Santa Cruz Starbucks stores among first in California to get OK for union vote

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

The Starbucks stores on Ocean Street and Mission Street are two of the first three of the coffee giant’s California locations to go to a union election after getting the go-ahead from the National Labor Relations Board.

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On Tuesday, Workers United — a labor union affiliated with the Service Employees International Union and representing unionizing Santa Cruz Starbucks stores — reached an agreement to hold a mail-ballot election, moving forward with the union vote.

On April 19, the NLRB will mail ballots to 61 eligible voting members working at the Starbucks stores on Ocean Street and Mission Street; they will have three weeks to vote.

The agreement expedites the election, which no longer requires the NLRB, which had held hearings, to give the go-ahead.

The local movement started with the two Starbucks locations, which filed a joint petition to unionize with the NLRB in February. The store on 41st Avenue and Clares Street entered the pipeline not long after, and officially filed on March 30. As a part of the agreement between Workers United and Starbucks, the 41st Avenue store and a store in Mill Valley will also have a mail-ballot election, on May 13.

That means that three Santa Cruz Starbucks have led the unionization movement in California.

Eight other stores in the state have officially filed. A store in Roseville will be the first to have an election, which is currently set for April 13.

Currently, 10 Starbucks locations have unionized in the country, as the unionization activity now encompasses at least 28 states. Ocean Street and Mission Street will be the second and third California locations to go to an election, just behind West Roseville.

If a simple majority of voting members support the union, then Starbucks would officially recognize the union as the representative for collective bargaining.

As three Santa Cruz Starbucks stores lead much of the chain unionizing in California, local leader Joseph Thompson cites...

“It’s finally our store’s first major win. We now have that ability to really say that this is what we’re doing and fight for what we want,” Joseph Thompson, the 19-year-old Starbucks employee and primary union organizer, told Lookout.

Thompson has served as the guiding force in these efforts. A UC Santa Cruz student turning 19 at the end of the month, Thompson (who uses gender-neutral they/them pronouns) is also running for the Democratic nomination for State Assembly District 28 in the June 7 primary, a contest in which they oppose longtime Santa Cruz County Clerk Gail Pellerin.

As Lookout has reported, the bargaining could be a particularly lengthy process. Negotiations are often slow, with delays often working to the benefit of employers, as union interest can falter among employees, particularly given labor turnover.

Starbucks recently named company founder Howard Schultz as interim CEO after Kevin Johnson stepped down in early March; Schultz served as CEO from 1987 to 2000, and again from 2008 to 2017. Some believe that Starbucks might be hoping that Schultz’s status as founder and his extensive experience as CEO will help suppress the union drive, but his effect on the labor movement is yet to be seen.

Thompson says that the issues that led to the organizing continue to plague the store.

On March 5, a previously banned customer entered the Ocean Street store and, when told that he was not welcome, became angry, they said. The store promptly shut down and remained closed for the remainder of the day. The banned customer had previously harassed baristas and had had a violent confrontation with another customer in the parking lot, Thompson said.

While these instances have occurred less frequently since the union talks began, Thompson said that they are far from fully resolved.

In fact, the pressures have turned that location essentially into a to-go store only, though it is designed for and has been operating as a full-service one. Its lobby and restrooms are closed.

“Corporate is finally deciding to kind of step up its game, but before the union talks it was basically every other day,” Thompson said. “On almost every shift we used to have to call the cops or ask customers to leave.”

Union organizer Joseph Thompson outside Starbucks' Mission Street location
Union organizer Joseph Thompson outside Starbucks’ Mission Street location.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Organizers have other requests, too.

“Having a security guard is something we’re talking about, and if we keep having these incidents it’s something that we obviously need,” said Thompson. “Continuing to have additional staffing support is generally good, too, and lastly, more training on how to deal with extreme cases of violent or aggressive customers.”

In addition, the Ocean Street Starbucks recently filed separate charges of unfair labor practices against the company. The allegations include cutting employee hours, surveilling employees, and discriminatorily enforcing dress codes in retaliation for unionizing.

Currently, four other Santa Cruz County stores are preparing to file petitions to unionize.

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