Customers entering and exiting the Starbucks on Mission Street on Santa Cruz's Westside.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
Civic Life

Union City: With two Santa Cruz Starbucks locations moving to unionize and more on the way, why are we an epicenter of organizing?

The first two Starbucks stores in California to move to unionize — among 60 nationally — could soon be joined by another five. COVID-19, the student-heavy workforce and troublesome customers all have contributed to the movement.

It was when a customer exposed himself to their staff that Joseph Thompson had had enough. Thompson, a barista at Starbucks’ location at Ocean and Water streets in Santa Cruz, saw the staff being rushed to reopen the store as quickly as possible, after evacuating customers and locking the store up for about 20 minutes.

“My question really was, why are we reopening?,” they told Lookout on Friday. “That’s when I realized that he [the manager] doesn’t care about the well-being of the partners of the store.” That was in October.

In January, with help from the Democratic Socialists of America and other local organizers, Thompson filed a petition with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to unionize that Starbucks location. A 19-year-old UC Santa Cruz student, Thompson has spearheaded the unionization movement that has now spread to another store in town.

Earlier this week, the Starbucks at Mission and Dufour streets on Santa Cruz’s Westside also filed formally, part of re-filed joint request with the NLRB. Observers expect the staff to vote by mid-March on whether to unionize.

That makes these Santa Cruz Starbucks locations two of three Starbucks stores in California (the third is in Chatsworth, in Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley) overall to push for unionization. But that might be just the tip of the effort locally.

Lookout has learned that five other Starbucks in the Central Coast area are moving in the same direction. Santa Cruz County has 28 Starbucks locations in total.

Lookout reached out to Starbucks’ local managers, who declined to comment.

These aren’t the first Starbucks shops to move to unionize. In December, Starbucks workers won an election in Buffalo, New York. Organizing at Starbucks locations is now beginning to happen in other locales as well. As of this week, more than 60 have petitioned to unionize.

So the Starbucks union activity isn’t novel. The fact that Santa Cruz has become the epicenter of organizing in California, though, is a phenomenon. Why is it happening here and now in the town with a reputation for being so laid-back and easygoing?

Those involved offer a few early explanations.

First, consider that Santa Cruz counts a large student population within a small city. Second, the progressively minded UC Santa Cruz campus itself has long supported labor and workers’ rights in a number of ways.

“There’s a lot of organizing on campus that doesn’t happen on other campuses,” said Thompson, adding that the local chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America have also been a source of inspiration in addition to helping organize. “You have groups like the Worker Student Solidarity Coalition who support workers throughout Santa Cruz and set an example for younger workers.”

Employees at Bookshop Santa Cruz voted by a count of 18-10 to joined the Communications Workers of America. Now, they...

One Mission Street Starbucks worker, who requested anonymity due to employment concerns, cited graduate students’ strikes over the past few years as a major source of inspiration.

“I think a lot of the baristas take influence from that,” she said. “A lot of us went to UCSC during that time, so that was something we experienced and saw firsthand and I feel like that impacted a lot of the student workers in town.” She added that the movement at Bookshop Santa Cruz and locally owned coffee shops like Tabby Cat provide a solid framework and support for organizing in Santa Cruz.

With Santa Cruz being a college town, it’s no secret that students perform a substantial portion of the city’s service jobs. At the two Starbucks locations in question, students make up at least half and up to three-quarters of the staffs. Students can feel that they are being taken advantage of. Further, they believe that given their transitory status in town, some employers provide less than fair working conditions, believing they won’t organize in unions.

Then there are the working conditions that baristas have long endured — and which have been made worse by COVID-19 pressures.

Starbucks' Mission Street location on Santa Cruz's Westside.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Customers too frequently mistreat the staff, harass them and even enter stores under the influence. And working conditions weren’t all that much better when these kinds of things weren’t happening, Starbucks workers say, citing overwork, understaffing and low pay.

COVID added new challenges.

“After Starbucks got rid of their vaccine mandate and weekly testing requirement, a lot of the staff started getting sick, and were still allowed to come to work if they were vaccinated,” Thompson said. “Deciding to make workers uncomfortable and also pressure people to lie about symptoms just created a really toxic work environment where people did not feel safe.”

The Mission Street employee agreed.

“A lot of things did not feel synchronized the way they should have been with COVID precautions, and none of the problems that we had brought up were being solved through the channels given to address them,” she said. “We would send in complaints and it just wouldn’t go anywhere.”

To be sure, conditions vary, even Starbucks to Starbucks locally. While the Ocean Street staff say they often worry for their own safety, the Mission Street staff say they mostly enjoy coming to work and have fewer complaints overall. Yet there’s a sense that a union just provides more protection.

“It’s not just workers who have a hard time coming to work that are excited about it,” said the Mission Street member. “It is simply that it can always be better, and unions work even for stores that are already good to work at.”