A line of 25 people, mostly college students, snaked from the counter to the front door at the Starbucks in downtown Iowa City, Iowa, on April 21. A dozen “mobile orders” of lattes and cappuccinos sat waiting near the tip jar, which on this day was stuffed with bills.
Jen Sherer, president of the Iowa City Federation of Labor, cheerfully offered “Starbucks Workers United” stickers to customers. “Kirk Ferentz was here,” she said with a grin. Ferentz, head coach of the University of Iowa’s Hawkeyes football team, is due to receive $7,000,000 in compensation this year, making him the 13th-highest-paid coach in the country, according to USA Today. Starbucks workers at the store told me he picks up a coffee to go each morning—without leaving a tip; Sherer said that she’d offered Ferentz a sticker, which he accepted but declined to put on.
Sherer was there as part of what had been dubbed a “sip-in” being held in support of the workers at the store. In early April, 80 percent of them had signed cards in support of unionizing with Starbucks Workers United; Starbucks had demanded an election, which will be held on May 11. (There will be another sip-in just before then, on May 8.)
If the workers are successful, the Iowa City store will be the first in the state to unionize. Several employees told me they felt no overt hostility from anyone in management, but, considering Starbucks’ history, they expected some pushback soon. When I asked the on-site manager for her opinion, she replied with a shrug, “I’m the manager.”
In other words, the stakes are high. As a result, the labor cavalry had descended on the store. Alongside Sherer, members of the University of Iowa Labor Center, Teamsters Local 238, UE 8515, AFSCME, the Center for Worker Justice, Iowa City Democratic Socialists of America, two Iowa House representatives, and a county supervisor, mingled with staff and customers.
Abigail Scheppmann has worked for Starbucks for five years. She pointed to the mobile orders clustered on the counter. When the store gets really busy, she said, the online orders pile up, but management won’t allow the staff to stop them temporarily. She then pointed to the new floor, which she said only replaced the old “gross and moldy” one “after union talk started.”
According to Scheppmann, workers risk being reprimanded when Iowa’s winter weather keeps them from coming in. She also cited management’s refusal to close its doors for the safety of workers and customers during reports of an active shooter downtown. Another bone of contention is hours’ being cut arbitrarily, with some people’s schedules being cut in half on short notice, according to workers.
Starbucks is not the only workplace with reinvigorated union activity in Iowa City. The venerable Englert Theatre, refurbished and turned into a live performance venue after over 100 years as a movie theater, is one of the oldest businesses in town. Last November, its employees voted unanimously to join the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees Local 690.
Mark Falk, an IATSE member since 2001, has worked at every venue in the area, and applauds the Englert workers for joining his union. “Schedules can start at any time of day or night, with different hours and different shifts every day, according to the needs of the show,” he said. “It can be a crazy life, and requires a trained, flexible person to do the job.”
The past year and a half has seen several successful strikes in southeast Iowa, including one by UAW workers in Davenport and one by Bakery Confectionery Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers in Cedar Rapids. One of the toughest union battles in the area is currently being fought by United Electrical Workers Local 896, also known as Campaign to Organize Graduate Students (COGS), representing about 2,000 teaching and research assistants at the University of Iowa. Aided by Iowa’s anti-worker public-sector laws, which bar strikes by university employees, require repeated union recertification elections, and ban payroll dues deduction, the university’s Board of Regents has proven to be more hard-line than the most recalcitrant of private-sector employers. COGS settled for a 3 percent raise earlier this year. Still, members remain undaunted and ready for battle in a state ruled by a Republican governor with Republican majorities in both its Senate and its House.
And a battle there will almost certainly be. In the past week alone, the rampaging Republicans in the Iowa Senate approved an expansion of child labor, required “Don’t Say Gay” restrictions up through sixth grade, and capped damage awards for Iowans injured or killed in accidents involving commercial trucks. This year’s legislature has also banned books, lowered educational credentials for teachers, made eligibility for Medicaid and food stamps more difficult, and passed some of the most hateful anti-trans bills in the country.
A victory by the Iowa City Starbucks workers on May 11 would brighten a grim year for progressive Iowans.
Correction: Due to an editing error, this piece originally said that Kirk Ferentz declined a Starbucks Workers United sticker. In fact, he accepted it but declined to put it on.