For Queer Starbucks Workers, Pride Month Is Strike Month

For Queer Starbucks Workers, Pride Month Is Strike Month

For Queer Starbucks Workers, Pride Month Is Strike Month

LGBTQ employees say that things are getting worse and worse at Starbucks—and they’ve had enough.

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Neha Cremin works at the Starbucks blocks from Oklahoma City’s historic gay district. She joined the company because of its trans health care policy and says that all but one of her coworkers identify as members of the LGBTQ community. In the past, the store has displayed a trans pride flag—something that Cremin says helped spur customers to come out to her as trans and tell her that they “were going out of their way to come by [the] store…because they felt accepted and welcome.”

But after the store was remodeled at the end of last year, Cremin says, the regional manager made them take the trans flag down and later prohibited decorating the store for Pride, claiming that it was necessary to keep different stores across the region appearing consistent with one another. And the Oklahoma City branch is far from alone: over the past few weeks, hundreds of Starbucks workers from across the country have reportedly been prohibited from putting up Pride decorations in their stores.

The union filed an unfair labor practices charge about the Pride decorations with the National Labor Relations Board on June 7. Starbucks refutes that it changed its corporate policy in response to Pride, and on Monday, it fired back, filing its own unfair labor practice charge with the NLRB and alleging that the union’s “unlawful campaign” has included making “recklessly false statements about Starbucks’ longstanding support of Pride month and decorations in its stores.”

But employees from across the country told The Nation the same thing: that Starbucks has become a more difficult workplace for queer people, and that they are tired of what they describe as a relentlessly aggressive anti-union campaign. So this Pride Month, they decided to take action.

On June 23, over 3,000 workers, at more than 150 stores, began a staggered weeklong strike, in part as a protest against the apparent censorship of Pride. The workers are affiliated with Starbucks Workers United (SBWU), the union that has organized hundreds of branches across the country. SBWU told us that this is the largest mass action in its history and that any change to decorations policy should have been discussed with the union, instead of being implemented unilaterally.

In a statement e-mailed to The Nation, a Starbucks representative initially wrote that Starbucks had not removed Pride merchandise from its stores or changed its policies around celebrating Pride. (“That kind of feels like gaslighting,” Cremin, who has worked at Starbucks for four years, told The Nation in response. “We know it’s happening.”) The company then clarified that “merchandise” is separate from “decorations.”

When asked to elaborate on its decorations policy, Starbucks said it leaves it up to store managers and employees to decide how they want to support Pride and appeared to acknowledge that decorations had been taken down at some stores. When asked whether they investigated the claims by workers regarding Pride decorations, a spokesperson said that where Starbucks had learned of any issues, it had worked with store staff members to resolve them.

Bailey Fulton, who’s worked at various Starbucks locations for nearly two decades, said that he’s “never seen anything official on decorations.… It’s just been this unofficial thing as far as I have understood. So they have nothing to lean on, policy-wise.” (Starbucks told reporters earlier this week that it intended to issue “clearer centralized guidelines” about decorations in the future.)

Multiple workers told The Nation that bans had been imposed by store, regional, or district managers. In Buffalo, Sarah Moore said they were told by their manager that they couldn’t hang up any decorations until a staff meeting was held; the manager never followed up, and Moore was given “no further explanation” for the ban. Other workers were given a variety of often flimsy excuses.

“We’ve been facing issues with the company for a while now,” Cremin continued. “Union-busting, refusal to negotiate a contract, not being scheduled for enough hours to qualify for benefits—all of this has been building up. Even if the [ban on Pride decorations] was something small, it felt like the straw that breaks the camel’s back.”

For Silvia Baldwin, a trans employee who started working at Starbucks around a year ago, the strike is a key way for the union to force the company to “liv[e] up to the values that it purports to have.” Baldwin, who works at a Starbucks store in Philadelphia that is temporarily closed and who was involved in planning this week’s strike action, took a job at Starbucks in the hope that it would offer her stability and access to gender-affirming care. Starbucks has long positioned itself as a welcoming workplace for trans people, touting its good health care coverage and commitment to the queer community.

Another increasingly heated point of contention centers around health care for trans employees. According to Cremin, changes to the way the company handles trans health care have resulted in more of the cost burden of gender-affirming care being placed on employees. Although trans workers have been reporting paying more, said Cremin, “there’s been no official statement from the company on these changes.” Baldwin echoed this claim and said that, given her understanding of the changes, it didn’t make sense for her to opt in to the plan from a cost perspective.

On Thursday, Starbucks Workers United asked Starbucks “for clarification about reported changes to their much-advertised transgender health supplemental benefits” in a letter signed by over 300 unionized employees addressed to the company. In the same Twitter thread announcing the letter, the union also wrote that since October 2022, workers have been reporting paying more out-of-pocket for their gender-affirming care.

In response, Starbucks sent a letter to the union. In the letter, which has been seen by The Nation, the company writes, “Starbucks reiterates it has not made any change to the same-sex and gender-affirming care benefits provided to partners, or other terms and conditions of employment offered to store partners in any certified store that would trigger a decisional or effects bargaining obligation.”

However, during an e-mail exchange with the Starbucks press team, the company did say that many of its insurance carriers expanded their gender-affirming care coverage to comply with a law passed in Washington State in 2021, a change that went into effect in October 2022. The company did not respond to a more pointed question about how this change may have impacted the cost shouldered by employees.

The letter comes three days after Starbucks filed an additional unfair labor practices charge regarding gender-affirming care, alleging that the union “has knowingly and falsely stated that Starbucks eliminated or changed the benefits coverage for its LGBTQIA2+ partners.”

A desire to improve the workplace for queer employees was a major reason Cremin’s store voted to unionize a year ago, she said. “We weren’t getting enough hours to qualify for benefits. For trans workers, that was stressful, because they are dependent on gender-affirming care.… What are they supposed to do?”

The union hopes to remedy this by securing a contract with Starbucks. Accessible, comprehensive health care for trans people is one of the union’s national contract demands, as is an antidiscrimination clause. The issue of trans health care has also reportedly been used as a cudgel to dissuade Starbucks workers from unionizing. Last year, Starbucks employees filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), alleging that the company attempted to dissuade workers from unionizing by threatening that they would lose their trans-inclusive health care benefits if they did so. (The NLRB has yet to rule on the complaint.) An article by In These Times detailed the experience of one worker in Kansas whose manager reportedly used loss of health care as a scare tactic to prevent her from joining the union. (Starbucks denied using these tactics.)

Additionally, since 1998, Starbucks has offered partners the chance to get monetary help for “significant financial hardship due to catastrophic circumstances beyond their control” through the Caring Unites Partners (CUP) Fund. However, documents reviewed by The Nation show that many things, like medical expenses, are not eligible for CUP Fund support, and that partners “must currently be in good standing with Starbucks” to receive any help—a vague parameter determined by that partner’s manager. Multiple workers—including Ericka Edmonds, a queer worker at the Seattle Roastery who recently had to break their lease after their partner’s injury left the pair unable to afford rent—said that partners had sometimes been denied CUP funds despite seemingly meeting the requirements. (Starbucks was unable to respond to these claims in time for this article’s publication.)

SBWU’s push for inclusive health care and Pride strike comes at a time when trans and LGBTQ people are experiencing an unprecedented attack from the far right. “It’s a concern that [customers] may be hostile to [baristas], and we’re asking the company to actually, materially show that they have our back and that we’re not just PR props,” said Baldwin. Requiring that the decorations be taken down does the opposite, she added.

During their store’s unionization process, Cremin said, their district manager held a meeting in which he told workers, “I’m a liberal. I’m a gay man. I understand. I’m part of your community, and you don’t need a union.”

“The veneer of progressive, LGBTQ acceptance that Starbucks puts on,” Cremin continued, “doesn’t always reflect how they actually treat LGBTQ workers.”

“It starts to feel like you’re being used as an accessory after a while,” said Edmonds. “We don’t want to appease people that are made uncomfortable by our existence.”

The removal of Pride decorations only increased that feeling for some workers. “[It’s] such a clear cowering to the conservative, far-right agenda,” said Nicole Deming, a partner in Chicago. “At the end of the day, all corporations care about is capital.… We are putting our foot down and saying this beautiful vibrant community is not a token or a means to profit.”

The strike was organized in relative secrecy—something apparently deemed necessary in the face of a company that’s shown a willingness to break labor law in its efforts to thwart unionization. Workers and organizers at multiple locations told The Nation they only heard about the action weeks in advance. When inquiring about details surrounding strike planning, such as when strikes would take place in a particular city, Baldwin declined to share, saying that keeping strike locations under wraps was “part of the strategy.”

According to Deming, workers wanted to keep Starbucks on its toes, preventing it from preparing scabs that could keep stores open. “We’re calling it a firefly strike,” Deming said, for “that element of surprise.” Different stores were asked to go on strike at different times, instead of on a single day, so that Starbucks wouldn’t know exactly who would be striking or when. “They’re frantic and panicking,” Deming claimed, “and we love that. We love to see Starbucks squirm.”

(In response to a question about its view on the strike itself, Starbucks said, “We want to be crystal clear—Starbucks has been and will continue to be at the forefront of supporting the LGBTQIA2+ community, and we will not waver in that commitment! Despite today’s public commentary, there has been no change to any of our policies as it relates to our inclusive store environments, our company culture, and the benefits we offer our partners.”)

Jackie Zhou, a queer barista at Astor Place Starbucks in New York City, said that holding the strike this week was a strategic move. They described working on Pride weekend last year, saying that the volume of customers was “insane.”

On Sunday, dozens of glitter-covered people heading to pride streamed out of the Astor Place subway station into the middle of a picket line. Zhou and their colleagues stood in front of the store with flyers and a bullhorn, dissuading revelers from entering.

In Oklahoma City, Cremin and her colleagues managed to keep the store closed the whole day. After their picket ended, they joined other Starbucks workers in the city in the pride parade. “It was really uplifting to walk through crowds of people cheering for us,” Cremin said. “I think we all felt exhausted…but full of hope. It really felt like a celebration of the power that we had as workers.”

“Workers’ rights are queer rights,” they continued. “Trans rights are labor rights. If you’re discriminating against workers, if you’re underpaying workers, if you’re not giving them enough hours, if you’re understaffed, and you’re not doing anything when they’re harassed by customers, if you make it difficult for them to access benefits…that hurts all of us.”

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