Starbucks workers at Michigan Avenue roastery reject union membership

By Chicago 5 Min Read

For the union angling to sign up Starbucks workers across the country, “the big one” has gotten away.

Employees at the Chicago Reserve Roastery, 646 N. Michigan Ave., have turned down union membership. The decision is a major setback for Workers United, part of the Service Employees International Union.

The five-story roastery on the Magnificent Mile is the largest Starbucks in the world. Workers rejected union membership during on-site voting conducted under federal supervision Friday and Saturday.

The tally, compiled Saturday night, was 119 votes against the union and 90 in favor, according to a copy of results circulated by Starbucks and signed by an agent of the National Labor Relations Board.

Employees who opposed unionization said the campaign caused unnecessary division. “I know a good company when I see one, and Starbucks is a good company,” said Tracy Smith, a barista who has handled other roles at the roastery for 3 12 years.

She said the union drive hurt a respectful relationship between staff and management. “It has been a very difficult and unfortunate time,” Smith said, adding she hopes everyone can cooperate again regardless of how they voted.

Zuhra Azimi, a part-time barista for nearly a year, also said managers were responsive before the union drive. “I wanted what we had in the past. We know that change takes time,” said Azimi, who studies chemical engineering at University of Illinois Chicago.

Workers United said in a statement that the outcome was influenced by Starbucks’ “unprecedented and aggressive anti-union campaign.” It said it has filed with the NLRB charges of unfair labor practices, adding to many complaints pending against the company.

“From free anti-union shirts and snacks to intense and intimidating one-on-one anti-union meetings, Starbucks did everything possible to stop workers from having a free and fair election,” the union said. It called Starbucks “the worst offender of labor law in modern U.S. history.”

Workers United has won union representation elections at 355 Starbucks stores in the U.S. vs. 81 defeats, according to a count by the pro-labor group More Perfect Union. The national organizing dates from 2021. Starbucks has about 9,000 company-owned locations in the U.S.

However, the union has yet to report progress toward getting a contract for any of those locations, and there are signs of a worker backlash.

Starbucks spokesperson Rachel Wall said at 17 unionized locations, workers are now circulating petitions to revoke union membership. The so-called “decertification” campaigns are like union organizing in reverse and could lead to federally supervised votes.

Among the locations trying to revoke Workers United membership is the Starbucks roastery in New York, which is nearly as big as the Chicago outlet, Wall said.

She said Workers United has failed to show up for bargaining sessions and hasn’t followed through on promises to employees, whom the company calls “partners.”

“We are pleased that our Chicago Roastery partners share our belief that we are accomplishing more to improve the partner experience working directly together than would be accomplished through the divisive tactics of the union,” Wall said. “Our core focus throughout this process has been to ensure that every partner can trust the election process is fair, their voice is heard, and that the final outcome is true and accurate.”

About 240 Chicago roastery employees were eligible for unionization. The company has said roastery employees earn $18.75 to $30.25 per hour based on job and tenure.

The roastery, which took over an old Crate & Barrel in 2019, blends artisanal brews with specialty snacks. Customers can watch roasted coffee beans move in pipes above their heads to their designated serving station.

Workers United opted to organize each Starbucks location individually, meaning complex bargaining for a first contract must take place for each one. Some stores have only about a dozen workers.

Meanwhile, the union has been enmeshed in numerous fights before the labor board over Starbucks’ allegedly unfair labor practices, including firings of pro-union workers. A labor board spokesperson said in July the agency had issued 100 complaints against Starbucks or Siren Retail, an affiliate that runs the roasteries.

More Perfect Union’s count shows that 16 Chicago-area Starbucks locations have unionized while four decided against it. One store in Edgewater unionized but was then closed.

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