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Bernie Sanders celebrates seven Starbucks union victories at The National

Person speaks at podium
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) speaks at Unity Fest, an event celebrating the unionization of workers at several Virginia Starbucks locations. (Photo: David Lee)

On the heels of successful union organizing efforts at seven Starbucks locations in Virginia, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders spoke in Richmond on Saturday about the importance of revitalizing the power of trade unions across the country.

“When you stand up, as you have been here in Virginia … and you say, ‘We are going to help shape our work life, we're going to negotiate for better wages, better working conditions, better schedules, better benefits, …’ [w]hen you say that, you are striking a nerve that is heard by working people all across this country who share your frustration,” Sanders said.

Workers at five Starbucks locations in the Richmond area last week voted to unionize, as did locations in Falls Church and Leesburg this past weekend. Employees at more than 200 other locations across the country have filed paperwork to unionize, a movement which began with the unionization of workers in Buffalo, New York, last year.

Sanders’ speech was a big draw at Unity Fest, a music and labor festival organized by members of the newly formed Starbucks unions in Richmond. The event took place at The National theater and featured performances from several local bands, most of which included at least one barista from a local Starbucks location.

A complimentary but varied selection of music genres were played all day Saturday, while massive papier-mache puppets depicting union workers constructed by Richmond-area art collective All The Saints Theater Company towered over the crowd.

Other speakers included former presidential candidate Marianne Williamson and Workers United International President Lynn Fox, who told the crowd that a shift in American trade union powers is overdue.

“This battle with Starbucks must be a public referendum on whether any employer, but in particular global companies with unlimited resources, whether they should ever be permitted to unlawfully and unfairly interfere with their employees right to freely associate and to freely form a union,” Fox said. “Something's got to change, and you are responsible, all of you are responsible, for shining a light on this and bringing about change for the better.”

Organizer Meridian Stiller, a barista at the Westchester Commons Starbucks location, said the event was both a celebration of the recent election results and a chance to counter negative misconceptions about unions.

Starbucks has been accused by workers across the country of actively opposing unionization efforts, according to CNBC, though the corporation has denied these accusations. Stiller says at the store where they work, baristas were forced to attend mandatory anti-union presentations and meetings.

“At my store, we experienced a very high volume of union busting. My store actually had the most no votes out of all the stores [in the Richmond area], which we believe is due to intimidation from the company. We had one-on-one meetings with our manager that were mandatory that were just full of union busting,” Stiller said.

Dillion Dix, another barista who co-organized the Unity Fest and who is on the union organizing team at the Westchester Commons store, confirmed that their fellow employees received calls during off hours from managers pressuring them to vote against unionization. He also said baristas were presented with anti-union materials while in the workplace.

“Many of our pro-union partners and organizers have been ostracized by management, having their hours cut to the point that one of our partners was forced to quit,” Dix said.

A spokesperson for Starbucks said any accusations of anti-union tactics on behalf of the corporation are “categorically false” and that they support their “partners’ rights to organize.”

Sanders and other speakers criticized Starbucks’ CEO, billionaire Howard Shultz, for actively opposing workers’ efforts to unionize and negotiate for better wages and working conditions. The senator correctly pointed out that Shultz’s net worth increased by $1 billion since the pandemic began, and that Starbucks has made $31.1 billion over the last quarter alone.

“One of the things that we have seen during this pandemic, which is really extraordinary and tragic, is that many, many thousands of workers in coffee shops, in grocery stores, in meatpacking plants, bus drivers, hospital workers, died by the thousands while the billionaires became much richer,” Sanders said. “What this movement that you are helping to lead is about is to say that we are going to have an economy that works for all, not just Howard Schultz and other billionaires.”

Now that they’ve won the right to unionize, Starbucks workers in Virginia hope to begin negotiations with the corporation soon. But the contract between the union and Starbucks must be agreed to by both parties, and in the U.S., corporations have the option to stall these negotiations almost indefinitely. That’s because, as VPM News reported in January, while Starbucks is legally required to negotiate once a union is formed, it doesn't actually have to come to an agreement with workers under the law. Additionally, there are only small financial penalties for corporations that close locations where unions form or that fire union organizers in their stores.

Before negotiations begin in Virginia, Stiller says union members are circulating a survey to determine their demands. Speakers at Unity Fest spoke about a wide range of complaints on stage, highlighting a need for greater transparency in shift scheduling, which can impact employees’ ability to access certain benefits like scholarships and healthcare.

On the same day he spoke at Unity Fest, Sanders also appeared in New York to rally support for a union organizing drive at a Staten Island Amazon warehouse. Workers there began voting on Monday.

In Richmond, he told the crowd of eager young activists this weekend that their work is an important part of a revolutionary movement taking hold across the country.

“It is time in my view, not only at Starbucks, but all over this country, that working people stand up and say, ‘We are not machines. We are not robots. We are human beings. We want to be treated with respect,’” Sanders said.

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