The national wave of Starbucks unionizations hit Texas last week, throwing corporate CEO’s into a panic. Employees at two Starbucks branches in Dallas announced their intent to unionize on Twitter, with workers claiming it’s time to remind the corporation that it was “built by and for people.” They argue that it was difficult to work while watching employees’ mental and physical health deteriorate “as demands rise and support plummets.”
For years, company leaders coaxed employees to think of themselves as “partners” rather than employees, but the “partners” say the partnership should come with more staff and resources to meet Starbucks’ burgeoning string of customers.
“We want to have the dignity of being able to meet our basic living expenses and know that we will have the staff and tools to do our jobs well,” the partners wrote. “And when we do not have these things, we want to be able to solve these things with supportive management that has the means to do so.”
Developments in Texas come as little surprise after company unionization efforts proved successful in union-hostile Mississippi. On March 3rd, nine employees of the Starbucks in Oxford, Mississippi sent their own letter to the CEO expressing their intent to unionize. They claim their store’s inconsistent scheduling, poor leadership, and bigoted treatment of employees led to their decision. The leader of their movement, employee Haley Morgan, stated in an interview with Mississippi Today that recent union successes at other businesses inspired her to follow suit. She referred, more specifically, to the success of her former University of Mississippi classmate, Jaz Brisack, in unionizing the Starbucks in Buffalo, New York.
Historically, many of the laborers forming unions have been trade workers, but recently, there have been a rising number of unions in consumer-oriented, high-turnover positions. This change comes in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic raising the value of labor. The shifting dynamic encouraged unionizing in some very unlikely places; if a union can catch a foothold in the hardpan gravel of anti-labor Mississippi, it can take root anywhere.
There are real barriers to unionizing in Mississippi, with the Bureau of Labor Statistics reporting that just 5.5% of employed Mississippians were members of unions in 2021.
“There’s labor activity, but it’s really tough in this region because the political and industrial leadership fight it tooth and nail,” said University of Mississippi professor and labor activist, Joe Atkins. “Workers really don’t have rights to speak of. They can be fired at any time, for practically no reason. Their wages are always comparatively lower than anywhere else in the country.”
Unions have been shown to benefit workers. Statistics sourced from the Economic Policy Institute reveal that union workers within the U.S make 11.2% more in wages than their nonunionized peers. In addition, they have much higher access to health benefits and sick days. Despite this, only 1 in 9 U.S. workers were covered by a union contract in 2019, even though 48% of nonunion workers say they would vote for a union if given the opportunity.
“I don’t know that southern workers are anti-union, it’s just that there’s no tradition of it because of the staunch opposition to (union) existence over the decades,” said Atkins. “Once they’re made aware of it, you can see (workers) attempting to organize even in the face of great odds.”
Corporate leaders at Starbucks are openly hostile to a union presence in their company, with a leaked video revealing Starbucks billionaire CEO Howard Schultz urged managers to ramp up a union-busting effort.
In the video, Schultz referred to pro-union employees as “so-called workers,” despite their legitimate employment with the company. He also described them as an “outside force” working hard to “disrupt our company,” and claimed—without evidence—that pro-union forces had bullied the vote. Starbucks North America president Rossann Williams also appears in the video, warning managers that discouraging unions was their “number one responsibility.”
Corporate hostility linked with the kind of traditionally anti-worker legislature that comes of a former slave state should make unionization in Mississippi impossible. And yet, it happened, and the victory speaks well for unionization attempts in less extreme environments.
Atkins said the union effort in the South is a crucial area for the labor movement. He added that young leaders like Haley Morgan and Jaz Brisack are needed to inject new passion and direction into it: “I have great hope for younger people taking up that banner. You’re gonna see some more energy and more militance, and we’re seeing that at Starbucks, at the Amazon in Long Island. We’re seeing some signs of hope out there, and that is what we need now more than ever.”