Joseph Thompson, lead organizer for unionizing Starbucks, is just getting started

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

As three Santa Cruz Starbucks stores lead much of the chain unionizing in California, local leader Joseph Thompson cites their great-grandfather for union inspiration: “Organizing gives me energy, and because I’m young it’s going to be a lot easier for me to keep that up.”

At just 19, Joseph Thompson has become the unlikely leader of the most advanced effort to unionize Starbucks stores in California.

Starbucks union organizer Joseph Thompson

That effort has resulted in a big step forward. On Tuesday, Workers United — a labor union affiliated with the Service Employees International Union representing the unionizing stores — reached an agreement with Starbucks to hold an election by mail.

With Thompson at the helm, the local movement started with two stores — Ocean Street and Mission Street — that filed a joint petition to unionize with the National Labor Relations Board in February. On April 19, the NLRB will mail ballots to approximately 61 eligible voting members between the two Starbucks locations; they will have three weeks to vote.

Thompson is a unique figure in labor organizing, just a first-year UC Santa Cruz student majoring in environmental studies — who also recently filed to run for the Democratic nomination in the state’s reconfigured 28th Assembly District. That might sound like a lot to bite off, but Thompson — who uses gender-neutral they/them pronouns — is used to taking on a heavy workload, and cites their great-grandfather for their interest in labor rights.

A decorated high school debater in Texas, Thompson has used those debating skills well.

It was COVID that drove their organizing work. Thompson worked at the busy Starbucks location at Ocean and Water streets in Santa Cruz, next to the county courthouse.

Abrasive and aggressive customers made work increasingly difficult for the staff, they said.

Deciding in November that it was time to take a stand, Thompson coordinated with co-workers, Workers United — which represents about 85,000 workers across Canada and the United States — and other local organizers. The Santa Cruz chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America provided consistent support and advice throughout the process.

The Starbucks stores on Ocean Street and Mission Street are two of the first three of the coffee giant’s California...

The Ocean Street and Mission Street stores will be the second and third California stores to go to an election, right behind the Roseville store. If a majority of employees votes in favor of the union, it would make them the first three stores in California to see their unions certified. The Starbucks store at 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.

While eagerly awaiting election day, Thompson sat down with Lookout to discuss motivations, inspirations and the road ahead.

“Organizing gives me energy, and because I’m young it’s going to be a lot easier for me to keep that up,” said Thompson.

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

This interview has been edited for clarity.

Lookout: How does it feel to finally have an election date, and be among a handful nationally?

Joseph Thompson: It’s amazing. Finally, this is our store’s first major win, and we have the ability to say that this is what we’re doing and to fight for what we want. It’s been months in the working, and not only were we able to get a vote for Ocean and Mission, but the two others, too.

To me, that’s the most important thing because Starbucks will continue to try to delay as much as possible, and with [CEO] Howard Schultz coming in, I don’t know how that will affect all the different union votes. But to me, now we have a clear path forward.

Lookout: What do you have to do to prep for the vote?

Thompson: We’re going to start with campaigns and telling workers to get out the vote. We’re going to be working with the California Labor Federation along with, I believe, the Monterey Bay Labor Council, to really make sure that we win both of these stores by a huge majority.

That includes making sure workers know how to fill out their ballots, give them back in time, and involve as many as we can. We want it to be a fair process. I would say Starbucks has not been inclusive in this process. They wanted to delay votes and stop the movement altogether and we want the exact opposite. We want to be able to make a decision that we’ve wanted to make for months.

Lookout: Is there anything about the process that surprised you?

Thompson: How long it has taken. This process needs to be streamlined, especially in 2022. With the labor rights movement growing, we’re looking at possibly thousands of elections coming in the next year, and we really need to look at reforming how we have union elections.

Three weeks is a long time for a mail-in ballot. We have technology, we could hold votes on mobile or using other electronic means. It seems that that would be the fastest way to get all these ballots counted. So I definitely think there needs to be reform to make the process seamless.

Lookout: You’ve been keeping plenty busy lately, and now you’re running for State Assembly. On top of unionizing Starbucks and college, what got you to throw your hat into the race?

Thompson: I’ve been telling people that I have nothing against Gail (Pellerin, longtime Santa Cruz County clerk also running in the 28th Assembly District). I actually had a great conversation with her, and we have a lot in common and a lot of support for a lot of different issues that we both agree on. I think it comes down to one clear thing and that’s that we need specifically young people in office representing the new generation of organizers and workers to really push forward the labor movement in a way that we have not seen thus far. I think that elections should be a clear, fair, transparent process.

Lookout: What is it like to navigate this landscape at such a young age? How does your experience differ from others that do it and how does your age play into it?

Thompson: You know, I think all it really takes is determination and the willingness to put in time and effort. I’m going to be honest with you, last night I got about three hours of sleep, but I feel fine! It’s weird, but organizing gives me energy, and because I’m young it’s going to be a lot easier for me to keep that up for a little while. But this is the time where I can be out there and talk to people, knock on doors, call people, and use technology to get young people involved at an early age. Registering them to vote is important, but also making sure they turn out on election day or vote by mail and get across to them that their voice matters. There are people out there who come from working-class backgrounds who have never done this kind of thing before.

I guess my main purpose for organizing and running for office is just to get the people united. There is an alternative to what we have going and a lot of people understand that. Minimum wage only just got to $15 but it looks like a living wage is closer to $22 an hour. I want people to know that if you’re getting evicted or struggling with medical care, there are people struggling exactly like you and we need to address those issues.

Lookout: Is your family a labor family? If so, then is it fair to say that that is a source of inspiration?

Thompson: My great-grandpa was part of the Pacific Railroad Union, but I unfortunately never met him. But I remember my dad talking about him, so my roots do have plenty of union involvement and it really shows that these ideas can still pick up in later generations and we can still continue fighting for these benefits. But other than family history, there are probably 1,000 other reasons why young people need to realize the power of unions and regain that lost knowledge.

Lookout: How did the idea of forming a union come about?

Thompson: Jeb (Purucker) is a member of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) chapter here, and one day [in November] I was helping him set up for the UC-AFT strike. We were just talking through unions and labor stuff, and I asked him what we would need to do at Starbucks, and he got me a book called “Secrets of a Successful Organizer.” He also gave advice for how to have meetings with employers, keep everybody safe, and more. He was a great resource, and he still runs the labor working group for the DSA chapter so I still seek advice from him.

However, I will admit that I was not thinking of a union from the beginning. We didn’t know of a union’s power until we began talking about what to do, but there was always something in the back of my mind that made me realize that this is a billion-dollar corporation, and I’m still struggling and living paycheck to paycheck. So I knew that something wasn’t right, and we could do better.

Lookout: It’s obvious you’ve got quite the future ahead of you. What are you studying right now and what do you plan to pursue in the future?

Thompson: Of course, my biggest goal right now is continuing the union fight and then getting my campaign together. I’m going to be releasing the official issues that I’ll be talking about most, and the biggest thing is labor. Not only will I support organizing efforts from the Assembly office, but also overall, will push democracy in workplaces. I think that organizing Starbucks sets that stage to be able to help all of their stores. Starbucks is spread out so people can see what’s happening here, learn about it, and then copy that same movement, and it will continue to spread out.

In school, I’m studying environmental studies with a policy concentration. I lived in Texas for the past three years before coming to UCSC, and I was a top-six debater in the state. I love talking about policy and solutions, but one of my favorite things to talk about is something called brownfield redevelopment. Essentially, it’s when you take a plot of land that the Environmental Protection Agency says is hazardous, and redevelop it in such a way that is community-driven and can allow for affordable housing. It’s sustainable and won’t cause displacement and gentrification, so that’s one of the main things I’m going to be looking into investing resources from the state level.

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