Starbucks workers opened the holiday season with a major flex. The company union, Starbucks Workers United, staged a Nov. 16 walkout on Starbucks’ promotional Red Cup Day, when the company kicks off the holiday season by giving customers a free limited edition reusable red cup. Red Cup Day was a hit last year, but employees want Starbucks to bargain with the union to turn off mobile ordering on high-volume promotion days, as well as improve lingering staffing and scheduling issues. Online orders apparently flood baristas who are already pushing out drinks at a frantic pace, and employees complain that Starbucks leaders have been unwilling to work with them to resolve issues. They’re banking on company leaders to at least listen to their pocketbooks if not complaints. The union calls the nationwide walkout the “Red Cup Rebellion.”
“'Tis the season for our next unfair labor practice strike,” the union announced on X, formerly Twitter, and it asked customers to support the effort.
“How many times have you worked a shift short-staffed this year?” one union member asked. “How many times has a district manager refused to turn off mobile orders despite abysmal coverage on the floor and a line stretching out the door?”
Another union member claims the company is offering no additional staffing on the promotional days it creates.
The walkout comes amid a series of rulings against the company for anti-union activity since workers began organizing franchise outlets in 2021. Starbucks denies violating labor laws and dismisses claims it is deliberately busting workers' efforts to organize, but the denials are more difficult to defend as decisions against the company mount up. National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) judges determined that Starbucks broke the law in almost all 36 cases before the board as of Oct. 18. Just last month, a judge found a Starbucks manager threatened to withhold travel reimbursement for abortions if workers formed a union, even though that benefit is supposed to extend to all Starbucks workers regardless of union status. Other charges NLRB upheld against Starbucks include deliberately closing unionized stores and withholding raises from organized workers, as well as illegally firing union activists. Judges ordered Starbucks to reinstate at least 33 former employees.
The pandemic kicked off a slew of union complaints in many companies as underpaid, overworked service staff carried the weight of the nation’s recovering economy. Just last month, data confirmed the NLRB saw a rising demand for its services. Cases filed with the agency rose 10% between Oct. 1, 2022 and Sept. 30, 2023, the highest on record since FY 2016. The agency also saw a 3% increase in union formation petitions this year over FY 2022—an uptick that further builds on a remarkable 53% surge of union petitions filed in FY 2022.
Starbucks is appealing these decisions to the greater National Labor Relations board in Washington, which currently contains three Democrats and one Republican. But retired University of Mississippi journalism professor and labor news blogger Joe Atkins said any perceived affability between unions and the NLRB has historically been fleeting.
“The board seems to change every time there’s a change in the administration, and even when it issues these rulings the companies find a way to get around them,” Atkins told BGX. “Corporations know that if they just stretch this thing out, they might soon get a Republican president and they’re off the hook.”
Atkins said the environment for unions is exceptionally friendly now in the shadow of the pandemic, but unionizing has been nearly impossible with the Republican Party hotly anti-union and Democratic Party support being unreliable.
“The Democratic party gives lip service but too often they don’t follow up,” Atkins said. “I was at an AFL-CIO convention in Chicago way back when Obama was a senator, and he gave this rousing pro-union speech, just waving a red banner about how unions are so needed, but then once he became president he had Wall Street in his administration, and right after the recession nobody went to jail. Just recently (President Joe) Biden forced the railway union to accept a contract they didn’t really want.”
However, public appeal may prove more permanent. Polls now show 67 percent of the public support unions, and Atkins said the pandemic made clear that employers don’t care so much if their employees get sick or have sick kids. It also nailed home that hourly wages of about $2.50 plus tips is no way to support a family. Worse, the wealth gap between the 1 percent and the rest of the nation grew far too wide to defend, especially in an economy that is not as great for many Americans as economists claim.
The Gross Domestic Product for the nation may be at a 60-year high, but GDP growth can be fueled by some very obnoxious factors. In 2022, for example, the finance, insurance, real estate, leasing, and rental industry contributed to 20.2% of the value of U.S. GDP: its highest amount. That means GDP got its biggest boost not from manufacturing or sales, but from your property owner raising your rent.
“The public is sick of corporations,” Atkins said. “They’re sick of rising CEO salaries while everybody else is just struggling. So that groundswell is growing, and that’s the reason for my optimism for the future of unions. It’s going to get Democrats’ attention.”