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Two Richmond Starbucks join growing unionization movement

Restaurant with drive through
The Starbucks on Forest Hill Avenue. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

Two Starbucks stores in Richmond joined a growing movement for unionization among the national chain of coffee cafes this week.

The Starbucks on Midlothian Turnpike, across from Chesterfield Towne Center, and on Forest Hill Avenue filed paperwork on Wednesday to begin the process of forming a labor union. Employees like Katheryn Wiggers say they just want a seat at the bargaining table.

“I love our community, and our community loves coming to our Starbucks every day. And I don't want to disrupt business or anything like that. I just want a fair and equal opportunity to speak for myself,” Wiggers said.

Wiggers has worked at Starbucks for the last five years. She says her colleagues have always had grievances with the corporation, but they didn’t realize they had a way to do something about it until other Starbucks employees began to unionize across the country.

“The five years that I've worked with Starbucks, I've seen a fair share of inequality and also just things that, if I had been able to advocate for myself, I would have changed,” Wiggers said. “And now going into this knowing that we can advocate for ourselves and have a voice is really game changing for us.”

On Thursday, workers at a Buffalo, New York Starbucks location became the first in the nation to officially unionize. Since they began applying for unionization late last year, 27 other cafes across the U.S. have followed their lead and filed paperwork to begin the process of forming a union. The coffee giant operates around 9,000 cafes nationwide.

“What's been going on in Buffalo and everywhere else has been really inspiring to us. Just knowing that it's possible,” Wiggers said.

At this point in the process, the Richmond-area Starbucks locations don’t have a specific list of demands for the corporation. But, baristas like Iman Djehiche say they’re hoping primarily to improve worker safety.

“Our goal with this is to get a seat at the table with upper management so that they can take the necessary steps to, at the very least, protect us during the pandemic. I do hope that they at least mandate masks for our customers,” Djehiche said. “Our biggest concern is our safety and how it's being put second to profit. But aside from that, there's plenty of issues…with our wages and the general support from corporate.”

Wiggers says employees at her store are also hoping for better training practices for new hires.

“I have noticed a significant decline in the training of employees. And that's been directly affecting our ability to do our jobs effectively and meet the standards that Starbucks puts in place for us,” Wiggers said.

So far, a majority of the Starbucks employees at these Richmond locations have signed union intent cards and they’ve submitted a petition for an election with the National Labor Relations Board. Once their petition is reviewed, the NLRB will conduct an election among workers at these locations. The results of that election then need to be certified by the board before a union is officially formed and can begin negotiating on behalf of workers.

According to experts, that process can take months. And in the meantime, Starbucks employees have several obstacles to overcome before the election even takes place.

Nelson Litchenstein is a professor of history who until recently taught at University of Virginia. His research focuses on the history of labor unions in the U.S., and he says the rights of these organizations have been severely eroded over the last several decades.

“From a point of view of numbers and economic and political power, American trade unionism has never been weaker in really almost a century,” Liechtenstein said. “Most of the great corporations in America are non-union.”

The movement that created modern labor unions in the U.S. began in the 1930s. Once workers were given the right to collectively bargain in 1935 under the National Labor Relations Act, they negotiated safer working conditions in addition to other perks like more benefits and time off.

However, over the years since the act’s passage, the law has been slowly watered down.

“That law has, through a variety of judicial and administrative decisions, eroded radically so that today, under the National Labor Relations Act, it's really very advantageous to management,” Litchenstein said.

For example, under current law, companies that fire employees for supporting unionization do not face substantial legal or monetary penalties. Instead, they are simply ordered by the NLRB to reinstate the employee and in some cases, provide them with back pay for the hours of work they missed.

It’s also legal for companies to implement anti-union tactics to dissuade employees from joining them.

“It's entirely legal for the company to send its top administrators and executives flying into this little workplace, and then to hold what's called ‘captive audience meetings,’ that's meetings that workers must attend… in which the company… can tell them that all the terrible things that will happen if they do form a union,” Liechtenstein said. “Conversely, a union cannot hold those meetings.”

These intimidation tactics were used against employees in Buffalo, including Casey Moore, one of the leaders of the Starbucks unionization movement in New York.

“They essentially sent in a SWAT team, hundreds of managers from across the country, into our stores to spy on us. They were trying to figure out who was pro-union, who was anti-union. They were intimidating us. They were threatening. They were saying things like, ‘You could lose your benefits,’” Moore said. “They've done literally everything that they can think of to try to stop this from happening. And they hosted anti-union meetings where they were closing our stores early.”

Starbucks employees also have to worry about whether the corporation will close their stores in retaliation to their efforts to unionize. That’s illegal under the law, but according to Liechtenstein, it’s hard to prove.

“It will take years to determine that through the process of the National Labor Relations Board, and then to go to the courts,” Liechtenstein said. “And even if the company is found, and some companies have been found guilty of that, there is no monetary penalty.”

Besides these tactics, experts say corporations avoid bargaining with unions by delaying the process. Virginia Diamond, president of the Northern Virginia Labor Federation, says this is a standard practice.

“The company has various legal tactics they could use to delay somewhat. So it can be weeks or even months before you get the election,” Diamond said.

Once an election is held and certified, Starbucks will be legally required to sit down at the bargaining table and negotiate with the union. However, according to Liechtenstein, they’re under no legal obligation to actually reach an agreement.

“There's no obligation to actually reach your contract,” Liechtenstein said. “Most unions that are formed and then negotiate for a first contract, they fail to get it. And that means that over time, the union just disintegrates.”

Negotiations have not yet begun between the Buffalo location and Starbucks, but Moore says she’s hopeful that the company will live up to their professed progressive values.

“Starbucks is adamantly anti-union. But at the same time, they've built an image, a brand on being progressive and caring about their employees. And ultimately, they're not going to be able to sustain that image,” Moore said. “With every store that files, it just continues to grow and continues to show Starbucks this is what people want.”

In a letter to their employees, Starbucks Executive Director Rosann Williams wrote in December, “From the beginning, we’ve been clear in our belief that we do not want a union between us as partners, and that conviction has not changed. However, we have also said that we respect the legal process.”

Once they’re formed, unions in Virginia have a particularly hard time staying afloat due to further legislation that weakens their power. Like many other Southern states, Virginia has “ Right to Work” legislation on the books.

“The union has to, by law, represent every single worker, and every single worker gets all of the benefits. But in a ‘Right to Work’ state, you can get all of that without paying any union dues,” Liechtenstein said.

As a result, employees don’t contribute to their unions and their representatives’ political and negotiating power shrinks. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 6.1% of private-sector employees belong to a union. In Virginia that rate is even lower at 4.8%.

Union membership in the US peaked in 1953 at 33% of the population. Combined with public-sector employees, 10.3% of the workforce today are union members. According to the BLS, in 1983, the first year for which comparable union data are available, the union membership rate was 20.1%.

Less people are represented by unions today than they were in the 30s when the national labor union movement began. Liechtenstein says that just like American workers then, young people are rising up to demand better working conditions and representation.

“What's happening right now is that these workers in the service sector and the restaurants and hospitality sector are doing what the workers did in the 1930s, which is organizing unions, and then having some power to say to wealthy corporate elites, ‘You've got to give us our fair share,” Liechtenstein said.

To fix these problems with labor representation in the U.S., members of the House of Representatives recently approved the Protecting the Right to Organize ( PRO) Act, sponsored by Virginia Democratic Rep. Bobby Scott. This act would expand the definition of unfair labor practices to include many of the anti-union tactics that experts say weaken their ability to be formed.

However, that bill is stuck in the Senate for now, due in part to Virginia Sen. Mark Warner, who has so far refused to support it.

The Build Back Better Act, also currently tied up in the Senate, is another chance to increase penalties for corporations found guilty of unfair labor practices. The bill would establish a minimum $50,000 fine for each violation.

Warner did not provide a comment on this story before our deadline.