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'Better isn’t good enough': Starbucks workers in New Orleans, Birmingham discuss unionizing

Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin, right, orders a coffee at a downtown Birmingham Starbucks store.
Stephan Bisaha/Gulf States Newsroom
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Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin ordered a coffee under the name “union win” on May 11, 2022, to show solidarity for the Starbucks workers attempting to unionize at a Starbucks location in downtown Birmingham.

Two Starbucks stores in New Orleans and Birmingham, Alabama could be the next to join a growing unionization movement among those working for the U.S. coffee chain giant.

Baristas, shift supervisors and assistant managers at the downtown Birmingham store will cast ballots on May 25 and 26 to either join or reject unionizing after at least 30% of them signed petitions earlier this month. The New Orleans store, located on Maple Street, did the same, though it doesn’t have an election date yet.

But since a Buffalo, New York store successfully unionized in December — sparking the current movement — Starbucks has waged an aggressive anti-union campaign. That led to lawsuits from the National Labor Relations Board, including charges the company retaliated against pro-union workers. The company has promised new benefits for 240,000 Starbucks employees, but only for those not unionizing. Interim CEO Howard Shultz said unions restrict the company’s freedom to offer such benefits.

Shultz’s accusations of unions as an outside force gave Kyle McGucken — a shift supervisor at the Birmingham store and one of the workers pushing to unionize — “a sense of tragic sadness.”

He believes that his store needs a union to improve work conditions, but he still loves Starbucks — he and his wife became engaged at the Starbucks’ New York Roastery.

McGucken shares his passion for the coffee company with two union organizers working at the New Orleans Starbucks — Caitlyn Pierce, a barista, and Billie Nyx, a shift supervisor.

The three employees talked to each other about why they feel the need to unionize, the pressure they’re feeling from the company and what it’s like running a union campaign for the first time.

The following quotes have been edited for clarity and brevity.

Starbucks Union Organizers
Photo courtesy of Billie Nyx
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New Orleans Starbucks union organizers Billie Nyx and Caitlyn Pierce speak with Kyle McGucken, who is doing the same in Birmingham, on May 11, 2022.

Why They Want To Unionize 

Nyx: They said that they were top of the line in meeting and exceeding COVID guidelines. But really, were they? I was there. They really weren’t.

And then just coming back and having to deal with these issues. And really it was just all this pressure that was bottled up. And then as soon as I saw Buffalo and everywhere else doing these things successfully I was like, “OK, well there’s some future here.” This is something that can be successfully done. And the time to do it is now because there’s so much pressure on them.

McGucken: What am I going to tell my child when they learn about, you know, the second wave of American labor? If it is the second wave. Whatever the term is. This labor movement. Am I going to say “I just watched?” No … I want to say, “Hey, we were a part of it.”

I didn't leave the store without doing everything I could. I wanted to help the partners, especially those who don't really feel comfortable speaking about their experiences openly.

On Starbucks Culture And Benefits

Nyx: Starbucks is one of those places where you don’t have coworkers, you have friends. At least in my experience, most of the people I’ve met at Starbucks either were friends to start with or became friends.

It’s that joke that every Starbucks barista is super cool and edgy and all that. But it’s really just the culture that they put out, I guess the people that they attract and the benefits that they have. It is a place where I notice trans and people of other sexualities towards Starbucks and the culture of the people there.

Pierce: One of the hardest parts about this for me to swallow has been that we’re kind of hearing this narrative from Starbucks that they give fantastic benefits and we give the best benefits. And to an extent, they’re not wrong. They do have really good health care. We are paid more than a lot of other fast food service workers are.

But the issue, at least for me, is that it’s not enough. Better isn’t good enough. Especially not right now.

Starbucks Union Cup
Stephan Bisaha/Gulf States Newsroom
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To show solidarity with Starbucks workers attempting to unionize, patrons order coffee under names like “Union Strong” on May 11, 2022, at a location in downtown Birmingham.

Whether They’ve Felt Pressure From Starbucks

Nyx: I definitely have felt the pressure real hard. I’m the one that’s dealing with upper management whenever we are having a crisis in the store. And they’re just telling me, “Oh, you have enough people for the store.” And I’m like, I am literally the person that’s in the store telling you that I don’t have enough people and you’re just telling me back that I do.

It really feels like gaslighting in a way and it feels like the pressure is mounting to push me out of this position.

McGucken: They’ve generally left me alone. My store manager is trying to do everything he can to just do a good job. He’s just being a good person. The upper management has left me alone. They have not left other partners alone.

Running Their First Union Campaigns

McGucken: It’s been a lot. None of us really have any experience. We have conviction but it’s a lot of stuff. And it’s usually doing work outside the store.

But I would like to thank the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union for doing some deep dives into the law that I didn’t think I would ever know. I appreciate my Amazon workers who have been struggling with this campaign for a while on their own so they know the ins and outs.

Pierce: Initially, whenever we really even just started talking about all this, I was really scared and really overwhelmed. Like, I have no idea what I’m doing. But having people there to learn with — and especially Billie — I have to give so much thanks to them because they’ve been the person to spearhead this. But it’s having people there who either also don’t understand or do understand and can help that is so validating and so helpful.

This story was produced by the Gulf States Newsroom, a collaboration among Mississippi Public Broadcasting, WBHM in Alabama and WWNO and WRKF in Louisiana and NPR.