because if you’re constantly having a stream of workers coming in and out of the store, it’s hard to build that union community. Because you have to take the time to figure out if they’re supportive. You have to inform people and build those relationships.

CP: It keeps people from caring about the union. Being able to unionize requires some form of personal investment in our co-workers and their wellbeing.

I’m curious if there’s any particular reason why you think there has been such momentum with Starbucks unionizing all around the country, going from 100 stores one week to two weeks later, over 130. And why this particular chain has been the one [150 today, says Richard, in the chat] to go from zero, a year ago, in this country. If y’all could talk about what factors you think are boosting this particular chain, as opposed to Wendy’s, you know?

CP: Well we talked about customer connections and connectivity. That was something that was very encouraged before unionization. The word partner is meant to build community. In every store I’ve worked at for a few months, there have been people I’m very close to, and I think that bonding really helps with the organizing front.

N: I think their kind of branding and corporate image are working against them here. You talk about a place like Wendy’s, as bleak as it is to say, Wendy’s doesn’t really pretend to care about you at all, they kind of just go, “Yeah, you work here. Shut up. We’ll pay you minimum wage. We don’t care.” Starbucks, on the other hand, positions itself with this corporate progressivism that they use to entice people. People want to go to the place that they think is more ethical and more sustainable. But then people come to work here and realize it’s not really that true at the end of the day. Sure, they might do a couple things that combat bigotry here and there or they do this thing where they have slightly better benefits than the other guy, but the reality is you get here, and it stops glittering… When you have this base of workers who have been enticed by that and been led astray, recognizing what’s really wrong with their situation at a higher rate… wanting to do something about it at a higher rate, then have the kind of semi-family like atmosphere that binds them together, you have the customer connection that binds them together further, it creates this perfect storm of people realizing: “Wait a minute, we can do something about this!” And I think that’s why Starbucks in particular has faced this. They shot themselves in the foot, by pretending to care. And when people realize it’s just pretend, then they go, “No no no. We’re gonna make it genuine. Whether you want to or not.”

BN: I want to thank Howard Schultz for being so vocally anti-union, because every single letter or press statement that he has released has been so heavily anti-union it has only pushed people farther into the arms of the union. Because here’s this guy who essentially claims to be the god of Starbucks, putting his foot in his mouth and being absolutely awful to his employees that are unionizing. Obviously the union is incredible and I want it to keep spreading, but it really wouldn’t have the legs that it has if Howard Schultz weren’t screwing it up for himself.

How did it feel to win that election?

CP: I was there when we tallied, when we finally won, and it was a surreal feeling, and so satisfying to see all the hard work we’d put in, and all the anxiety that we’d been feeling, to have something really great happen.

BN: In the city of New Orleans, if you come together, you have the power to change things. Every single movement in the past—women’s suffrage, civil rights, any movement like that—it was, at its core, a labor movement and a union movement. It’s people coming together to speak up and fight for what they deserve. It’s really incredible to see that happening in real time at Starbucks.

Nick, were you there when the votes were tallied?

N: No, I was not. I heard about it in our group text… And I heard about it while I was away from work, then I went to the store later that day, just to hear about it in person. It’s a really exciting feeling, but it’s also a little bittersweet because, on the one hand, this is an accomplishment, but… You know, we get media requests, and we get community outreach and support and people treat this as this momentous thing. But I wish we lived in a society where it wasn’t like that. I wish we lived in a society where this was treated as a normal thing that everybody does, that it’s just a part of your life as a worker, where everybody’s in a union and it’s seen as just a part of our economy and society. You read about the labor movement and it used to be a lot more common and once again, I kind of wish we lived in an America where this was just a normal thing that wasn’t newsworthy at all… But it gives me hope also that people care, you know, and that people see it can be done. And I hope one day it’s gone everywhere, in every store, in every company all across America.

If you think a union could be right for you, you can call the local NLRB to check if your workplace is eligible. The New Orleans office is located at 600 South Maestri Place, 7th Floor, New Orleans, LA 70130-3413 and may be reached by phone at (504) 589-6362.

Top and bottom photos courtesy of @sbworkersmaplestreet

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