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Bernie Sanders hosts livestream session with local Starbucks workers

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Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont on Monday heard testimony from four Buffalo area Starbucks employees who are among workers attempting to unionize three local shops in the area.

Sanders, an independent politician who nonetheless is in the vanguard of the liberal wing of the national Democratic party, addressed the workers and several others who tuned in to a livestreamed town hall meeting from Washington, D.C., about what he described as the effects of income and wealth inequality in the U.S.

"The people on top are doing phenomenally well while, at the same time, working people are struggling," Sanders said.

"We are going, in the next few weeks and months, to be focusing on the needs and struggles of working people, and we're going to take a hard look at the increasing level of unionization activities that we're now seeing all across this country," he added.

Sanders said that, from coast-to-coast, there is evidence of workers beginning to stand up and fight back as they demand to be represented by a union.

Meanwhile, voting on whether workers at the three Buffalo-area Starbucks stores will join a union is wrapping up this week. Workers from the three stores are required to return their ballots to the National Labor Relations Board no later than Wednesday. The NLRB will count the ballots and announce the results of the unionization vote on Thursday.

The unionization campaign has drawn widespread attention since, if Starbucks Workers United succeeds, the three stores would become the first of the 8,000 company-owned locations in the nation to unionize.

Sanders said if Starbucks has enough money to pay its CEO nearly $15 million a year, it can afford to pay its workers a living wage with decent benefits. He said that what these Starbucks workers are doing represents a major breakthrough for all low-wage workers in the country, though Sanders noted that Starbucks is less than enthusiastic about the current unionizing effort.

The company in October outlined a new pay plan for its employees, including hourly rates of at least $15 an hour. Employees with two or more years of service could receive up to a 5% raise starting in January. Workers with five or more years of service time could receive up to a 10% raise.

“Our storied success has come from our working directly together as partners, without a third party between us,” Starbucks said in a statement in October after the union vote was organized. “We remain focused on supporting our partners as well as maintaining open, transparent and direct conversations throughout the process.”

Among the four members of the Starbucks Workers Organizing Committee who spoke with Sanders were Michelle Eisen, a shift supervisor at Starbucks' Elmwood location who has been employed with the company for 11 years; Gianna Reeve, another shift supervisor at the Elmwood location; Lexi Rizzo, a six-year Starbucks employee and shift supervisor at the Cheektowaga store; and Maya Panos, a 17-year-old high school student who works for the company.

"I'd like to be a voice for my co-workers," Eisen said when asked by Sanders why she took an active role in union organizing.

The union on Tuesday said it was filing petitions with the National Labor Relations Board to conduct votes at Starbucks stores at 4770 Transit Road in Depew, 3186 Sheridan Drive in Amherst, and 1775 Walden Ave. in Cheektowaga.

Eisen alluded to a number of inequities with regard to the company, noting that she makes only 63 cents an hour more than new workers hired at Starbucks. Eisen said that she doesn't begrudge new workers their earnings, but does not believe workers should be required to work their way up to a living wage. She and the other workers also suggested that senior employees were not valued by the company.

Rizzo said it was difficult for some workers who cannot qualify for the health and other benefits the company offers because they are not being scheduled for the minimum 20 hours per week that are required to receive benefits. She also said workers' jobs should not be perceived as "churn and burn" positions, instead of being looked at as sustainable careers. 

Reeve said Starbucks has long claimed to be a company with progressive values. She and the others said they want to help Starbucks become the company it claims it wants to be. 

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