Many Starbucks workers fear that they will be retaliated against after unionizing at record speed

What can the new generation of workers learn from unionization? Starbucks, Amazon and other unionized stores are launching their own protests to protest protests

Starbucks workers are busy this fall, and not just with making pumpkin spice lattes. Starbucks store workers are expected to sit down for the first time for collective bargaining in this month’s event, and others will vote in union elections as well.

So far, NLRB regional offices around the country have issued 35 formal complaints against Starbucks, citing the company for coercing, threatening and firing employees over their union activities and withholding wage increases and benefits from unionizing stores.

Reggie Borges explained that the company respected their partners’ right to organize, but felt the best future was created by partners and not a third party.

In May of this year, Starbucks announced raises and benefits for its employees, which were shown to be the point.

Unlike many cafes and dine-out restaurants, Starbucks do not allow customers to add tips, which is why baristas want tipping to be at the forefront of their demands.

“We don’t have the same freedom to make improvements at locations that have a union or where labor organizing is underway,” he said in his shareholder presentation.

In back rooms of the stores, the company has posted flyers about the new benefits. What should be good news for workers has muddied the union’s messaging and its efforts to expand to more stores. It’s led new workers at unionized stores to question the point of a union.

“They kind of get a little angry because they’re like, ‘Well, how come we’re not getting these benefits?'” says Gailyn Berg, who works at a unionized Starbucks in Falls Church, Va.

So what can the larger unions learn from the tactics that cracked open Starbucks, Amazon and others? What can the new generation of activists learn from the old guard about sustaining a movement? I’m calledAudieCORNISH. This is the assignment. The strikes of the last few months are causing us to ignore them. There were 15,000 nurses that left hospitals in Minnesota. Just the threat of rail workers striking drew the attention of President Biden in December. But the Amazon warehouse in Staten Island, the Trader Joe’s in Hadley, Massachusetts, the Starbucks in Buffalo and Memphis, all these shops organized themselves with workers who were in many cases very new to labor activism.

Berg has backed away from the idea of unionizing them all. They welcomed the attitude earlier in the year. But they haven’t abandoned the fight.

“We’re scared. We’re terrified,” says Jasmine Leli, a barista and union leader in Buffalo, N.Y. “We just want to go to work like everybody else and do our jobs and not have to worry [about] when the other shoe is going to drop.”

The company was ordered by a federal judge in Tennessee to rehir seven workers. Starbucks said it disagreed with the judge’s ruling, maintaining that those fired had violated company policies.

The Challenge of the State and the Organization of Labor Relations: How Howard Shultz and Laxman Narasimhan Approached the Pledge of Freedom

“The penalties for breaking the National Labor Relations Act are quite weak, and that’s a huge problem because it doesn’t really serve as a deterrent,” says Rebecca Givan, associate professor of labor studies at Rutgers University. Employers decide that break the law is worth it, because the consequences are not very severe.

“They don’t seem to really care about us at all,” Berg says. Howard Shultz seems to be busy just doing his thing while not acknowledging the fact that many of us that really believed in him lost our faith.

Schultz seems satisfied with all this progress and is preparing to exit the company once again. Starbucks announced that his successor Laxman Narasimhan, who officially joined the company Oct. 1, will take over as CEO next spring.

Starbucks’ revenue rose in the third quarter of this year, exceeding expectations. The growing number of Starbucks rewards members continues to inspire customer loyalty. In August, the company projected net new U.S. stores to grow 3% to 4% annually over the next few years.

“We’ve been planning for months,” says Leli, who sits on the committee and has worked to gather input from thousands of employees around the country. “We want to make sure people feel heard and seen.”

The Great Renegotiation, Labor Relations, and the Unions: The Case for Labor Rights Wages in the 2021 to 2022 Era

During the pandemic, you probably heard a lot about the great resignation when millions of people quit their jobs. I was one of them. Well, after economists got another look at the job data, many were calling that period say 2021 to 2022. There is something else called The Great Renegotiation. People quit their jobs for new ones. The job market made many want more from their employers and they were less likely to tolerate poor working conditions and abuse. So it’s no surprise that the number of workers strikes and work stoppages jumped.

A few factors help explain that rise. There is a 60-year high in public support for unions. And Starbucks played an outsized role in driving up that number. The union triumphed in four of every five elections it participated in, and accounted for 25% of all union elections this year.

Other notable union campaigns this year involved graduate students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, health care workers at Kaiser Permanente and elsewhere, and auto workers at Ultium Cells, a GM-owned electric vehicle battery cell plant in Warren, Ohio.

It’s very difficult to get a collective bargaining contract to negotiate pay raises or other changes for unionized workers.

The process hasn’t even begun at the Staten Island warehouse, as the win by the Amazon Labor Union is still being challenged.


What is big labor to you? How many of us are affiliated with a big union? What’s happening in the last few years?

Wages increased 5.1% this year. With far more openings than available workers, wages grew even faster at some of the lowest-paying jobs. Adjusting for inflation, overall wages declined, and many workers felt that they were losing ground.

Rail workers get a 7 percent raise in 2022, along with cash bonuses every year, after lengthy talks with the freight railroads.

Food service employees at San Francisco International Airport won a 30% wage increase after striking for three days in September. They’ll see wages rise from about $17 an hour to $22 an hour by 2024. Health insurance, retirement, and a one-time bonus were included in the deal.

About 10% of U.S. workers belong to a union, but a significant number of Americans approve of them, according to Gallup. That’s a level of support not seen since 1965.

And we’re fueled by a new generation of workers who, raised in the era of low union participation, weren’t so eager to latch on to traditional, big labor.

They were like, Hey, you’re struggling. I am aware that you are struggling. Let me help you. And the workers were just like, Hold on, wait a minute. You do not know anything about me. I don’t need the assistance of you. I can do it on my own.

The only people who were allowed to unionize were blue collar workers. I didn’t think baristas could unionize a fast food chain. Period.

I want you to hear the truth. But, you know, we are a national network of coalitions that work with community groups, faith organizations, unions, worker centers, but definitely to advance the ability of everyday people to organize and collectively bargain. All of this is in the spirit of a healthy democracy.

The rights for people who have a full time job is what they are fighting for. Shop to shop activists are not affiliated with any big union. They’re probably trying to unionize. What is big labor to you? What does that mean?

Yeah. I mean, every there’s always, like, some truth in every stereotype. It’s not this beautiful utopian thing that I don’t want to pretend is. But what I will say is that those of us who’ve who study movements for a long time understand that there’s a a symbiotic relationship between a movement and institutions, and it’s often full of tension. The victories of the movement that was before these institutions were implemented. A new movement is trying to figure out how to organize at work and how to do so without violating the protections gained in 1935. And so I think we’ll see either institutions evolve to meet the need and and there will be new institutions that come out of it, but that the movement demand is still fairly broad and unified. It’ll always be messy.

Pop culture has not forgiven the latter. Right. The idea that organized labor is corrupt and there is some history of it was a theme in a few of the films made by Scorsese.

We are going to get into a mess over the course of this. That’s what the show is about. But so one of the kind of ongoing, I think, media narratives around this is that these kind of rank and file groups that establish union drives or at least push or petition for certain rights in the workplace have wielded the sort of modern levers of technology in organizing in ways that have been innovative. Staten Island was the site of the Amazon Labor union election, where enough union cards were approved for election to two warehouses. Basically, they relied on workers. There weren’t professional organizers. They used a GoFund Me instead of dues. And, you know, they were spreading the word the way we spread the word about anything, you know, these days online and social networking. Did that feel like a different moment? The writing is around. It was labor organizers here and their activists being quoted saying, oh, we needed to pay attention because they did something we haven’t been able to do against a company that professional organizers had not been able to make inroads against. Why was it then that it became a turning point?

What will you say when you say that you’re at work? Reach out to your union and tell them what you’ve learned in the past

When you say that I am at work, what are the standard rules? Work is not working for me. We need some help. And you reach out to a big union. They will say what they have to say. What will be the suggestions?

One way to make your job site better is to ask who else is with you and encourage your employee to speak to other people. I think there’s a misconception that the first step is to reach out to a union. Oftentimes, they actually know intuitively to just start talking to their own coworkers. And sometimes that’s where they get in trouble and that’s when they will reach out to an institution to help them understand their rights. If the direction that workers go is towards a union staff person, then they will support that committee and try and talk to other people. They can help map the shop floor and know who else is with them and who is not with them, who are the leaders within the workplace that other people listen to, and how to bring them all along. Those are the best campaigns because they really incentivize worker to worker organizing. I think about that on the flip side.

In the worst case scenario, those agreements are made between a company with no worker involvement and an existing union or staff, or through a merger, which means there is only a discussion between a set of officers or staff. The danger is that the actual needs of the people in that place wouldn’t get addressed in that kind of agreement.

I think some of the biggest obstacles are protecting the needs and expanding the standards to ensure that they’re still the same, even though the resources and power of the institutions may not be as strong as before. So, like, you know, if I were a union president, I want to make sure that the next contract I negotiate, if it doesn’t improve on wages and benefits and at least doesn’t roll them back, given the downward pressure that’s happening in nonunion segments of that industry. I think the other thing and again, as a Southerner and as a black person is really thinking about where union membership is the lowest. And we’re looking at, you know, the south and the southwest, where the majority of black and migrant people still live, according to the last census. It is one of the most militant bases of the labor movement to have this idea of investing in states with high political risk. If you look traditionally about who has first stood in line to stick their necks out, to try to organize and win equality and when dignity. And so there’s a there’s a tension of how to, like, support that, invest in it. The organizing that would happen, say, in Bessemer, is very different than the organizing that happens in Staten Island. How to support that and accept that risk need to be figured out.

I would like to ask about one more area of tension. Is there a progressive Gen Z kind of approach to what they want out of work? Tensions can be created in this environment if that comes into play. We’ve had a labor movement that traditionally has been like, yes, worker conditions, but also wages, benefits, etc. And then you have a new generation that’s asking about diversity and inclusion, etc.. Do those things come into tension? Does that create a dynamic that is exploitable for corporations who are fighting unions?

There are what kinds of tensions caused by this. I remember being involved in a union where the younger person would demand something, and the other person would say that we really couldn’t solve the problem right now. You know, like, we’re not going to solve racism in this negotiation. We’re just trying to claw back our cost of living increase.

Visceral. Yeah. You’re describing like every household. There’s this debate. There are people who are against it. We tried it in 1968. You know, I mean, there’s always a generational gap. Some people are older than others, but they’re the new generation that is taking to the street, and that’s interesting. I will put it that way, regardless of whether they’re old or young. The new generation on the street are the ones winning. And that’s saying something to those who have been naysayers historically. I think that’s the do your earlier question, the magic of this moment and why as anxiety producing as it can be for a lot of us is why it feels like we’re on the on the upsurge on a win.


A Conversation with Erica Smiley: Nabretta Hardin: A Barista from Memphis, Tennessee, who was unfairly fired

That’s Erica Smiley, executive director of Jobs with Justice. We had her join us from New Jersey. Nabretta Hardin is a Starbucks Workers United barista from Memphis, Tennessee.

Nabretta Harden is a student and barista. Even though you don’t know her name, you know about her work. She helped unionize her Starbucks in Memphis. She and her coworkers were dubbed the Memphis Seven. So, Nevada Harden, you’re only 23. I did not know that. You are a leader of the Starbucks Workers United Union and a member of the Memphis Seven, a collective of workers who were unfairly fired. Starbucks was ordered to hire you back by a federal judge. How weird has it been being back at work?

Really weird. There was a high turnover rate and I was a little worried. Since I left. I had been out of the country for almost nine months. After I came back, it was a different group of people, and I have to get to know them all over again. I felt a little awkward when I first saw it.


What do you guys hear about like the Buffalo things? How do you know if I’m a full time student? A conversation with a worker

She came to me one day and was just like, Hey, you hear about like the Buffalo things? Of course, me not knowing — full time student — I’m like, No, I don’t know anything about that. What is that about? She explained to me that they were just trying to do a lot of things that we are already thinking that our workers need. This person can benefit from this. And it’s hard to believe that these are things they are working for. Like, what do you think our store do that? And I was happy about it. I think for sure my store is a huge family. I talk to him all the time. We text each other. We talk in a mass group chat for hours every day. I was sure that it’s doable. We have so many connections and relationship with these workers. I don’t think it’ll be very hard at all to convince them that this is something that could help them out in the long run.

The Starbucks campaign is different from the other ones because of the workers. We’re the organizers. We are the ones who are doing the work. We do everything from start to finish. So everything that you see us doing, it’s 100% the workers. It’s not the union organization doing it, it’s the workers. They trusted me and they knew that I was a worker and I don’t think they had a big issue. I was fired after working there for a year. They were aware that they could trust me. They knew I had their backs and they in turn had my back. So they I believe they trusted me a lot on that.


Why does she look at you? Why is she an external versus an internal leader: why she doesn’t like to look at me? How I feel about her

Nabretta, this is Erica Smiley. She’s the executive director of Jobs with Justice and a longtime organizer and movement leader. The reason why Erica is looking at you with stars in her eyes is because we’ve been talking about the pros and cons versus being an internal versus an external organizer.


Growing Pains in Starbucks Workers United: What Nabretta Has Learned and How I Managed to Get What I’m Up to

Look, let me just say, Nabretta is doing the real the real work. And when we’re talking about small, right, Like what Nabretta is defining is nimble, right. So when unions and institutions are at their best because Workers United is an existing union that is supporting the formation of Starbucks Workers United, right. And what she’s describing is a nimbleness where they’ve made a decision, where they are investing in new organizing and not just in existing contracts, and then at their best, again, making sure that the organizers are workers, that there’s not a false divide between leaders and organizers or workers and staff, and that is unions at their best. And that is a labor movement at its best. But the thing that I feel like is important here when we say small, right, is that there’s a small to get big, right? Starbucks workers will become a union if Nebraska succeeds around the country. Do they have to have a giant staff? That’s debatable, right? I don’t necessarily think they do. Nabretta’s argument claimed that they don’t necessarily need a huge staff that does all kinds of things. That is a decision that the workers will make at that point. There are lots of Starbucks workers in the country. It’s still very big.

Let’s talk growing pains, because I think Nabretta Hardin, you’ve you’ve obviously gone through one of them, which is at least according to a federal judge, retaliation from the company right in on unlawful firing.

When you first joined this work, what were the other things you were starting to deal with? Because there is a chance thatErica’s may have advice.

Yeah. I’m sure Nabretta had some moments where she was like, “What have I gotten myself into?” And in those moments, what are the things that trigger that thought?

I was fired when that happened. I was not sure, kind of. What did I get myself into? I have never been fired from a job before. I have always been one of the best workers in whatever company I work in. And that’s just like, come from my family values. My family is hard workers. They work multiple jobs. So when that happened, I was just like, What did I get myself into? Like, I’ve I’ve messed up my record. Like, this is going to go on my job thing. Like, this is this is going to, like, ruin me. But also I had to think about I wasn’t just doing this for myself. I was doing it for someone else. I like struggles in that aspect.

Yeah, And like, just with my personal life, I have given a lot of my time and effort to the union campaign. When I first started this, I thought I would have a decent balance. I thought, Oh, I can like organize my store and like, do it kind of like locally, and that would be it. And I could still go to school and into work, not me knowing that it would blow up as big as it had nationally. And now I’m being called in to help with the national campaign instead of just like local in Memphis.

I’m going to kill you. I could learn something from you but you could be describing the same conversations that I had around the table. There’s value in work and working, and I think there’s a dominant narrative that makes it look like people who are out here demanding more fighting for the unions that they don’t like to work. There’s a lot of comments about your generation not liking to work, not wanting to work, but there’s so much value in work and I feel like that gets missed in a lot of these conversations. I appreciate the way you lifted that up. One of the other things and this may or may not come as advice, but maybe just reflections on what you said is part of what you’re describing is the amount of work it takes to fight, to have dignity in work and to be respected, both, you know, in terms of compensation as well as the literal respect that you get on the on the job. And it takes a lot of time. There is a lot of a divide as younger people who are moving out have more time to dedicate to this type of work, while older people who have active children in their house or take care of relatives have less time to devote to it. And so it’s one of those things where it’s critical for our movement to be patient with those who might be slower to act, because losing their job means that their kids don’t eat for months at a time.

No, I think you’re totally right. There is a way to accommodate everybody and where you are in your life is difficult to organize. I mean, I experience that a lot, not just even locally, but nationally. People’s family, their health, things happening with friends, and things happening in their life as a whole. It affects how we organize and how they organize and see if they want the union to just pull back and not be involved at all. It’s definitely a big juggle to try to keep people engaged and active. Yeah.

And this is why we define like workers as whole people when we talk about organizing. You’re not just a worker, right? You have something to live for. You might be a Presbyterian, maybe you play soccer. I don’t know, you have so many identities, we want you to have dignified lives. As you know, I have said in our conversation that the purpose of organizing the purpose of movements isn’t just to win a particular issue or a right. It’s to win long term dignity, sustainability and the ability to engage in decision making for all aspects of your life forever. This may be exciting or frightening, but like being a part of a movement is a lifetime commitment.


The Assignment – Closing in on the O.C.D.E. Tonight at 9:00 PM ET/m/c.M.

This episode is over for The Assignment. You can listen to and follow any new episodes that come out on Thursdays. If you like the show, please leave a rating and review.

One more thing. If you have a story you want to send us, you can either contact us by leaving us a voice memo on your phone or sending us an e-mail.

The assignment is a production of CNN Audio. Our producers are Madeleine Thompson, Jennifer Lai and Lori Galaretta. Our associate producers are Isoke Samuel, Allison Park and Sonia Htoon. Our senior producers are Haley Thomas and Matt Martinez. Rina Palta is the editor. Mixing and sound design by David Schulman. Dan is the technical director. We have an executive producer. And special thanks to Katie Hinman. I’m Audie Cornish. You listened and I want to thank you.

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