How Starbucks workers are bringing the fight for a living wage to Houston

Houston, Texas - Starbucks baristas in Houston, Texas, have gone public with their campaign to become the company's first unionized store in the city. TAG24 NEWS spoke with a local organizer to get the inside scoop on the union drive.

The Shepherd and Harold Starbucks store in Houston, Texas, has filed a union election petition with the National Labor Relations Board.
The Shepherd and Harold Starbucks store in Houston, Texas, has filed a union election petition with the National Labor Relations Board.  © Starbucks Workers United Houston

As of Monday, Houston's Shepherd and Harold store is the first in the Texan metropolis to file a union election petition with the National Labor Relations Board.

Though workers at the store officially declared their intent to organize this week, the seeds of the campaign were planted almost a year ago.

Josh, a shift supervisor at the store, told TAG24 that he first got the idea to unionize last summer. "I hadn't talked to anyone about it, but I was definitely pretty driven," he recalled.

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Because there were no unionized Starbucks in the US at the time, Josh didn't know exactly how to proceed with the idea.

"I was in my head kind of planning that I would have to get a region or the whole city of Houston in some way, create a relationship with other Starbucks partners across the city while also protecting my job in the process, which did seem pretty daunting," he laughed.

"There was a lot to lose when that did seem like an insurmountable task at the time," he acknowledged, pointing out that not only his salary, but also his health insurance and Arizona State University tuition benefits would be on the line.

When another co-worker at the store reached out to Workers United months later about pursuing unionization, Josh was fully on board: "I felt it my responsibility to put all the help I could into directing it. I had no qualms whatsoever about taking a leadership role."

The fight for a living wage

Starbucks baristas at the Shepherd and Harold store are fighting for living wages that match the cost of living in the city.
Starbucks baristas at the Shepherd and Harold store are fighting for living wages that match the cost of living in the city.  © Starbucks Workers United Houston

When it comes to the changes workers want to see at the Shepherd and Harold location, Josh emphasized that the needs in Houston are similar to those at stores around the country.

First and foremost, employees have united around the fight for a living wage that matches the rising cost of living in the city.

"The feeling and understanding of what your labor is doing and the value it has to a company as it's growing is clear to a lot of people, and also it's clear that that value is not matched in our compensation for that same labor," Josh insisted.

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Seniority pay is also a big issue. Josh, who has been with the company since 2013, currently makes only slightly more than new hires. He stressed that all workers deserve raises, but that partners who stick with the company long term should also see their pay rise commensurately.

Josh added that Starbucks has also been cutting the hours employees are scheduled to work, leaving shifts with fewer baristas to do the same amount of labor. Meanwhile, the company continues to rake in record profits.

Working without a store manager

The Shepherd and Harold café has been left without its own store manager, with shift supervisors and baristas left to pick up the slack.
The Shepherd and Harold café has been left without its own store manager, with shift supervisors and baristas left to pick up the slack.  © SAJJAD HUSSAIN / AFP

Another issue is the lack of a store manager at the Shepherd and Harold café. Having previously served in that role, Josh knows exactly what that means for the store.

"A store manager has to wear a lot of different hats. You're hiring, you're training, you're developing business and growing sales," he said. "It's definitely not an easy job at all."

Since the manager at Josh's store abruptly left, a store manager at another location in the city has had to take over scheduling and payroll duties. Considering the number of responsibilities store managers juggle, Josh said the interim replacement is "probably overworked."

Not having their own store manager has also left Josh's store in the lurch. Baristas and shift supervisors have to coordinate much more frequently to organize shifts and get supplies repaired. "We're kind of left to fend for ourselves sometimes," he said.

The lack of clear leadership in the store has made communication among workers all the more important: "It's been a struggle, but other shift supervisors in the store and I have been trying to keep morale up as much as possible, especially more recently with this union push to try to keep people's spirits up and not get too burned out."

A vision for a stronger Houston

Josh hopes that his store's union campaign will encourage other Starbucks locations around Houston to organize.
Josh hopes that his store's union campaign will encourage other Starbucks locations around Houston to organize.  © Collage: Unsplash/Adrian N & Guillermo Arias / AFP

Since his store announced their campaign, Josh has been surprised by the positive outpouring of support from the wider Houston community.

He also feels confident about the store's chances of success come election time: "I believe in everyone at our store. I believe in our team, and I'm trying to make sure they all believe in themselves as well."

Though his store is now trying to form its own bargaining unit, Josh hasn't given up on his original vision of unionizing all Houston-area Starbucks cafés.

The shift supervisor-turned-organizer had a special message for other stores who might be considering filing a petition: "Understand that a lot of the doubts or hesitation that you might have is by design. It's by the design of our work environment. It's made to be that way, but it's not the reality."

"If you push for it, you'll find that you have a lot of support outside of your store and outside of your co-workers," he encouraged.

Cover photo: Starbucks Workers United Houston

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