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Two more Buffalo Starbucks stores are working to start unions – and the world is watching

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Starbucks unionization (copy)

Customers leave the Starbucks location on the Elmwood Strip.

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Workers at two more Erie County Starbucks locations have joined efforts to organize a union – efforts that have drawn international attention and could have far-reaching implications for the multibillion-dollar corporation.

Unionization activity among workers at five Buffalo-area Starbucks cafes is being closely watched among retail companies, workers and consumers alike. If local workers vote to form a union, they would succeed where other Starbucks workers have not – making the Buffalo shops the first corporate-owned Starbucks stores in the country to have labor representation.

It comes at a time when industries across the board are reckoning with the Great Resignation – a sweeping turnover as workers reevaluate their work-life balance in a post-Covid world. The Buffalo Starbucks unionization could set the tone for future efforts across the retail and restaurant sectors.

With all eyes on the local cafes, top Starbucks brass has flown in from Seattle to visit Buffalo-area locations. Some workers have characterized the visits as intimidation, but Starbucks says the visits are an effort to better understand employees' needs. Visitors included executive Rossann Williams, Starbucks' executive vice president of U.S. retail and Canada.

Some workers said they felt spied on during the visits. At least one worker dropped out of organizing efforts after the visits in fear of retaliation, according to James Skretta, a worker at the Orchard Park location.

"They sent me a text that said essentially, 'I am afraid for my position as a shift supervisor. It's best if I have absolutely nothing to do with this,' " he said.

But Starbucks strongly denies any intimidation tactics and said such so-called "listening sessions" have been in place at the company for decades. The company held roughly 2,000 of them across the country last year – 175 of which Williams attended herself, Starbucks said.

After the visits, Williams told workers that unionization "could impact your work life for years and change our culture forever," in a letter obtained by The Buffalo News. Issues, such as staffing, training and equipment repairs "can only be solved by us, from within Starbucks," she said.

"We firmly believe that by continuing to work together, without a third party between us, we are best equipped to listen, engage and address issues where needed," Williams wrote.

Stores at 1775 Walden Ave. in Cheektowaga and 9660 Transit Road in East Amherst will file election paperwork this week with the National Labor Relations Board to secure a union vote. They join stores on Elmwood Avenue, on Camp Road in Hamburg and on Genesee Street in Cheektowaga; which filed for elections Aug. 30. A union is supported by the strong majority of workers at all of the stores, workers said.

In June, a National Labor Relations Board judge ruled that Starbucks had unlawfully fired two workers in order to stem union organization efforts in Philadelphia. Starbucks had also spied on conversations that one worker had with colleagues, the judge found. Starbucks has appealed the ruling.

Interest in unions has been percolating among the cafe industry in recent years. Spot Coffee workers voted to unionize in 2019 after seeing successful efforts at an Ithaca cafe called Gimme! Coffee.

High-profile efforts to organize Amazon workers were voted down after a strong counter-campaign by the conglomerate earlier this year.


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