There were three constants at the local Starbucks: The sound of coffee being poured. The tap of cash register buttons. The unsettling conversations of baristas.

“People were working every day and they still couldn’t afford an apartment,” said Ken Walker, a former employee. “I feel like in America if you work, you should be able to afford to live.”

Tired of just complaining, he became part of a union organizing effort. Shortly before employees at the University Circle store voted in favor of joining the Workers United union last summer, Walker was fired. 

The union filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board claiming that Starbucks illegally fired Walker for helping to unionize the store. An NLRB administrative law judge heard Walker’s case Monday. The union is awaiting a decision. The union has won many NLRB decisions. They include those in Buffalo, where  in December 2021 workers became the first in the nation to unionize. Walker said he drew inspiration from them for organizing employees in Greater Cleveland.

Starbucks’ employees are at the forefront of a growing effort among retail workers to unionize. Of the roughly 300 stores that now have unions, five are in Greater Cleveland. This month, workers at two more local stores filed petitions with the NLRB to hold elections, according to Starbucks Workers United, part of Workers United.  Workers at other retail chains, such as REI Co-op, are voting in favor of unions. REI Cleveland in the Pinecrest development in Orange Village in March became the third REI store in the nation to unionize. 

The gauntlet that American workers have to go through to form a union in the workplace is incredibly anti-worker. The United States is the only rich democracy in which employers have a right to campaign against unions.

Steven Lopez, an Ohio State University associate professor, whose expertise includes issues relating to work and unions

Many in organized labor want the majority of workers in retail and online marketplaces, such as Amazon, to belong to unions. While there is momentum in organizing such workers, there are also systemic issues that could thwart the efforts. Labor laws favor employers. Congress has not passed the Protecting the Right to Organize Act, or PRO Act, which seeks to make it easier for employees to organize and get contracts. With only about 10% of workers in the United State belonging to unions, many of the employees who unions are seeking to organize know little if anything about unions. (Forty years ago about 20% of workers belonged to unions.)

Because of such factors, things are “incredibly stacked” against workers who want to unionize, said Steven Lopez, an associate professor of sociology at The Ohio State University.  His expertise includes issues relating to work and unions.

“The gauntlet that American workers have to go through to form a union in the workplace is incredibly anti-worker,” he said. ”The United States is the only rich democracy in which employers have a right to campaign against unions.”

In an email to Signal Cleveland, a Starbucks spokesperson said the company is dedicated to negotiating. This sentiment is often at odds with NLRB decisions and union allegations in pending complaints against the company.

“At those stores in the Cleveland area where Workers United has been appropriately certified as the bargaining representative for partners, Starbucks remains committed to engaging in good faith collective bargaining,” the email states.

The REI Co-op store at the Pinecrest development in Orange Village. Employees at the store voted in favor of union in March 2023. Credit: Erin Woisnet for Signal Cleveland

Is the American workplace anti-worker?

Lopez gave the example of what are known as captive audience meetings to show how the National Labor Relations Act places the balance of power in employers’ favor. Such meetings are mandatory and can be held during the workday. Employees seeking to organize must limit their campaigning to “non-work time, such as before or after work or during break times,” states the NLRB website. 

“They’re really trying to scare the workers away from voting for a union,” he said.

Lopez said captive meetings are the impact of the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act, which limited the power of unions. He said unions lost effective negotiating tactics such as sit-down strikes, in which workers occupied their workplaces and refused to work or allow others to work until their demands were met. The United Auto Workers used sit-down strikes in the 1930s, especially in organizing and gaining wage increases.  

As auto manufacturing and other industries that unionized before Taft-Hartley began declining, so did union membership, he said. Organizing after that often proved too difficult. Additionally, he said President Ronald Reagan staffed the board with what Lopez calls “anti-labor” officials.

Lopez said having the union membership rate cut in half during the last 40 years has had a great impact on the working and middle classes.

“We’re the only rich democracy where collective bargaining has completely collapsed,” he said.

“We’re also an outlier in the magnitude of the increase in inequality we’ve had over the last four decades. There has been the explosion of wealth at the top like we’ve never seen. There has been the stagnation of ordinary people’s wages.”

Issues of fear and wages resonate for Walker. As “the single guy with no kids,” he said he took it upon himself to speak up about pay and other issues. Colleagues with families felt more vulnerable. Walker, who started at Starbucks in 2019 and worked at a couple of stores, said employee issues seemed to be the same in every store.  Walker said employees were also concerned about inconsistent schedules that made it difficult for them to organize their lives or to work a much-needed second job.

“Management pushed back and said, ‘If people want to make more money, they can work somewhere else,’” he said.

Akshai Singh, an employee who helped organize workers at the University Circle store, said such sentiments were common. He said they believe the labor market realities even for college-educated workers such as he is. Contract or part-time work are common. So are low or stagnant wages.

“I’ve worked at nonprofits when I didn’t know when the next foundation grant was going to go away,” he said. “Starbucks isn’t going anywhere, and I knew that I would have access to health care if I worked the 20-hour [weekly] minimum.” 

Starbucks union workers across the country including employees at the Crocker Park store went on a three-day strike last December. Credit: Jeff Haynes / Signal Cleveland

Before the organizing campaign, Walker said workers were making as little as $12 an hour and often couldn’t get the full-time work or even the roughly 20 hours a week they needed in order to qualify for medical and other benefits. Even if employees could get 40 hours, Walker said, they still weren’t making enough on which to live. A single Cuyahoga resident with no children needs to make a full-time hourly salary of at least $15.61, according to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s living wage calculator. 

Walker recalls one conversation he had with managers about pay and scheduling. He got the predictable answers, but something had changed. 

“I found out about what was happening in Buffalo, and I ended up reaching out to the folks there.”

Unionizing Starbucks workers

In early 2022, Walker and Singh began organizing workers at the University Circle store. They said they made sure they strictly followed NLRB rules, only organizing during “non-work time.”

Meanwhile, management’s captive audience meetings during work hours were frequent.

 “A lot of the rhetoric they were pushing very early was garbage,” Walker said. “They would say things like, ‘If you unionize, you’re going to lose your health insurance.’”

This, like much of Walker’s and Singh’s characterization of organizing Starbucks workers locally, resembles issues raised in complaints the union has filed throughout the United States. NLRB decisions have often been in favor of the union. For example, an administrative law judge found that a Starbucks in Oak Creek, Wis., had unlawfully threatened “employees that their union activities and/or unionization could lead to various adverse consequences.” 

Singh and Walker said since employees were often clueless about their rights, they had to spend much time explaining to them what unions are as well as the collective bargaining process. 

“Because corporations have done such a comprehensive anti-union job on workers, we see that very few people understand what a union is,” Singh said.  

Starbucks union workers across the country, including employees at the Crocker Park store in Westlake went on a three-day strike last December. Credit: Jeff Haynes / Signal Cleveland

The rarity was a worker who had a union parent or grandparent.

As the organizing campaign continued, Singh and Walker said the atmosphere at the store grew tense. They said that employees whom management even perceived as favoring a union often saw their hours cut. Singh said he never got enough hours to qualify for medical coverage. Managers were changing workers’ schedules on a weekly basis. They were frequently in a frenzy writing up workers, often for what seemed to be questionable infractions. Walker said he was written up for not using the company-issued iPad enough in carrying out his duties.

Singh had his theories about what was going on.

“It was clear that they were hiring and firing based on juking the numbers for the vote,”  he said.

Complaints filed by the union based on Starbucks firing employees in connection with union organizing are common. NLRB administrative judges have often issued decisions in workers’ favor. Among them are a 218-page decision in March that Starbucks in Buffalo had engaged in  “egregious and widespread misconduct demonstrating a general disregard for the employees’ fundamental rights.”

Some of the things the decision called for was for Starbucks to reinstate unlawfully fired workers, reimburse workers for “harm employees suffered as a result of Starbucks’s unlawful conduct” and bargain with employees at stores that had voted in unions.

Managers continued to discipline Walker, perhaps even more as the July election approached. Walker said he voluntarily stepped down from his shift supervisor position, but the write-ups continued. Then he was fired shortly before the election took place.  Walker said among the reasons management gave for terminating him was “failure to follow the shift supervisor approach.” 

He said his vote was counted. Walker had mailed his ballot before he got the boot.

Employees approved the union in an 11-to-9 vote.

Starbucks workers still have no contract

Workers at the West 6th Street store downtown last May became the first in Greater Cleveland to vote in favor of a union. These stores also have unions: the one at the corner of Mayfield Road and Lee Road in Cleveland Heights, the store on Clifton Boulevard near the Cleveland-Lakewood border, and the one at Crocker Park in Westlake. Employees at Starbucks stores on Royalton Road in Strongsville and West Garfield Road in Aurora have filed petitions with the NLRB to hold elections. 

No Greater Cleveland store has gotten a contract. In fact, Starbucks hasn’t negotiated a contract with any unionized stores, which now are 3% of its U.S. stores. National one- to three-day strikes by unionized workers demanding a contract, including those in Greater Cleveland, haven’t spurred the company. Neither have NLRB decisions, such as in Buffalo, that required the company to negotiate with the union. The union has filed a large nationwide complaint, which includes Cleveland, alleging Starbucks had failed to bargain in good faith. Even Mayor Justin M. Bibb has tried to nudge Starbucks to negotiate a contract.

“Today, I write to call on Starbucks’ management to please join Starbucks partners at the bargaining table and begin bargaining in good faith,” he wrote in a recent letter to Linda Coates, a regional manager. 

The National Labor Relations Act states that “employers have a legal duty to bargain in good faith with their employees’ representative and to sign any collective bargaining agreement that has been reached.” A common union complaint in Cleveland, as around the country, is that Starbucks’ representatives show up to negotiations, raise objections about the actions of the union’s representatives, and then leave.  

In the email to Signal Cleveland, Starbucks said that the union is to blame because “representatives refused to discuss proposals or bargain for any store in the Cleveland area without unilateral preconditions.”  The company only wants in-person bargaining. The union says bargaining can also take place via  Zoom “when necessary and appropriate.”

Starbucks union workers across the country, including employees at the Crocker Park store in Westlake, went on strike for three days in December 2022. Credit: Jeff Haynes / Signal Cleveland

Even with no contract, many Starbucks workers in Greater Cleveland and nationally got raises. In August, the NLRB filed a complaint against Starbucks alleging that the company had increased hourly wages to at least $15, but only at nonunion stores. An administrative law judge heard the case in October but hasn’t yet made a decision. After the complaint was filed, employees at union stores, including in Greater Cleveland, began getting raises.

The Economic Policy Institute, a liberal think tank in Washington, D.C., recently looked at studies from the last 15 years examining how long it took for workers to get their first contact. EPI found that it often took a year or more to get a contract “and, in some cases, no contract is ever signed. “

Employers don’t have incentive to negotiate. Under current law they face no civil penalties, such as large fines. The PRO Act before Congress would impose civil penalties. Workers would also have the right to file a civil lawsuit against their employer for violating their National Labor Relations Act rights, something which is currently prohibited. Captive audience meetings wouldn’t be mandatory.

“It contains some provisions for real punishments for employers that break the law,” Lopez said.

Union membership increasing 

Despite the challenges, workers continue to unionize. Union membership grew by 52,000 in the Buckeye state in 2022, or third in the United States, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. Workers nationally filing union election petitions with the NLRB increased  53% last fiscal year (October 2021 through September 2022.)

Public approval of unions is at its highest point since Gallup began polling on the issue  in 1965. Seventy-one percent of Americans approve of unions, according to the latest poll taken in 2022.

What remains to be seen is if the labor movement will be able to mobilize that approval into support to bring about legislative and workplace gains. What role will unionized Starbucks workers play in this? Will Greater Cleveland be in the forefront.?

For now, Singh is committed to making sure workers get their first contract. Walker, who has found another job, hasn’t been shaken by the firing. When asked if he would organize again, he answered without hesitation.

“Yes!” Walker said.

Economics Reporter (she/her)
Olivera, an award-winning journalist, covered labor, employment and workforce issues for several years at The Plain Dealer. She broke the story in 2013 of a food drive held for Walmart workers who made too little to afford Thanksgiving dinner. Olivera has received state and national awards for her coverage, including those from the Society for Advancing Business Editing and Writing (SABEW). She was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University. Olivera believes the sweet spot of high-impact journalism is combining strong storytelling with data analysis.