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Starbucks workers’ union effort picks up steam in Seattle

Efforts to unionize some Starbucks stores are gaining momentum right here in the coffee behemoth's back yard. Employees at two more Starbucks stores in Seattle announced this week that they plan to unionize. Both are downtown, a drive-thru location on Westlake, and a store at 5th and Pike.

A store on Capitol Hill announced similar plans last month. That followed a groundbreaking union victory in Buffalo, New York. Seattle Times business reporter Heidi Groover is covering the efforts. KUOW’s Kim Malcolm asked her what's driving Starbucks employees in Seattle to organize now.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

Heidi Groover: The themes across the country and here in Seattle are similar. You hear workers talk about pressure to keep up a certain pace of fulfilling orders even when they don't feel like they have the staffing to address that, wanting more of a say in Covid protocols, and wanting better benefits for times when they need to isolate because of potential Covid exposure.

There's also a broader baseline interest that they have. The company calls them partners. They want an arrangement where they feel more in partnership with the company. They feel like being able to bargain as part of a union would allow that, and would allow them to improve their working conditions.

Kim Malcolm: What is the company saying about their position?

They continue to argue that they don't think their employees need a union, that they prefer what they call direct communication with their partners. They say they'll respect their workers' rights under federal law, but that they don't think a union is right for Starbucks.

They say that the minimum wage for their employees is at least $15 an hour, with many employees making more than that. They offer health insurance, and they're working to address issues like understaffing by offering referral bonuses and other ways of trying to address the issues that the employees have brought up.

I understand Councilmember Kshama Sawant is getting involved.

That's right. She has a resolution in support of the workers, in which she also condemns “union-busting.” The company has denied any union-busting or intimidation. Sawant called on Starbucks to accept their attempt to unionize using a card check, which is a simpler process than forcing a union election.

You've reported that this unionization effort here in Seattle is particularly significant. How so?

I think people will be watching closely because of the hometown symbolism. They say that there's still room for improvement here. They feel like if they can show that they can do it here, that other workers may be emboldened and other cities across the country as well.

Where do you think this could be heading?

It’s certainly spreading. There are around 30 Starbucks stores where the workers are trying to unionize. It is worth keeping in context that Starbucks has around 9000 company-owned stores, so it is still a relatively limited effort. It's a pretty hard industry to organize because there's a lot of turnover.

But I think the people involved here see this as part of a broader effort to empower workers who once were considered unskilled and now have become essential during the pandemic. It’s a way of giving them more of a say in what happens at their workplace.

Listen to the interview by clicking the play button above.