Do unions at Starbucks mean the labor movement is growing?

With seven years of experience as a barista, Sarah Broad knows how to make all kinds of coffee.

Now the Starbucks worker also knows what it’s like to be a union member and the face of a growing United Steel Workers (USW) campaign to unionize Starbucks stores in Canada.

“I never realized how passionate I would be about the labor movement,” Broad said in an interview from her basement apartment in Victoria, British Columbia.

Broad, a shift manager at a store in Victoria, helped organize his store in August 2020, the only one in Canada at the time. She is one of many service industry and retail workers across North America who have joined the labor movement since the pandemic began.

The renewed interest has led some union leaders and pundits to wonder if this moment could mark a turning point for unions that have seen their numbers in the sector dwindle for years.

In addition to the efforts of syndicate Amazon warehouses, in the United States, there are efforts bringing unions into apple stores and Trader Joe’s. In Canada, there was a successful campaign to organize a handful of Indigo slots and a PetSmart store.

A recent survey in the United States showed that 68% of Americans approved of unionsthe highest number since 1965.

“I think this could be a game-changing move for unions in Canada and the United States,” said Nicole Denier, an assistant professor at the University of Alberta in Edmonton who studies unions.

“We will see over the next year whether or not the momentum will continue to build.”

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A online tracker and map based on US National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) figures, approximately 300 Starbucks stores in the US applied to unionize in just six months, including the flagship roaster in Seattle, the company’s hometown. According to the tracker, run by a nonprofit media organization that focuses on work stories, more than half have been certified.

In Surrey, British Columbia, a second Canadian Starbucks just unionized and half a dozen stores in Alberta are trying to do the same, including five in Lethbridge.

Broad says pandemic-related health and safety concerns, abusive customers and the high cost of living in Victoria have led her and her co-workers to seek union representation to improve their working conditions and workplaces. wages.

Although the process is “a little daunting”, she said integrating workers into her store didn’t take long as most were “super enthusiastic”.

It took just over a month for the store’s union to be certified under BC law, but it took nearly a year to negotiate a collective agreement with Starbucks Canada.

For the USW, it will be expensive to organize and support many small sites one at a time compared to organizing large factories, sawmills or offices. But small trading units are not the only challenge in organizing the service and retail sectors.

“The main problem is staff turnover. It’s a younger, transient workforce,” said Mike Duhra, a Steelworker representative for Western Canada.

Another factor, Duhra says, is that unions are so rare in the sector that some workers simply don’t know about them or how they can help.

Mike Duhra, a United Steelworkers representative for Western Canada, says companies like Starbucks are hard to organize because of high employee turnover and there are many locations, but the union is looking to grow in sectors such as restaurants and retail. (James Dunne/CBC)

Starbucks Rejection

Another factor is Starbucks’ opposition to unions. Howard Schultz, acclaimed former CEO recently returned to the head of the companyand he was vocal on his opposition unions for years.

business leaders visited stores to discourage workers from unionizing in the United States, and the workers claim a location was shut down earlier this month because it recently unionized.

Starbucks announced enhanced benefits and company-wide salary increases in May, but they are not offered to workers in unionized stores in the United States or Canada.

A spokesperson for Starbucks Canada told CBC News the company believes it’s better without a union, but continues to “respect our partners’ right to organize.”

In addition, no wage increases are offered at the unionized Victoria location because it has “its own collective agreement, including its own unique schedule of wage increases.”

Broad thinks unionized stores don’t get a raise because “they’re just trying to make us look bad and get back at us for unionizing.”

Economic conditions conducive to union growth

Mikal Skuterud, an economist at the University of Waterloo, says the current tight labor market and high inflation are both helping unions grow.

“Unionization rates are procyclical,” says Skuterud, “so when the economy comes into a boom, unionization rates tend to go up.”

According to the NLRB, requests to form unions in American workplaces have increased by 57% this year compared to the first six months of 2021.

Equivalent data on union organizing in Canada is not available, but Bea Bruske, president of the Canadian Labor Congress, said, “We are seeing growing momentum in Canada towards unionization, especially among young workers.”

Although there is movement in big companies, young workers have also organized unions in a video game maker and one liquor store.

Workers at an Indigo site in Mississauga, Ontario rallied in September 2020 before voting to join the United Food and Commercial Workers. (UFCW Local 106A)

Even so, Skuterud says private sector unions in Canada could desperately need a boost.

“Organization rates, particularly in the private sector, are the lowest they have ever been.”

Duhra, from the USW, says unions are indeed looking to move into new growth areas.

“We need to find new members…and this is a perfect industry where people need a union,” he said, adding that Starbucks workers have come to the USW for help. .

Will the momentum last?

Lawyer and University of Victoria professor Kenneth Thornicroft doubts Starbucks will become a heavily unionized company.

“Unless a union is able to get deep enough penetration into the store network,” he said, Starbucks “can just wait for them,” and as members get tired of pay dues, stores will withdraw their certification.

Thornicroft points out that’s exactly how it happened when a handful of BC stores unionized in the 1990s.

He thinks unions might have a better opportunity for growth in the banking and financial services sector than in the restaurant sector.

But Denier thinks the retail and food sectors are ripe for unionization because both industries have long been under-unionized.

In his view, workers are not just determined to get better wages “but to have a voice in the workplace.”

She adds that workers are also working to hold companies that present themselves as progressive accountable to their public image.

For her part, new union activist Sarah Broad is quick to advise and support would-be barista siblings trying to organize other stores.

“I’m so excited that they want to join us and it’s going to be tough,” she said, “but it’s definitely worth it.”

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