"We're not going to stop": Starbucks worker speaks out ahead of Buffalo's historic union vote
Buffalo, New York - Ballots were mailed out on Wednesday to baristas in Buffalo for a historic election that could result in the nation's first unionized Starbucks. TAG24 spoke with a local shift supervisor to learn about organizing efforts on the ground.
Unions and activism have been a constant presence in Gianna Reeve's life.
Her father is a union member at Ford, while her mother has always been "outspoken" on the issues she cares about.
These two big influences in Gianna's life turned out to be very relevant in her job as a shift supervisor at a Starbucks store in Buffalo, where she's been working for the last year and two months.
One day, a co-worker, known as a "partner" at the company, asked her for coffee outside of work. They sat down, and he told her that many of the partners wanted to form a union, but their organizing efforts had been delayed during the pandemic.
That struck a chord with Gianna, and she never looked back from there. Unionizing would allow workers to begin negotiating contracts with better wages and benefits, she insisted.
In particular, Gianna pointed to seniority pay as a key demand. Starbucks workers who have served at the company longer were given a raise about three weeks ago, but Gianna believes that only came about because of the union campaign.
She also mentioned existing benefits that need to be optimized so they are actually accessible. For example, Starbucks offers healthcare insurance, but many employees are unable to take advantage of it because it would suck up half their paychecks.
Collective bargaining would make it "so [healthcare insurance is] not just there to be there and there to look good, but so that it's actually serving the people that need it."
As a shift supervisor, Gianna is often her partners' primary point of contact for support, and she feels a particular responsibility to fight on their behalf: "That's the whole reason why I even care about all of this, because of them."
What workers are up against
Though many workers have touted the benefits of collective bargaining as a way to make the entire company stronger, Starbucks hasn't exactly been supportive of their efforts.
Gianna described the aggressive tactics the company has allegedly used to undermine the campaign, including constant visits from corporate big wigs.
Starbucks North America President Rossann Williams has been in Buffalo for the past several months.
Throughout that time, workers have been subjected to anti-union meetings, which Gianna said have spread "dangerous misinformation about the union elections."
She also called out the "psychological warfare" waged against workers and organizers, including partners being urged to call the company's ethics and compliance hotline if they feel pressured to vote in favor of the union.
Up until the last moment, Starbucks was apparently pulling out all the stops to end the union election, even asking the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to delay the distribution of ballots.
When that didn't work, they sent out a text message to all Buffalo-area employees: "Don't miss the chance to make your voice heard. If you're not 100% sure, you should vote no."
Gianna said the mistrust sown through these means has been "incredibly taxing on everybody's mental health and emotions," making it almost impossible to discuss the union vote on the Starbucks floor.
Gianna takes on former CEO Howard Schultz
But the more corporate leaders tried to undermine workers' unionization efforts, the more determined Gianna and her fellow organizers grew.
The suppression tactics culminated with a visit from ex-CEO Howard Schultz, now serving as the company's chairman emeritus.
Schultz, who is Jewish, has come under fire for drawing an analogy with prisoners in concentration camps in Poland during the Holocaust.
"Not everyone, but most people shared their blanket with five other people," he told the audience in a speech later posted on YouTube, referring to a story about prisoners being given one blanket for every six people. "So much of that story is threaded into what we've tried to do at Starbucks – is share our blanket."
Gianna wasn't impressed: "It was a shock to many people in the room when he decided to relate his generosity to a mass genocide."
Things didn't get much better when she decided to confront him during the meeting, demanding to know whether he planned to sign fair election principles for the union vote.
"He didn't even look at me. He didn't look me in the eye," the organizer recalled, adding that many corporate representatives stood up to shield Schultz and try to make her sit down.
"To have a whole partners' experience event and then silence the only partner that chose to stand up and speak, it speaks volumes about what Starbucks actually is. They can paint a narrative and virtue signal all day long, but when it came down to walking their walk, they crumbled," said Gianna, who has since been banned from attending the company's anti-union meetings.
Though corporate leaders ignored her, Gianna said she has received a "tremendous" positive response from partners who were present, many of whom now feel more emboldened to openly support the union campaign.
"Buffalo's a union town. They came to the wrong city to union-bust," she declared. "We're not going to stop until we have unionized Starbucks."
Where partners go from here
If workers are able to band together at Buffalo stores, Gianna is convinced the sky's the limit in terms of what they can achieve.
But she also believes a successful union vote will have repercussions that extend beyond Buffalo.
"I think that this is going to set the precedent for the rest of the nation, not just Starbucks, but for service workers in general," she said, noting that baristas across the country have already been in contact with her group.
"There's been a narrative of service work not being real work for a long time, and I think that's just a way to not provide people – a large portion of the population – with proper benefits and living wages and the ability to stand up and speak for themselves on the job."
To support the workers' efforts, Gianna and her partners are asking Buffalonians to display pro-union yard signs, which organizers will deliver for free. SBWorkersUnited also has a strong presence on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.
Gianna encourages people around the country to discuss the labor movement with friends and family to start learning more about the history and power of unions.
"Unions have become a very demonized thing by the very people that they don't benefit, i.e. CEOs and corporate workers and the ones looking to turn their profits rather than think about their people," she explained, adding that a lot of education needs to be done to counteract this messaging.
For Gianna, this learning process has been rewarding in ways she never expected: "I've come a long way from just sitting in the coffee shop," she laughed. "I didn't have any experience with organizing really until this campaign, and it's the best thing that's ever happened to me."
Voting will take place at Starbucks locations in Buffalo over the next four weeks, with ballots set to be counted in the second week of December.
Cover photo: Screenshot/Facebook/SBWorkersUnited