Thousands of Starbucks workers walked off the job on Thursday in what union activists have dubbed the “Red Cup Rebellion,” which they say is the largest Starbucks strike in history.
The demonstration, timed to coincide with the chain’s popular Red Cup Day holiday giveaway, is meant to bring awareness to the union’s efforts at securing better conditions for Starbucks workers, according to organisers and employees.
“We’re just being constantly understaffed or we’re just being overworked in general. And, you know, we want to make sure that we provide the best customer service we have,” Edwin Palma Solis, a barista at a Starbucks location in New York City, told The Independent. “And your support will help us do that. You know, we want to make sure that we are all in this together and we fight through this union.”
Tensions have been high between Starbucks management and workers since 2021, when a store in Buffalo, New York became the first to unionise.
More recently, Starbucks and the union filed competing legal actions last month, after the company objected to a union account making a pro-Palestine social media post. The company argues the union harmed the integrity of the coffee chain’s brand and is infringing on its trademarks by using Starbucks in its name, while the union counters that the company is defaming it by suggesting it supports terrorism and violence.
“I’m striking because union busting has led me to lose my benefits and that’s just downright wrong. Starbucks wants to be seen as a progressive company but between the union busting and the false claims that we support terrorism, I can’t imagine anyone is falling for it anymore,” another New York employee, Liv Ryan, said of the protest, per a press release from the union.
Workers described feeling like the frenzied conditions they face every day are going unrecognised.
“Partners will run themselves ragged having to do the job of three people sometimes because the demand of customers is a lot more,” Bruce Halstead, a Starbucks barista in Seattle, told The Guardian. “Partners will leave their shifts in tears, they will injure themselves just trying to keep up with the demand of the cups and the drinks. We just want to bring awareness to this.”
Starbucks Workers United told The Associated Press workers at more than 200 stores have walked off the job, with an estimated 5,000 employees expected to join in the mass walkout.
“We have nearly 10,000 stores open right now delighting our customers with the joy of Red Cup Day,” a Starbucks spokeperson told The Independent via email.
The company said fewer than 100 stores are participating in the union protest.
“We remain committed to working with all partners, side-by-side, to elevate the everyday, and we hope that Workers United’s priorities will shift to include the shared success of our partners and negotiating contracts for those they represent,” the spokesperson added.
The company said it had invested more than 20 per cent of FY 2023 profits back into wage increases, training, and new equipment, and pointed to recently announced wage increases of 3 to 4 per cent for all unionised and non-unionised employees.
The impact of the strike remains to be determined. Last year, amid union protests at over 100 stores, the company reportedly had its highest single says day ever during 2022’s Red Cup Day.
Starbucks opposes the union effort, and the company hasn’t reached labour agreements with any of its unionised stores over the last two years, per the AP.
The company has faced numerous complaints with regional offices of the National Labor Relations Board. Administrative law judges have upheld complaints that the company is firing union boosters, closing stores at risk of unionising, witholding benefits from union supporters, and offering incentives not to unionise, according to a Huffington Post analysis of recent cases.
“There’s always the concern of union-busting tactics and all that and retaliation,” Mary Baca, a Starbucks barista in New York City, told The Independent. “But I think that it’s worth it and you’re doing the right thing and you’re fighting for what’s right.”
The company has challenged many of the NLRB complaints, including asking the US Supreme Court in October to review how the board files injuctions amid a complaint regarding rehiring fired Memphis workers tied to union activities.
"Starbucks is asking the Supreme Court to level the playing field for Starbucks and all U.S. employers by ensuring that the same, correct standard is applied before federal district courts grant the NLRB extraordinary injunctions in the future," a Starbucks spokesperson told FOX Business of the effort.
The union has accused the company on Thursday of “failing to bargain and conducting a ruthless union busting campaign,” while Starbucks told The Independent the union has only responded to 20 per cent of 500 bargaining sessions the company has proposed for unionised stores.