Staffers at multiple Starbucks shops around Portland have joined the nationwide unionization efforts happening at the chain’s cafes. In late January, Willamette Week reported that three Portland-based Starbucks locations filed to unionize with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), joining others in Oregon. On March 4, four more stores across town filed to unionize: ones on SE 28th and Powell, SW 5th and Oak, 23rd and West Burnside, and NE Grand and Lloyd. In interviews with Eater, multiple cafe employees said they hoped a union would help address issues that include wages, staffing, mask use, and other worker protections.
At any point, Starbucks can agree to the elections and recognize the union. However, so far Starbucks employees looking to unionize — including the ones at the four new stores — must go through a hearing with the NLRB and Starbucks’ legal team to move forward with the election.
Portland Starbucks employees say the impetus for the burgeoning union comes from frustrations over the last two years, including labor shortages, inconsistent policies for masks and other safety procedures, and general anxieties around COVID-19. In multiple interviews, staffers say Starbucks ignored a variety of concerns from its employees, many of whom faced tremendous risks to health and safety by providing customer service throughout the pandemic. Arthur Pratt, a shift supervisor at the West Burnside location, says a primary concern has been understaffing, which leaves employees burnt out and scrambling to meet fundamental cleaning and sanitizing requirements.
“With these mass labor cuts, our concerns [include] not being able to sanitize,” he says. “We can barely keep up with food contact safety and implement the COVID-19 precautions we’ve established and promised our customers. It’s why we should have a voice at this table and bring up these things, like a need for more labor.”
B Morris-Brand, a shift supervisor at the SE Powell, shares many of these concerns, and describes the workers at his store as being “overworked, overtired, and exhausted, mentally, emotionally, and physically.”
“They give so much at work and it’s not enough,” he says. “They’re expected to do four partners’ roles in one go ... We don’t have the capacity or the time to take care of cleanliness, we’re using the person who would be cleaning and sanitizing... to make extra drinks or take care of customers.”
Additionally, Morris-Brand describes that while Starbucks has numerous benefits that make it a desirable company to work for — including health insurance coverage and funding for higher education — many workers are still struggling when wages are eclipsed by an ever-increasing cost of living.
“We’re not asking to be millionaires, just to put food on our table, to have lights on in our apartments,” Morris-Brand says.
Before unionizing, employees of Starbucks stores say they’ve been trying to communicate their needs to managers and Starbucks corporate, but have seen few accommodations made based on their feedback, particularly when it comes to staffing, schedule consistencies, and the ability to implement mask policies at individual stores. “For a while, we’ve all been voicing a lot of concerns,” Pratt says. “Despite continual feedback from leadership that we’re being ‘heard,’ there are no changes. It felt like we were not heard.”
“We are listening and learning from the partners in these stores, as we always do across the country,” Starbucks’s official statement reads. “Starbucks success — past, present, and future — is built on how we partner together, always with our mission and values at our core.” When asked about the discrepancy between the workers’ perspectives and Starbucks’s statement, a representative from the company declined to speculate on why workers would feel the need to form unions to address it.
Starbucks employees have consistently communicated that the decision to unionize is built on a genuine desire to continue working at Starbucks — creating a better, safer work environment and a more sustainable living situation, and above all, a chance to make sure their voices are heard through union actions. As an employee of Starbucks for the last four years, Morris-Brand believes the union effort is born out of a desire to make Starbucks a viable, long-term career for those who love working there.
“We are unionizing because we care about Starbucks,” he says. “We’re unionizing because we’re hard workers and we want Starbucks to be held accountable and to be what they want to be.”