by Jon King, Michigan Advance
November 16, 2023
Red Cup Day is one of the busiest, and most profitable days of the year for Starbucks, and for the second year in a row it has become a prime target for workers seeking a union contract with the coffee store chain.
Among those taking part Thursday were workers at several Michigan locations, including at least three stores in the Ann Arbor area, which were among more than 200 across the country where workers walked off the job.
At the Pittsfield Township location just outside Ann Arbor, about a half-dozen workers held an informational picket, including Cara Parker, 42, a shift supervisor and union leader.
Starbucks workers strike in front of their Ann Arbor store at 300 S. Main St., Nov. 17, 2022 | Laina G. Stebbins
“We’re trying to spread information about the understaffing that’s happening at our stores,” she told the Michigan Advance. “They’re adding a promotional half-off on Thursdays and they aren’t giving us more staff, so we’re understaffed and we just want them to negotiate with the union before they do things like that, and this is kind of to bring awareness to that.”
Parker and those joining her Thursday were providing cards to interested customers with a QR code for the Starbucks Workers United website, which asks the public to call on the corporation to bargain fairly with unionized workers.
“Red Cup Day, when Starbucks does a giveaway of their famous red holiday cups, is their biggest sales day of the year,” states the website. “But while executives watch the profits roll in, workers are understaffed and under-supported – all while Starbucks continues to run one of the worst union-busting campaigns in history.”
When Starbucks was asked to comment, a public relations firm sent a general statement on behalf of the corporation.
“We have nearly 10,000 stores open right now delighting our customers with the joy of Red Cup Day,” it said. “We understand that these promotional days change store patterns and traffic, and that’s why our retail leaders have the flexibility to build and adjust staffing schedules to reflect the unique and dynamic needs of each store — balancing store resources and expected customer demand to ensure partners are on the floor when they’re needed most. Notably, our store schedules are created three weeks in advance with our partners’ availability and preferences at the forefront. Our stores are often provided additional labor hours to augment staffing in support of planned promotional days, including for Red Cup Day.”
Matthew Kain, a labor organizer with Starbucks Workers United, told the Advance that the purpose behind Thursday’s labor actions is two-fold, both to bring awareness on these issues to the public, but to non-union Starbucks employees, as well.
“By being outside of these non-union shops, you’re getting union workers talking to the non-union workers and saying, ‘You know, we’d love to have you on the campaign, but either way, we’re fighting for the same issues that you experienced,’ so kind of making some more connections with workers at union and non-union stores, increasing our visibility and showing the company that, it’s year two in this campaign and we’re not going anywhere.”
The campaign is receiving national support, including from AFL-CIO National President Liz Shuler, who posted to X on Thursday morning asking the public to respect the picket lines.
“Today is #RedCupRebllion,” posted Shuler. “Thousands of understaffed, undervalued & fed-up baristas across the country are taking a stand & striking during @Starbucks‘ notoriously busiest day of the year. Don’t cross the @SBWorkersUnited picket line: Join one.”
Shuler was in Detroit Wednesday night supporting striking union workers at the Motor City Casino. Unionized casino workers at MGM Grand Detroit, Motor City Casino, and Hollywood Casino at Greektown on Oct. 17 launched a strike affecting 3,700 casino workers, including dealers, cleaning staff, food and beverage workers, valets, engineers, and more.
Meanwhile, Parker says in addition to staffing issues, a major issue has been preventing credit card tipping from being utilized in unionized stores, alleging it has been a form of retaliation by Starbucks to deprive union workers of additional income.
“We unionized a year and a half ago and they started adding credit card tipping to the stores that weren’t unionized,” she said. “But the reason why they added the credit card tipping is because we started to unionize and then they didn’t give it to any of the stores that we unionized. So, we’re still waiting to get the credit card tipping. It’s a legal battle right now and we’re hoping that soon we will get back pay for the credit card tipping we haven’t been getting.”
At least 16 Starbucks stores in Michigan have voted to unionize, the most recent being the Plymouth Road location in Ann Arbor. However, since then at least one of those stores, at Liberty and Main in Downtown Ann Arbor, closed in October, with the corporation citing “operational and performance challenges.”
The only other Downtown Ann Arbor Starbucks is on State Street, where Nat Leach, 24, was picketing. The former Starbucks barista is a University of Michigan junior and member of the Young Democratic Socialists of America (YDSA), which is supporting the employee walkout.
Leach said the closing of the Main Street location didn’t make any sense from a business perspective, leaving its status as a unionized store as the obvious reason.
“This is a college town. It is a dumb move for Starbucks to close one of their bigger stores that they know has consistent traffic,” they said. “They’re giving up that real estate to competitors, especially Sweetwaters, down here. When I’m talking to people, it’s like, ‘Oh, do you go to Starbucks or Sweetwaters?’ Now we know Sweetwaters is gonna try to move in there.”
Avi Tachna-Fram, 24, and Nat Leach, 20, outside the Starbucks on State Street in Ann Arbor.
Leach said the rationale that the store was closed due to poor performance was the same excuse that Starbucks has used when closing other stores.
“I believe it was Ithaca [New York], after the YDSA chapter there fought to get Starbucks off of their college campus, they closed all of the stores in that town. They’re not going to say it’s because of unionization because that is outright illegal, but they’ve already been charged numerous times by the NLRB [National Labor Relations Board] and I take what they’re saying with a grain of salt.”
An NLRB administrative law judge in July determined that Starbucks committed numerous violations of federal labor law in regards to employees at the company’s three unionized locations in Ithaca and ordered the corporation to reopen one of the locations. Starbucks is appealing that decision.
Meanwhile, Leach says they hope that customers will take a minute and consider the workers who provide them the coffee drinks they enjoy.
“I would bet that the wait time inside there is at least 30 minutes right now,” they said. “Unionization bargaining will bring higher staffing numbers to get those wait times lower, right? Which should make corporate happy, because that’s happier customers. So we’ll see,” Leach said, laughing.
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