Starbucks Baristas in Philly Are Brewing Up a Union

Starbucks Baristas in Philly Are Brewing Up a Union

Starbucks Baristas in Philly Are Brewing Up a Union

Workers at four locations have joined the organizing wave, and the beverage behemoth is about to learn what happens when you mess with Philly.

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When Alexandra Rosa graduated from Indiana University with a gender studies degree in the summer of 2021, she moved to Philadelphia and quickly found a job she loved. “I don’t care what anyone says or how ‘professional’ it is, a barista coffee shop job is so much fun,” she told me over the phone last week.

In July 2021, Rosa was hired as a shift supervisor at the Starbucks location on 20th and Market Street, which occupies a glass-and-chrome corner spot in the city’s busy downtown business district. When she started working behind the counter, she brought her own class consciousness and experience of studying working-class history; it would come in handy six months later, when news broke about the Starbucks workers in Buffalo who had organized—and, in two of the three cases, won—a union. When her coworker Amalia Inkeles caught up with her after work one day in late December and casually tried to gauge her interest in organizing a union at their own store, Rosa answered with an immediate, “Oh, heck yeah!”

“It’s so important that our workers get organized and actually push back against these megacorporations and their blatant price gouging and labor exploitation,” Rosa told me. “We’ve come to a point where workers are kind of realizing, ‘Wait, we’re short-staffed, and there’s no one to replace us.’ And now is such a unique time in history for workers to have that realization, and push forward for workers rights in the future, because I think our country’s far off when it comes to our workers rights as they are right now.”

Earlier this month, their store as well as three others—3401 Walnut Street, 1945 Callowhill Street, and 600 S. 9th Street—went public with their intention to join Workers United, an affiliate of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) that has been leading a barnstorming campaign to unionize Starbucks’s thousands of US locations. As of this writing, more than 80 locations (and two of the company’s flagship roasters in Seattle and New York City) have joined the movement, with new stores popping up seemingly every few days.

In Philadelphia, that organizing has taken place in a number of ways: in group chats, Signal threads, Discord servers, and in-person one-on-one conversations like the one Inkeles had with Rosa. The four public stores are well-connected (when I spoke to Rosa, she already knew I’d been to visit the store with City Councilor Helen Gym earlier that day and met Inkeles) and are united in their goal of keeping the momentum going.

“What you are seeing on the ground now here in Philadelphia, and all over the country, is a renewed effort to really talk about how what’s good for workers is good for businesses and is good for a city,” Gym, a fierce champion for labor, told me as we sipped our iced tea out front. “We’re certainly going to do our best to show folks here at this location and all across the city that they’ll have a lot of love if they embark on these efforts, because we think it’s good for Philadelphia, and we think it’s good for the nation.”

You didn’t hear it from me, but I sincerely doubt that these four stores will remain a quartet for long, especially in a city with over 40 Starbucks locations.“We’re really trying to make this as apolitical as possible, and that’s very difficult when we’re talking about labor, and the distribution of money, but I cannot overemphasize just how much we want this to genuinely represent the people in our store,” Rosa explained. “This is a citywide movement, and we really want everyone to understand the working-class struggle that this is.”

Inkeles told me that she had initially expected the process to take much longer, but within a couple of weeks, she and Rosa had already assembled a five-person organizing committee (and “the only reason we didn’t mobilize sooner is because Omicron knocked a couple of us out”). The speed with which she and Inkeles were able to form a bargaining committee speaks to the urgency they all felt to make a change.

As much as Rosa enjoyed the work, it became immediately apparent that the conditions under which she and her fellow workers—“partners,” in Starbucks parlance—labored were unsustainable at best and, at worst, actively dangerous. Some of the baristas at her store have been forced to deal with nonstop sexual harassment or threats of violence from certain customers, whom she said management allows to keep coming in. Rosa told me about how one of her coworkers had sustained second-degree burns after using faulty equipment, which is still in use: “We’ve put in multiple work orders for it, we’ve tried to get new pieces for it, and it’s just something that never got fixed or repaired. We’re still working on even getting her paid for those shifts that she missed those two days.”

A lack of training contributes to the workers’ frustration and confusion, piling further stress onto busy workdays. “I told a manager of mine that I was improperly trained. I want to be able to do more. I’d like my training to continue,” Inkeles told me. “And his response was, ‘I have to think what’s best for the company.’ Well, if the well-being of your partners is not for the best of your company, and for them to be competent in their job is not for the best of the company, then what is for the best of the company?”

Workers also expressed concern over safety issues getting to and from work, especially those who have long commutes into Center City. Rosa, who had moved to Philly sight unseen and has a limited budget thanks to her Starbucks paycheck, ended up living in a neighborhood just below Strawberry Mansion, an area plagued by gun violence. She says the company does provide workers with some free Lyft vouchers, but only within a specific budget and set hours that often leave partners out in the cold, particularly those who live more than a $20 ride from Center City. “Right before you called me, there were gunshots that I could hear out my window,” she said. “Higher wages means I can live somewhere I can afford in a safer neighborhood. Especially when I have to be at work at 5 am—walking from my building into a Lyft is scary enough when it’s that dark, you know?”

Some of the concerns she raised will be familiar to workers in retail or food service—low wages that max out at $23 per hour regardless of seniority, long hours, shifting schedules, issues with vacation days and health care, high turnover, cantankerous customers—but some of their workplace problems come with a uniquely Philly flavor. A big part of a Starbucks barista’s job is connecting with the locals. In that part of town, that means interacting with a daily mix of starched businesspeople and houseless community members, two populations that can present challenges for the baristas on staff—but only one of which faces regular discrimination.

Philly’s population of houseless people is relatively small compared to other big cities’, but the majority of those folks tend to situate themselves in Center City, where subway and bus stops are plentiful, tourists provide opportunities for panhandling, and the streets are brighter and generally safer than further north in Kensington, the other major nexus for people living on the streets. Rosa said that she and her coworkers are happy to welcome houseless folks into their store, but fret over their inability to provide meaningful resources to these vulnerable neighbors. “I hate that when we bring these issues up to our managers, their solutions are very broad, as in, ‘Let’s take the tables away, so they can’t sit in here,’” she explained. “And that’s not what I meant at all! I don’t mind that they’re in the store. There’s just a few people that are a safety concern for us. That doesn’t mean we need to harm other people. [The response] is just very generalized, and the nuance of that situation, I feel like never gets recognized.”

They also worry about what can happen when a visitor does become agitated or aggressive. “Starbucks baristas are expected to have better de-escalation skills than the police,” Inkeles, a shift supervisor who works alongside Rosa, told me earlier that day. “Being a social worker is not part of our job description. But we have to, because at the end of the day, we’re the only ones there.”

One especially strong sticking point for both of the Starbucks workers I chatted with for this piece is the company’s reliance on calling the police, a policy that made headlines in 2018 when two Black men were arrested while sitting inside waiting for a friend. Rosa’s reluctance to bring the police into potentially volatile situations is well-founded: Philadelphia’s population is 44 percent Black, and the city’s police force has a long tradition of terrorizing and brutalizing its Black residents. (Meanwhile, Starbucks has its own well-documented pattern of racial discrimination.) “Those interactions are exactly why Starbucks often gets the reputation that it has,” she said, emphasizing her discomfort at being encouraged to call the cops as a first and last resort when she’s often supervising a shift of predominantly Black workers.

These are the kinds of issues that Rosa and her fellow workers on the organizing committee are hoping to tackle in an eventual contract, but they still need to clear some hurdles before they get to the bargaining table. Starbucks has taken aggressive anti-union measures at other shops, from flying in high-level executives to meet with workers to—in the case of the Memphis, Tenn., location—taking the extreme and likely illegal measure of firing the entire seven-person organizing committee. (Workers United has filed an unfair labor practice charge with the NLRB, arguing that the firings constituted illegal retaliation, and a GoFundMe campaign to support the fired workers has already raised nearly $55,000.) The workers at 1900 Market Street have heard rumors of anti-union pressure and executives lurking in the other three stores, but so far they haven’t experienced much interference. “It almost feels like the eye of the hurricane,” Rosa said.

Their organizing committee is taking advantage of the lull to inoculate their coworkers against Starbucks’s union-busting playbook and to prepare to go on the offense if any captive audience meetings do pop up on their schedule. “The more exposure you have to that, the more you realize the truth of the matter, and you realize, hold on, wait, let’s flip this on its head,” Rosa explained. “Let’s reframe this and ask them questions back—call it out as a bluff.”

The battle lines have been drawn, and if there’s one message that Starbucks executives should take away from the ongoing barista rebellion in the City of Brotherly Love, it’s a simple one: Don’t mess with Philly. We’re perennial underdogs, we love to fight, and we never back down, especially when we’re right. “We are not at all oblivious to the billions of dollars of profit that this company makes,” Rosa said. “They send us announcements each quarter—like, this is what we did, blah, blah, blah. How do you not think that that feels like a slap in the face? We are genuinely just asking for a reinvestment in your workforce. And what do companies always say: ‘reinvest, reinvest, reinvest.’ Baby, I want that reinvestment!”

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