Inside the efforts to unionize at New Jersey Starbucks locations

When Sara Mughal joined Starbucks in Hopewell in October of 2019, she never imagined herself forming a union there; in fact, she made the decision to work at Starbucks because of the progressive values she believed the company possessed. 

“They promote themselves as a great employer, and a place that would be great to work at,” explains Mughal. “I really liked their progressive image, and I wanted to take advantage of the Arizona State University online program they offer. I never finished my bachelor’s degree and wanted to take advantage of it.”

But when the pandemic hit, Mughal (and other Starbucks employees, or partners) felt the company could’ve offered better resources to implement safety protocols and adapt to rapidly changing consumer habits and working environments, among other concerns.

“When we came back from our two-week quarantine period, they gave us these flimsy masks,” remembers Mughal. “Someone one day as a joke drank their drink through the mask with a straw, and they could. We were required to wear gloves, wash our hands every 30 minutes, and sanitize the store every 30 minutes. Starbucks very much publicized that, but didn’t give us the people to do so. It wasn’t feasible; it was an outward appearance that we’re keeping your safety in mind. They wouldn’t give us the basic things we need to succeed in that.”

A spokesperson for Starbucks refutes those claims and says, “Throughout the pandemic we met and exceeded the thresholds set forth by the CDC, health experts, and the federal government. We supported partners with vaccine paid sick days, and isolation pay. We empowered our store leaders to make any changes that stem from their neighborhoods. They are the ones that are on the ground and know what is going on in their communities.  We gave them the ability to change hours, shorten hours, and make to-go orders. We had a protocol for all partners that included temperature checks. We are now in year 3 of the pandemic and we’ve been transparent with our partners with the steps we are taking to care for their health and safety.”

Nonetheless, the experience during the pandemic has led to some staff members at Starbucks stores around the country, including three in Central Jersey, to consider unionization. It’s part of a broader movement of workers re-engaging with unions after the pandemic forced many people to reexamine their relationships with their employers. 

“COVID revealed to a lot of people how essential these workers are to the economy,” says Rutgers labor professor Todd Vachon. “Yet their pay is less than what it should be, and the working conditions are very difficult. It’s a customer-facing condition and you don’t get a lot of respect and you often don’t get a lot of full-time hours to get the benefits you need. You don’t get the regularity of a week-to-week schedule that you can rely on. COVID revealed to these workers how important these jobs are. The workers knew it before, but it became apparent to everybody.”

The push for unionization at Starbucks started when one of the company’s franchises in Buffalo, New York, won a union vote in December; since that day, numerous Starbucks locations have organized to have a vote for a union including two in the Trenton area. The Buffalo store workers have been a huge help to those at the Hopewell and Hamilton Township locations that are organizing union drives, Mughal says.

“Seeing Buffalo and their struggle and how strong they were really inspired us,” says Mughal. “Every time we heard their story and what they were working to fix, it was what we were experiencing as well and they had the same exact struggles we did.”

The Buffalo location also gave the Mercer County stores a heads up on “listening sessions” that the company would host with partners. Workers claim that these meetings were “anti-union,” and, in their opinion, were a way for the company to tell a tailored narrative on unions.

“We weren’t surprised when they set these up,” says Mughal. “They closed the store at 12 p.m., which they never do. They put us in groups of five or six, and there were four consecutive meetings. They phrased it as, ‘We wanted to hear all of your voices,’ but in reality they didn’t want us to all be together and they wanted to tell the lies that they wanted to tell us. So they put us in these meetings, and they basically said, ‘We didn’t know much about unions and we are learning alongside you guys,’ and then they proceeded to tell us how awful unions are. How exactly are you learning about unions, but telling us how awful they are?”

Hopewell Starbucks. Photo Credit: Kyle Nardine

However, a Starbucks spokesperson says that, “any claims of anti-union activity are categorically false,” and says the purposes of the meetings that Starbucks had with partners were, “to give the information needed to partners to make a decision to inform them of their benefits. We have been repeatedly clear with partners that we will respect the decision they make, but we just want to make sure that they have all the information needed to make a decision.” 

Despite the meetings, Mughal says that solidarity is high at the Hopewell location. “Everything they are throwing at us—which I think will become more aggressive going forward—increases our solidarity, and it will grow. They will see that Starbucks is keeping us from fighting for what we deserve and everyone at my store really understands that.”

Another reason why some Starbucks workers are pushing for unionization is the feeling some employees have that they are stretched thin at work. It was a main reason for Mughal, and for Bella Griep, a barista at a Hamilton Township Starbucks. 

“So, right now we cannot keep up with demand,” says Griep, a 20-year veteran of Starbucks, who claims the company, “does not give us the support needed to make our store as successful as it could be.

“Now don’t get me wrong, it’s successful, but at what cost?” Griep continues. “We are stressed and tired. Overworked and neglected. Everything is about the numbers. Keep that cash flowing even if you are sick, even if you have a family emergency but don’t expect us to pay you a fair wage. We want our union to put our partners first. We want the support to have a work/life balance that works for us. We want to get paid what we are worth.”

Mughal remembers a specific day that made her want to organize a union, a day “where we were staffed really well.”

“There wasn’t a crazy amount of customers, and it was manageable,” Mughal says. “We didn’t have 10 extra employees, we had one extra employee. It wasn’t anything crazy, but it made the day so much more manageable. I was in a work environment where I was able to talk to customers, and my coworkers. No one was frantic and no one was stressed out. It was just a really nice day at work. I was on my way home thinking about how nice of a day it had been and it occurred to me that it took so little to give us support and the company didn’t want to set us up with that. It wouldn’t cost them much at all.”

For the Hopewell location, the results of their election will be revealed in late April, and if the union drive is successful, there are specific things that Mughal hopes will be in the contract relating to benefits, hours, scheduling and tips. 

“Some of our workers are high schoolers and they want to make sure that their availability is respected,” says Mughal. “Like if they are only available for 10 hours a week and get scheduled for 20, they want that respect. But also there are people who use this job for all of their household bills. If they were promised 32 hours a week and are only scheduled for 18, that is not fair to them. It’s more so about getting what you were promised. There are people who need a minimum of 20 hours to get their benefits and they have to fight tooth and nail to get those benefits; they shouldn’t have to. We feel like we should get paid better and increasing base pay is something we are looking at. There’s also credit tips, and in our store, we can’t take credit card tips.”

Even though solidarity at the Hopewell location is high, there are some people at the store who aren’t on board with the union because of the potential for loss of benefits; CEO Howard Schultz has made statements lately pointing towards increasing benefits for non-union Starbucks partners. Starbucks brought Schultz back to lead the company recently, with many speculating it was to slow down the union effort.

Despite that, there is strong interest in unionization from younger Starbucks partners—“People count out high schoolers, but they are the ones who are taking the time to learn more about the union and talk about the contract,” says Mughal. 

Rutgers’ Vachon has a couple theories as to why Zoomers and younger Millennials are more interested in unionization. 

“If you look at polling with 18-24 [year olds] about unions, there are a high number of people who are interested in unions,” says Vachon. “There’s a lot of things that contribute to that and some of it has to do with a historical understanding that their parents and grandparents had good jobs decades ago because of unions. Also you can’t discredit the role that Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign had on them. It was also the demographic that overwhelmingly supported the Sanders campaign and there was a lot of education in that campaign that inspired a lot of younger people.”

The unionization efforts at Starbucks and Amazon are also changing how people view the constitution of “the working class”; efforts at these two companies are often led by women, people of color, and people in the LGBTQ+ community. 

“For a long time due to the structural racism of this country, the ‘deserved’ working class was almost always white male workers in blue-collar jobs and production trades like factory workers, truck drivers and laborers,” Vachon says. “But then when you look at the service industry where it’s more women and people of color, they don’t necessarily get the status of the working class. But they are absolutely the working class, especially in 2022. The factories have all but left and there are more yoga instructors than coal miners these days. The working class needs to be defined more broadly.”

Even though retail and service work has a high turnover rate, Vachon believes that Starbucks unions will be successful in trying to keep the interests for unions high amongst new hires. 

“It’s going to require constant organizing because there is a churning of the workforce,” says Vachon. “It will help them build solidarity, and it will make the union have a culture of organizing. Whereas with occupations that already have a union in place, people come in and think the employer is giving them these great benefits, and not understanding that is because of the union.”