Employees at a Buffalo-area Starbucks store have voted to form a union, making it the only one of the nearly 9,000 company-owned stores in the United States to be organized and notching an important symbolic victory for labor at a time when workers across the country are expressing frustration with wages and working conditions.
The result, announced on Thursday by the National Labor Relations Board, represents a major challenge to the labor model at the giant coffee retailer, which has argued that its workers enjoy some of the best wages and benefits in the retail and restaurant industry and don’t need a union.
The union was leading in an election at another store, but by a margin smaller than the number of ballots the union was seeking to disqualify through challenges. The challenges must be resolved by the labor agency’s regional director in the coming days or weeks before there is a result. Workers at a third store voted against unionizing, according to the board, though a union lawyer contended that some ballots had been delivered to the agency and not counted.
“Although it’s a small number of workers, the result has huge symbolic importance and symbols are important when it comes to union organizing,” John Logan, a labor studies professor at San Francisco State University, said in an email. “Workers who want to form a union in the United States are forced to take a considerable amount of risk, and it helps if they can see others who have taken that risk and it has paid off.”
The unionized employees, who are joining Workers United, an affiliate of the giant Service Employees International Union, received inquiries throughout the campaign from Starbucks workers across the country who said they were paying close attention and were interested in unionizing as well.
“I don’t think it will stop in Buffalo, whatsoever,” Alexis Rizzo, a worker at one of the stores and a leader in the organizing campaign, said at a news conference after the vote.
Workers cited frustration over understaffing and insufficient training when they filed for union elections at the stores in late August, problems that have dogged the company for years but which appeared to worsen during the pandemic. Such problems are not unique to Starbucks and have been problems for workers across the restaurant and retail industries for many years.
“We continue on as we did today, yesterday and the day before that,” Rossann Williams, Starbucks’s president of retail for North America, said in a letter to employees after the vote. “The vote outcomes will not change our shared purpose or how we will show up for each other.”
The election occurred through mail ballots that were due Wednesday. In November, workers at three more Buffalo-area stores filed the paperwork needed to hold union elections, but it was unclear when votes would take place for those outlets.
Starbucks responded to the union campaign with a sense of urgency. Throughout the fall, out-of-town managers and executives — even Ms. Williams — converged on stores in Buffalo, where they questioned employees about operational challenges and assisted in menial tasks like cleaning bathrooms.
In a video of a meeting in September viewed by The New York Times, a district manager from Arizona told co-workers that the company had asked her to go to Buffalo to help “save it” from unionization.
Several workers who support the union said they found the presence of these officials intimidating and, at times, surreal. They also complained that Starbucks had temporarily closed certain stores in the area, which they found disruptive, and said Starbucks had excessively added staff in at least one of the three stores that held elections. The workers said this had diluted support for unionization at the store.
“As of today we’ve done it in spite of everything that the company has thrown at us and we all know it has been an extensive anti-union campaign by Starbucks corporate,” Michelle Eisen, a barista at the Buffalo location that unionized who also helped lead the campaign, said at the news conference.
Former National Labor Relations Board officials have said that these actions by the company could be interpreted as undermining the “laboratory conditions” that are supposed to prevail during union elections and that they could serve as grounds for throwing out a result. Workers involved in the union campaign and a union lawyer indicated that they might challenge the result at the store where workers voted down the union.
A regional director of the labor board recently overturned a union election at an Amazon warehouse in Alabama on similar grounds.
Starbucks has said that it dispatched out-of-town officials and temporarily closed stores to help solve staffing and training problems and to remodel stores to make them more efficient. The company said that it added staff to deal with an increase in the number of workers calling in sick and that it had taken such steps across the country since the spring, when coronavirus infection rates dropped and stores became busier.
Ms. Williams, the North America president, said in an interview on Wednesday from Buffalo that she did not feel that the run-up to the vote had been especially contentious and that she had spent much of her time there this fall listening to employees (partners, in the company’s words) and addressing “the conditions that partners had pointed out.”
The key issue at the store whose vote was unresolved, near the Buffalo airport, was whether several workers who cast ballots were actually employed at the store. The union argues that they were employed at another store in the area and worked at the airport store for only a short period of time. The company said they were eligible to vote under the labor board’s rules.
The outcome could be important for determining the union’s leverage when it seeks to negotiate a contract. Under the law, an employer is obligated to bargain with a union in good faith, but there is no requirement that it actually agree to a contract, and the consequences of failing to bargain in good faith are limited.
“The incentives to resist bargaining are significant for the employer,” said Kate Andrias, a labor law expert at Columbia Law School. “If workers are able to win a good contract, it sets a precedent.”
Professor Andrias said that the ability to win a contract in such situations often hinged on the amount of economic pressure the union can exert, and that having a second unionized store could help in this regard.
Ms. Eisen, the worker at the store that unionized, said at the news conference that the workers would like to “offer the olive branch to the company and say, ‘Let’s put this behind us.’” She added: “Now is the time, let’s get to the bargaining table as quickly as possible.”
Starbucks has faced other union campaigns over the years, including one in New York City in the 2000s and one in 2019 in Philadelphia, where it fired two employees involved in organizing, a move that a labor board judge found unlawful. The company appealed the ruling and a decision is still pending.
Neither of those campaigns succeeded, but workers are unionized at Starbucks stores owned by other companies that operate them under licensing agreements. And workers at a company-owned store in Canada recently unionized.