Employees at a Starbucks location in downtown Cleveland have petitioned the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) for a union representation election. The Cleveland Starbucks would be the first Ohio store to unionize and follows similar efforts at locations across the country, including in Boston, Buffalo, Chicago, Seattle and elsewhere.
In a letter to Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson sent Monday morning, workers at the W. Sixth store said that while they served at the forefront of the customer service industry during the pandemic, they haven't felt adequately cared for. With insufficient guidelines and safety measures, disillusionment and burnout are now commonplace.
Starbucks workers are euphemized as "partners" in the corporate lingo, but workers say that during the pandemic, they've felt more like "cogs in a machine."
Breaking News: Workers at the 6th Street Starbucks in Cleveland are joining the Starbucks Workers United movement, and organizing with the CMRJB! Swing by and show your support if you are in the area! pic.twitter.com/uPz9C8Xyco— CMRJB (@CMRJB) January 10, 2022
"We see unionizing as the best way to achieve true partnership, beyond just the title of 'partner,'" the letter reads. "Through this union, we are committing to our goals of improving our own work lives, establishing equity and equality within our store and the company, and doing our part to move the company forward. By signing onto these principles, Starbucks can prove itself as a partner alongside us in this commitment."
Cara Rovella, 22, is a barista and barista trainer at Cleveland's W. Sixth location. She started working at the popular coffee chain in July of this year. She told our sister paper the Cleveland Scene that she signed a union authorization card, along with the overwhelming majority of her colleagues, for a number of reasons.
"A lot of people say COVID is the big reason," she said, "because we feel let down by the safety measures put in place by our company during the pandemic. But I personally am a barista trainer, and the training plan simply doesn't provide enough time to really teach people how to become a barista."
Wages are another reason, Rovella said — both the base pay and the raises for longtime employees.
"The crux of all these issues is that we just want to have a voice," Rovella said. "Decisions at Starbucks are made in a top-down manner. We just have to do what they tell us. But we're the ones on the ground, working with the public. And we don't think it's realistic or fair that we don't have a say in how things get done."
Rovella said that the unionization process has moved extremely quickly, and that local workers were inspired by the unionization effort at the Buffalo location.
"That made us think, if Buffalo can do it, maybe we can, too," she said. "Once these things started to happen, people began to see the possibilities for themselves."
Rovella said that she suspected Starbucks wouldn't voluntarily approve the union in Cleveland and that, if Buffalo was any guide, corporate would work to delay the vote and lobby against the unionization effort by a number of means. But when the National Labor Relations Board holds the vote, a simple majority of the location's 20 workers is all that will be required to form the union.
"At the end of the day, we all like working for Starbucks and are doing this because we're dedicated to the work and want to make the jobs better," Rovella said. "I hope this can set the stage for others in the region, and that people will start to think, 'Hey, we don't have to endure unfair treatment. We can stand up for ourselves.'"
This story was originally published by CityBeat sister paper Cleveland Scene.