A stable income and predictable hours
On the corner of Cooper Point and Harrison, it’s a typical mall setting. Cars dominate the foreground, small chain shops border the asphalt parking lot; a Starbucks serves a steady stream of customers.
One thing is not typical. In front of the Starbucks, five people stand around a table holding signs: “Union busting is disgusting,” and “Unfair Labor Practices.” This location is one of two local Starbucks where employees have been organizing to form a union—and on April 30, their efforts were successful. The Cooper Point Village employees voted 19–2 to move ahead with their union. Employees at the Starbucks at Capital and Trosper in Tumwater also filed to form a union and will vote later.
The organizing goal
Outside the Cooper Point Village store, two employees were joined by several community supporters including members of the Democratic Socialists of America, Billie Adeosun and Star Wannamaker. They talked about the reasons they filed to form a union. Top issues for these working people are pay, guaranteed minimum 20-hour a week scheduling, collaborative decision-making on safety issues that affect them at the workplace—and an end to harassment aimed at derailing their union effort.
In short, they want to work more; in safe conditions and pleasant surroundings; for predictable pay that covers their living expenses.
Pay that reflects the local cost of living
Starbucks’ beginning hourly wage is set just above Washington’s minimum wage ($14.49). That’s the gross amount—not what ends up in your paycheck. Even at $15/hour, it’s a poverty wage. The barista working every day, 40 hours a week all 52 weeks in the year would bring home $27,200 after deductions. But that kind of full-time work isn’t what Starbucks offers.
Starbucks’ business model relies on part-time employees. Many individuals are scheduled for less than 20 hoursa week. To get above a poverty paycheck, they must be available at short notice to work more—based on management’s assessment of the staffing situation on any given day.
Another pay issue, according to Dylan Lux, a shift supervisor at the Tumwater store, is fair seniority pay: some longer term employees make less than their newer co-workers.
Lux also observed that the raise Starbucks issued to employees earlier this year was so insignificant it didn’t make up for the effective pay cut caused by recent high inflation. “It’s impossible to keep up at this point. As one friend said, ‘if everything keeps going up like this, we’re all going to be homeless.’”
Average apartment rent locally has increased by 16% in the last six years and continues to climb. Thurston Regional Planning shows the cost of living in Oly-Lacey-Tumwater is 10.3% higher than the average of all other urban areas covered by their 2021 survey.
Lux thinks that wages used to be what drew new staff to Starbucks, but that has changed: “Last year a good 70% of our staff left in their first few months because they kept finding better jobs—better pay, more consistent hours. Every day I walked in, another person had put in their notice or quit on the spot.” A search for local barista job openings found hourly pay listed at $18 and $19.
Guaranteed minimum 20 hours a week scheduling
With no fixed schedule of hours, a Starbucks employee doesn’t know until she gets a text which days and how many hours she’ll be working in the next two weeks. According to Lux, twenty-hour/week shifts are now routinely cut to four to eight hours a week. For part-time workers receiving a barely livable wage, having hours cut is a big issue.
Star Wannamaker, a Cooper Village barista, explains that her weekly scheduled hours don’t amount to enough to live on. She’s always checking her phone to see if there are more shifts she can work. “They know they can count on me to come in early and stay late” to inch her paycheck up. It’s a common situation for Starbucks employees since the company policy is to flex employee hours depending on customer volume.
Seattle’s “secure scheduling” law defeated at the state level
Washington has no law requiring a minimum predictable schedule for employees. An employer has the right to change an employee’s schedule at any time, with or without notice. An employer is also not required to pay an employee a minimum number of hours when the manager dismisses the employee from work prior to completing their scheduled shift.
Only in Seattle do shift workers have the right to stable scheduling. After workers organized, the city in 2017 adopted “secure scheduling” regulations. These ensure that people who work at large coffee, fast food, retail, and restaurants know when they’re going to work and how many hours they’re going to get.
A similar law was proposed in the State Legislature. It was successfully opposed by employers who argued that because they can’t predict customer flow, they can’t offer their employees predictable schedules—or stable pay.
Collaborative decision-making on workplace safety
When she started at Olympis’s downtown Starbucks in December 2019, Lux says it was a happy place to be. She never felt she was given more than she could handle; co-workers dealt with problems as a team.
The pandemic changed everything. Work became a daily fight to survive. Employees are overwhelmed and have no say in matters that directly affect their ability to do their work. At one point, managers informed employees they couldn’t enforce the policy requiring masks. A move to open a store lobby during the pandemic (before vaccines) was a disaster that led to employees catching Covid.
Recently when an aggressive customer subjected a trans barista to verbal abuse, the incident was brushed aside by management. Only after the employee called Starbucks’ Customer Support was the customer banned from the store.
An end to harassment aimed at derailing the union effort.
In response to the recent union organizing effort, Starbucks management has threatened to take away healthcare benefits available to (some) part-time employees. Such threats are illegal, but once made, their effect cannot be undone. Other forms of intimidation include promises by management that they will begin handing out more write-ups due to union activity.
As profits grow, stock owners benefit, workers wait
Starbucks annual gross profit for 2021 was $20 billion, a 28% increase over 2020. The company has increased its dividend payout in each of the past 11 years. Last year, the company paid out billions in dividends at an annual rate of $1.96 per share to the people who own shares of stock. In contrast, under the prospect of employee unions, Starbucks recently announced that it will set hourly pay for the people who produce the profits at $15—and up to $23—later this year. (1)
Starbucks says it calls its employees “partners” because “the term fosters a sense of equality and shared vision.” Apparently, that sense isn’t shared by the “partners.” Recently-returned founder and CEO Howard Schultz unwittingly acknowledged this, “If [the employees] had faith in me and my motives, they wouldn’t need a union.”
Some employees of this multibillion dollar international corporation who provide the service that drives the profits might offer this reply to Shultz: ‘“Partners” should share more than a vision: real partners share in decision-making. A union will provide that opportunity.
1- Nasdaq—SBUX dividend history; and Starbucks Investor Relations press release, 9/29/21.
Bethany Weidner believes context is everything. Gary Webb is the pen name of a corporate skeptic.