In high school, Elsa Engelbrecht worked at a Chick-fil-A in Boone Trail, North Carolina, that holds a world record. It’s for the most drive-through cars served in an hour: 500 cars, or 8.3 cars per minute.
“I’m used to working in really fast-paced drive-through environments,” Engelbrecht, 19, affirms cheerfully. For the past two years, she’s worked for Starbucks; since July, she’s worked night shifts at its 2901 Sherman Oak Place location in Raleigh.
“But,” she continues, “the way that Starbucks as a company runs is not equipped for that speed. They expect you to make handcrafted drinks one at a time with like seven modifications while also expecting out-of-this-world customer service where you want to get to know every customer, while also having 32-second drive-through times.”
When I first met Engelbrecht, one mild February afternoon, I arrived late to the interview because I’d accidentally gone to the wrong Starbucks—another store, eight minutes away—which speaks, at least in part, to the ubiquity of the corporate coffee giant. Across the United States, there are 9,000 corporate-owned stores; in North Carolina alone, as of 2017, there are 338. There’s a line about how there’s a Starbucks on every street corner in America, which, if not literally true, has grains of truth to it—a 2012 study found that the farthest point in the country that you can be from a Starbucks is 140 miles, and 80 percent of the country is within at least 20 miles of a store. If you live in a city or suburbs, you’ll find yourself much closer.
The particular store Engelbrecht works at in Raleigh is sleek and newish and, yes, has a drive-through. It’s a popular location and sits near Trader Joe’s and Ashley Christensen’s BB’s Crispy Chicken; most days, cars snake all the way around the lot. This is where, in the summer of 2021, Engelbrecht first met and began working with fellow baristas Alyssa White and Paola Cira. White and Cira are both Starbucks veterans and have worked for the company since they were teenagers—White for four years and Cira for nearly seven. Both are 23.
Conversations about unionizing began as a joke—or not a joke, exactly, but an idea teased out lightly over headsets during shifts. Both women had followed unionizing efforts across the country with interest, including a 2019 drive at a Philadelphia Starbucks that was curtailed when two organizing employees were fired (the labor board found this action unlawful; Starbucks appealed the ruling and, almost three years later, a decision is still pending). By this point, as for many food workers, frustration had built up: a couple months into the pandemic, the company had removed hazard pay, even as customers remained belligerent, work crews skeletal, and hours static.
But Starbucks represents normal life and strove to create a sense of stability for customers, a reminder that even if times were hard, you could still have an iced grande skinny vanilla latte. The effort paid off, at least for corporate: from 2020 to 2021, total revenues grew 21 percent to $29.1 billion. The increase in company profits also parallels an increase in prices: the company has announced that it expects to hike coffee prices this year, blaming inflation.
In August, three Buffalo stores filed to unionize with Workers United, an affiliate of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). Other stores across the country soon followed suit and the word began to crop up with more frequency. While cleaning out her car, recently, Cira found one of the green-apron cards that the company gives to employees so they can pass along notes of encouragement to one another. This one, written last summer by White, reads: “#UnionizeStarbucks.”
“I remember my parents telling me about [unions] because they’re from Mexico,” says Cira. “They would be like, ‘Unions in Mexico were really important and fundamental because that’s the only way that people were getting paid.’ I remember them saying, ‘Are there any unions here in the U.S.?’”
There are, of course—steelworker and teacher unions are usually the first to come to mind—but in North Carolina, a right-to-work state, their presence is not always immediately obvious. And despite the growing popularity and visibility of unions (a recent Gallup poll found that 68 percent of Americans approve of labor unions, the highest approval rating since 1965), actual membership has steadily declined: since 2000, the unionized percentage of the U.S. workforce has dropped from 13.5 percent to 10.3 percent.
Despite, or perhaps because of, this lag, in February Engelbrecht, Cira, White, and several other baristas—Sage Shaw, Sharon Gilman, Frida Salas-Caldera, and Clio Maxwell, all of whom are in their early to mid-twenties—plunged forward with organizing plans. White reached out to Workers United and, over Google Docs and a group chat, the baristas began to plan. On February 15, they filed for a union election with the National Labor Relations Board and submitted an open letter to Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson, signing their names alongside a note acknowledging the coworkers who “preferred to stay anonymous.” The majority of staff supports a union, White says, but fears retaliation.
“I was talking to one of our delivery drivers a few nights ago and I told him about how we filed to unionize and he asked, ‘Is that illegal here?’ Because he genuinely didn’t believe that unions were allowed here,” Engelbrecht says. “I feel like that kind of speaks volumes. If we win, this would be a huge shift for North Carolina as a whole—to show that we can unionize.”
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Starbucks has a special name for its employees: partners. It’s cozy corporate-speak for employees, to be sure, but the camaraderie is rooted in a benefits program more robust than most others in the fast-casual hospitality world. Various levels of health-care coverage (including dental and vision) are available, as are a 401(k), company stock, and paid time off and parental leave for eligible employees. Other perks are tucked into the job, too: store and affiliate discounts and a free Spotify premium subscription.
The career package sends a message to employees: we see you as people with a future, not just as disposable workers. It’s supposed to be a progressive company to work for, and for Engelbrecht, Cira, and White, its message was alluring from the start.
“My mom was excited about the 401(k) plan,” Engelbrecht says. “She’s like, ‘Start investing, get that stock plan!’”
But benefits are pulled from paychecks, and for baristas, those paychecks aren’t all that robust to begin with. As of February, the average Starbucks barista makes $11.64 an hour; in North Carolina, that amount is a little lower, rounding out at $11.00, which, at a full-time annual salary of $22,880, means that a full-time North Carolina Starbucks barista’s annual salary falls below the federal poverty line.
The nationwide labor shortage has prompted Starbucks to rethink wages. There are currently more than 11 million job openings in the United States and plenty of reasons why, including school and childcare disruptions and older workers retiring early. These openings have created a more flexible post-vaccine market for workers, especially those in the service industry, and recent data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics show that November and December quit rates were the highest since 2000.
“We have a birthday calendar in the back with everyone’s birthdays on it and three-fourths of the employees on there do not work here anymore,” Engelbrecht says. “I’ve only been at this store since July and it’s kind of sad. I got here right when that calendar was put up, and most of the people on there are gone. It’s like a graveyard of employees.”
In October, Starbucks announced that by this summer all employees will earn at least $15 an hour. (The announcement anticipated an optics scramble: In early January 2022, U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission filings were released, revealing that in 2021, CEO Kevin Johnson’s compensation grew 39.3 percent from $14.67 million to $20.43 million.)
The Fight for 15 campaign was launched by SEIU in 2012. At the time, the proposed new minimum wage was regarded as a pie-in-the-sky aspiration but it swelled from city to city; last year, it was set to be a central plank in President Biden’s $1.9 million stimulus package but the Senate parliamentarian struck it from the bill.
Still, a $15 wage floor has gained traction, and in the decade since has become imprinted in the national consciousness. To people in power who have, say, fond youthful memories of working $7-an-hour gigs at the local ice cream shop, a rate of $15 (which now amounts to an annual salary of $31,200) might sound more than adequate. But things have changed, even just in the 10 years since the Fight for $15 campaign launched, and after taxes that pay grade only translates to a take-home salary of $25,510.30.
According to one recent analysis published in The Triangle Business Journal, the median income in Raleigh is $61,500 but the income needed to “live comfortably” as a renter is $80,486.
So for the baristas at 2901 Sherman Oak Place, the promise of a future raise was already too late. They wanted a seat at the table, too.
“There’s a Bojangles right down the street and they had a ‘paying $15 an hour’ sign out like a year ago,” Engelbrecht adds. “Starbucks is just now getting to it.”
One of the shadows looming across the American workforce’s so-called great resignation is a pervasive idea that workers are quitting because they don’t want to work—that Gen Z, indeed, is so entitled that they would rather spend the day posting on Reddit’s infamous r/antiwork board than clocking into a shift. It’s language that takes several labor trends—pandemic-era white-collar burnout and poverty-wage employees striking or reshuffling—and essentializes them into a singular sociological phenomenon. As many have pointed out, though, a worker shortage is just one name for the current conditions; a better one might be a shortage of wages.
“I’ve been organizing in the South for 30 years and worked on a lot of inspiring campaigns, but this is one of the ones at the top,” says SEIU Workers United Southern Region director Chris Baumann. “It’s been led by this younger generation of workers, Starbucks partners, and they’re doing it themselves. We’re trying to support them, but they stepped out and are up against this horrible anti-union activity from Starbucks.”
Engelbrecht, Cira, and White are all part of that younger wave of workers. They’ve got some of Gen Z’s signifiers—Doc Martens, TikTok references, swoops of glittery eyeshadow—and have spent their young adult years working behind a counter during a pandemic, having come of age during the Trump presidency. It would be foolish to think they don’t know what they’re doing—or to assume the momentum will stop at Starbucks.
“Inflation is worse than the Great Depression now,” Cira says. “Someone said, like, ‘The new homeownership is having an apartment and the new having kids is having a pet.’ It’s so expensive to do anything. I can’t imagine ever owning a home or having children because of how bad the economy is. Fifteen dollars is a bare minimum—the fact that we’re still fighting for it in 2022 is crazy to me.”
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In late February, management at the Raleigh store acknowledged the petition by posting a note in the back room. It read warmly, promising to make “space as you need to ask questions and get all the facts on unions.”
“To be clear,” it read, “we don’t believe we need a union here. We’re not perfect, but we’re trying.”
“They claim to be a progressive company that leads, and yet when they had multiple stores in Asia experiencing the pandemic before us, they did nothing to prepare,” White said in a text message when I asked what she thought of the notice. “I read this letter to my team this morning and they laughed.”
“We will respect the process and will bargain in good faith guided by our principles. We hope that the union does the same,” Reggie Borges, a Starbucks spokesman, said in a statement. Still, organizing Starbucks workers across the country—so far, about 130 stores across two dozen states have filed—maintain that the corporation has used union-busting tactics. Most famously, in early February at a Memphis Starbucks, the company fired seven organizing employees who have since become known as the “Memphis Seven.” (A company spokesperson has said that the employees violated safety and security policies.)
Other criticisms of Starbucks’s response include alleged texts encouraging workers to vote no, the heavy presence of corporate management at unionizing stores, and allegations of labor practices being tweaked to target and edge out unionizing workers. In Raleigh, according to the baristas there, management has been pulling staff aside in pairs for sit-down meetings.
“The attitude of yesterday’s meeting is ‘Come on guys, even if you unionize, even if you organize, this is going to take forever,’ as if to say, ‘Just give up now, you won’t be in the long run for it,’” Cira says over Zoom, recounting one such meeting. “But it felt like it had the opposite effect of ‘Okay, I guess I’m going to stay with this company part-time until I see what I’ve been fighting for pay off.’”
When I asked about possible retaliation, White pulls up a bingo card of union-busting lingo on her phone.
“I think it would be funny to see Starbucks try to retaliate against me at this point,” she says. “I’ve never had a write-up. I’ve been partner of the quarter at every single store that I’ve worked at—I know I’m a valuable employee and I know that I’m good at my job.”
So far, six stores have officially unionized; Baumann says that Workers United is working with as many as 40 stores in the South. Employees at a Starbucks in Knoxville were the first in the South to file for a union election; after that store, the Carolinas lead the way with a Greenville Starbucks set for a mail-ballot deadline of May 2. The Sherman Oak Place Starbucks, meanwhile, will follow a day later with a Zoom election count on May 3. Starbucks has spent extensive resources challenging individual unionizing stores—its argument that elections should be held on a district-wide, not individual store, basis—but has not won any cases so far. It did not challenge the elections in Raleigh or Greenville.
As they wait, Alyssa White has stayed busy visiting other Starbucks stores in the Triangle and asking if employees want to unionize. Elsa Engelbrecht is preparing to start a remote degree at Arizona State University as part of Starbucks’s tuition-funding program. And Paola Cira, finally, is finishing up her last semester at Meredith College. In July, she plans to take the LSAT and apply to law school.
“My hope is that the community will wrap their arms around the partners in Raleigh and show support,” Baumann says. “And I hope that people who shop at Starbucks will take a real look at the corporation. They like to portray themselves as a progressive company, but based on this antiunion activity, it seems quite a contrast to what they portray to customers.”
On a recent morning, I went to work from the Sherman Oak Place Starbucks. It was busy; most customers were either in suits or yoga pants and, aside from the masks that employees wore, it felt like time had stopped and this normal scene was a snapshot from pretty much anytime in the company’s 51-year history. One distinction this store does have, though, is an exterior mermaid insignia that is black and white instead of the corporation’s signature emerald green. I asked the baristas why: it has a “midcentury vibe,” they said, and theorized that it was meant to make the store feel more modern.
And maybe that’s true. Maybe the mermaid is catching up with the times, after all, and can lead the South’s Starbucks forward. Maybe the May 3 vote will give a better idea of how that’s going.
“I’m one person at one store at one Starbucks in one state and a singular country,” Cira says. “It might not be a big impact, but I don’t want to leave this behind and know that I didn’t at least try.”
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