Starbucks workers strike at 100 stores as union and coffee giant execs battle over wages, health care

By Kimberley Heatherington, OSV News

(OSV News) — The frappuccinos and lattes stopped flowing at more than 100 unionized U.S. Starbucks stores as workers walked off the job March 22 in protest against alleged unfair labor practices at the coffee giant.

The action came one day before Starbucks’ March 23 annual meeting of shareholders, and only two days after Laxman Narasimhan assumed the role of Starbucks chief executive officer, following Starbucks CEO and founder Howard Schultz.

Schultz had strenuously opposed the union drive, drawing criticism from Starbucks workers for his tactics. “I don’t think a union has a place in Starbucks,” Schultz told CNN in a February 2023 interview. His November 2022 letter to employees likewise lamented, “I am saddened and concerned to hear anyone thinks that (unionization) is needed now.”

Starting with a single Buffalo, New York, Starbucks in late 2021, almost 300 Starbucks locations have since voted to organize with Workers United, an affiliate of Service Employees International Union, or SEIU. Workers at additional Starbucks also have filed to hold union elections. While only 282 of 9,300 company stores have so far voted to unionize, Starbucks’ carefully cultivated image as a “progressive” company has nonetheless been dented by allegations of union-busting and other labor law violations.

A file photo shows a woman holding a frappuccino at a Starbucks store inside LAX Airport in Los Angeles. On March 22, 2023, the frappuccinos and lattes stopped flowing at more than 100 unionized U.S. Starbucks stores as workers walked off the job in protest against alleged unfair labor practices. (OSV News photo/Lucy Nicholson, Reuters)

In a March 23 statement, the Catholic Labor Network said, “Starbucks has repeatedly fired or disciplined union activists; closed stores that voted the union in; and awarded raises to workers at stores that haven’t organized while denying the same raises to workers at union stores.”

The Catholic Labor Network called on Catholics not to purchase any Starbucks gift cards in solidarity with workers until their concerns are addressed. The organization stated that “it’s past time for Starbucks to deal fairly with its employees — ending retaliation against union activists and bargaining in good faith with those who have formed unions.”

Meanwhile, worker grievances have continued to mount, and Schultz is expected to testify before the U.S. Senate March 29. The Catholic Labor Network noted that “according to the union’s count, the National Labor Relations Board has issued more than 70 complaints against Starbucks, encompassing over 1,200 alleged violations of labor law.”

The Starbucks corporate website declares, “Starbucks announced over $1 billion in investments in the overall partner experience. That’s shown up with the introduction of new benefits and with increases in pay.” The average hourly pay at Starbucks is $17.50 an hour nationally, and the company announced a $15 an hour pay floor.

While non-union locations operated as usual following Wednesday’s walk out, Starbucks issued a statement: “We encourage Workers United to live up to their obligations by responding to our proposed sessions and meeting us in-person to move the good faith bargaining process forward,” the company said.

The Washington Post reported that Starbucks Workers United are demanding a $20/hour nationwide wage, with credit-card tipping at all stores, a guaranteed 37-hour week for full-time employees, and a 100% employer-covered health care plan for full- and part-time workers. The Post said union representatives met with Starbucks lawyers for almost four hours in Seattle March 22 until the lawyers left.

Starbucks shareholders attending the annual meeting March 23 had before them a proposal for a third-party workers’ rights audit. The results of that vote were not available by OSV News’ deadline.

In a letter to partners — as Starbucks terms its employees — Narasimhan, the new CEO, shared his vision for the “refounding” of Starbucks.

“We have limitless potential, but we need to address what limits us,” said Narasimhan. “Our performance is strong, but our health needs to be stronger. We strive to be a different kind of company, and that is unchanged. But we now operate in a different kind of world.”

Catholic social teaching since Pope Leo XIII has championed unions as a positive right of association that benefits the common good of society.

St. John Paul II in his 1981 encyclica, “Laborem Exercens” (“On Human Work”) explained unions “are indeed a mouthpiece for the struggle for social justice, for the just rights of working people in accordance with their individual professions.”

Likewise, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ “Economic Justice for All: Pastoral Letter on Catholic Social Teaching and the U.S. Economy” (1986) states: “The church fully supports the right of workers to form unions or other associations to secure their rights to fair wages and working conditions.”

More recently, Pope Francis echoed the teaching in December 2022, telling members of the Italian General Confederation of Labor, “There is no union without workers, and there are no free workers without a union.”

Author: OSV News

OSV News is a national and international wire service reporting on Catholic issues and issues that affect Catholics.

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