Will Restaurant Workers Unionize? Starbucks Workers Hope So

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Nov. 11 2021, Published 11:20 a.m. ET

The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted what restaurant workers already knew: they're essential, and their job comes with more risk than many people realized. Starbucks employees are trying to change the status quo by unionizing, even if corporate big shots are trying to halt the efforts.

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If the Starbucks union comes to fruition, it could change the state of restaurant workers moving forward. Restaurant workers have historically existed outside of the union context, but that all may change.

Starbucks union vote taking place in Buffalo

In the past five decades, Starbucks (NASDAQ:SBUX) has managed to satisfy workers enough through tactics like pay raises and benefits. However, some employees are getting fed up and want to unionize.

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The movement is taking place in the general area of Buffalo, N.Y., where workers from three stories are set to vote by mail about whether they want Workers United to represent them.

Workers United is part of the Service Employees International Union. The regional office of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) approved the vote ahead of time. The final votes will be counted on Dec. 9.

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How Starbucks executives are combatting union efforts

Starbucks executives sought to delay the vote with a request to the NLRB, but the vote was able to proceed as that request undergoes review. This isn't the first unionization effort that Starbucks has tried to squelch, but it has the potential to be the first effort to succeed.

What a Starbucks unionization could mean for restaurant workers at large

Unionized workers at Deere & Co. and Kellogg Co. are famously on strike. Amazon workers in N.Y. are seeking unions, and Starbucks employees are trying to shift the agenda for restaurant workers like themselves.

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As Starbucks sales hit $29 billion in fiscal 2021, workers feel like they deserve more—childcare, higher pay, and better working conditions, just to name a few. While Starbucks does offer paid parental leave, free college tuition at Arizona State University, and minimum pay of $15 per hour starting in summer 2022. For in-store workers, it's not enough.

Higgins Labor Program director Dan Graff told reporters, "When companies frame themselves as good employers who care about workers, often that sets up expectations for workers." If Starbucks workers manage to pass the union vote, they could inspire others in restaurants across the country to do the same.

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Why restaurant workers don't generally unionize

The food and beverage industry has one of the lowest rates of unionization in the nation, with just 3.4 percent of workers unionized in 2020. That's less than a third of the overall rate of 10.8 percent across industries.

Restaurant workers often feel disorganized because many work at places with one location or a few locations. Small restaurants are particularly hard to organize in the community, but that's not stopping some labor-union drives from taking place. With restaurant workers experiencing long hours, few (if any) benefits, and subpar wages, the employee shortage could easily turn into a demand for rights and respect by way of unionization.

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