Eugene: Starbucks Workers Unite to Fight for Demands, Determined to Resist Retaliation

Photo: Workers at the Eugene Location (Credit: Jan)

By Sarah Ahmed

Early in January, workers at the 29th Avenue and Willamette Street Starbucks location in Eugene, Oregon filed a petition to form a union with the federal government’s National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). Tribune spoke with the Eugene workers as they prepare themselves for bigger battles with the company and to learn more about the motivations and working conditions at Starbucks that drove them to organize.

Several Starbucks workers in Eugene told Tribune that the retaliation faced by Starbucks workers in Buffalo, the first unionized location in the country, was a major catalyst for their decision to form a union. In Buffalo, Starbucks sent out-of-town managers and executives to the store in an attempt to intimidate workers during their union drive as well as temporarily shutting down various locations, supposedly for ‘renovations.’

Although the NLRB is supposed to prevent union busting, it has done little to stop Starbucks’ anti-union tactics across the US. In reality, the NLRB is a bureaucratic arm of the US State that functions to limit workers’ struggles. While the agency may occasionally sanction employers who break the law, ultimately the NLRB operates according to the laws drawn up by the capitalist State.

Workers in Eugene say Starbucks has already sent a district manager and regional manager to their location, purportedly to listen to their complaints. In the words of one worker, the district manager said “Don’t even bother mentioning pay, I can’t do anything about that. Not gonna happen. But anything else?” The worker said, “We still made a point to be like there’s these other things, but also pay. Pay! We need to be paid more.”

During the meeting, the district manager offered them a new blender, to ostensibly make their job easier. When they ran the blender in the next day, it shorted out their cash registers.

The Eugene Starbucks workers follow around sixteen other Starbucks locations in the country that have filed petitions to unionize, including several stores in New York and Washington. The Eugene petition saw broad support, with signatures from 23 out of 25 workers.

The unionizing efforts in Eugene are associated with Workers United, which is an affiliate of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). These unions are some of the country’s largest yellow unions, that is, capitulating unions that suppress worker militancy in service to the capitalist ruling class. As the workers advance, they will not only face attacks from ownership, but will have to contend with the bureaucracy of the yellow unions which will work to subdue their fight.

Low Pay, Brutal Pace

In Oregon, Starbucks workers typically start at a pay of $13-14 per hour, barely above the $12.75 minimum wage for their region. Following the organizing efforts in other states, Starbucks recently increased the starting pay nationally by a negligible amount, less than a dollar, which one worker described as a “placating attempt.” Another worker said, “I’m paycheck to paycheck. If something happens to my car, something happens to me, I’m in big trouble. I don’t have any savings.”

Starbucks reported net earnings of $4.2 billion dollars during the 2021 fiscal year, a 354% increase over their net earnings the previous year, according to the press release for their full year fiscal 2021 results.

Workers say that Starbucks demands they work at a very intense pace, and tracks many metrics about their performance. Workers are expected to finish a drive-through order in 50 seconds on average, even though many food items take a minute to prepare. Starbucks has a counter that shows how long cars in the drive-through have been waiting, which turns red when workers are not keeping up with the pace that Starbucks expects. “Realistically it’s go as fast as you can and hope you get somewhere near or under that,” said one worker.

Since the start of the pandemic, workers have had to perform additional cleaning duties on top of their already stringent job expectations: “They did give us extra staff [before] and now they took it away. The cleaning is no longer mandated, but the pandemic is still here.”

Starbucks uses an algorithm to determine the number of workers and labor hours for each store based on their sales of food and drink items. But during the pandemic many stores, including the Eugene location, saw an increase in food orders with no increase of staff or capacity. “It definitely adds another hitch in things going smoothly if we have a lot of food orders back to back,” a worker said. “You can only make the food so fast; you can speed up making a drink, but the oven takes as long as the oven takes.”

Starbucks also tracks a ‘customer care score,’ which is based on the customer’s response to a survey in the Starbucks app. When this score drops, a worker said it may trigger a visit from a district manager to the store, “to see what it is we’re doing that’s not ‘connecting’ or making people as happy, which can be stressful for some people on the floor.”

Steeling Themselves for the Fight

The Eugene workers are a tight knit group, and have begun preparing their coworkers for the increased retaliation from the company. Last week, after the visits from the district and regional manager, the workers are fortifying each other, to make sure, “everyone is inoculated against the rhetoric and the union busting we’re going to be facing. We have unanimous support throughout the store.”

Speaking on the broader workers’ struggle, a barista said, “It’s been super heartening. This is something I’ve had some interest and knowledge about for years now, so to see that happening has been super hopeful for me…But now to see this happening and to be at a store full of people that are proactive about these things, it makes me really hopeful. I hope this spreads out of Starbucks.”

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