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For Kansas City Starbucks workers, ‘lifesaving’ benefits are on the bargaining table

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Jacob Martin
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KCUR 89.3
Employees at Starbucks in Overland Park gathered in April to have their union ballots counted. The final vote was 6-1 to unionize, although Starbucks has contested seven additional ballots.

For Starbucks baristas — many of them young and queer — it used to be a point of pride to work for a company with a reputation for taking care of its employees. But some employees say the company's response to their unionization efforts prove otherwise.

When Maddie Doran learned she was at risk of losing her health insurance as an employee of Starbucks, she says she was terrified.

“Oh, it ruined me, I mean, I suffer from a panic disorder so any little thing that spikes my anxiety makes it go through the roof,” Doran says.

Doran was an employee at the Starbucks on 75th Street in Overland Park. Like many Starbucks workers across the country, she was drawn to the job's flexibility and health benefits — and because she is transgender, that insurance was especially important.

But when she and her colleagues announced they wanted to form a union, the company threatened to take those benefits away.

“For me, gender-affirming surgeries are lifesaving and if I were to lose access to those it puts me in an extremely bad place,” Doran says.

Doran wasn’t alone. Coworkers Alydia Claypool and Michael Vestigo were planning to utilize the company's tuition assistance program to further their education. But all three employees were terminated in what they believed was an example to others of what could happen if they voted to unionize.

“Because Starbucks offers arguably better benefits than other places, it really suckers people into the company and they can't afford to lose their job then,” Vestigo says.

In the Kansas City area, five Starbucks stores have gotten involved in union efforts so far. For the baristas — many of them young and queer — it used to be a point of pride to work for a company that built a reputation for taking care of its employees.

But employees say Starbucks' actions over the past two years prove otherwise.

031922_BSN_StarbucksDriveThroughStrikeSign
Bek Shackelford-Nwanganga
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KCUR 89.3
A sign placed at the entrance of the Overland Park Starbucks drive-through announced "Store on strike". Protestors approached motorists trying to use the drive-through anyway, explained no one was in the store to make coffee, and handed out fliers explaining the strike.

'A seat at the table'

At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, thousands of Starbucks employees found themselves deemed “essential workers." While millions of Americans stayed home to protect themselves from infection, Starbucks baristas were asked to continue coming in and serving coffee.

That brought even more attention to some of the other issues happening inside cafes — health violations, delayed maintenance, complaints of harassment from customers — much of which workers say went unaddressed by managers.

Two stores in Buffalo, New York, unionized in December 2021. And soon, hundreds of others followed, including two locations in the Kansas City area — a café along 75th Street and I-35, and the store in the Country Club Plaza.

Nationwide, workers at some 250 stores across dozens of states have filed for a union election, and more than 50 Starbucks have voted in favor.

Around Kansas City, five stores are now engaged in union efforts — four in the Kansas City metro and one in Lawrence. Many of the leaders of the movement are in their early 20’s, and many are women or nonbinary.

The path has not been an easy one. In the months after workers at the Overland Park Starbucks announced plans to unionize, employees allege the company has engaged in anti-union activity — threatening to take away health and education benefits, and accusing employees of being violent or aggressive toward management.

Workers at the 75th Street location went on strike in April after three employees — Claypool, Vestigo and Doran — were terminated.

KCUR made several requests for comment to Starbucks for this story, all of which went unanswered. The company previously told KCUR that they preferred to communicate directly with their workers rather than through a third party, but that they fully respected workers' legal right to unionize.

In statements to other media outlets, Starbucks has called accusations of anti-union activity “categorically false.”

Later in April, Overland Park employees voted 6-1 to form the first unionized Starbucks in the area. But that celebration was short-lived.

During the vote count, Starbucks lawyers contested seven additional ballots, according to a representative at Workers United, a union organization group that represented Starbucks workers. Negotiations between the corporation and its employees are being delayed pending the outcome of those votes.

Workers across the country say they’ve experienced similar behavior. Workers United has filed 80 unfair labor practice charges against Starbucks.

And earlier this month, the National Labor Relations Board filed complaints against the company for anti-union activity at the Country Club Plaza and Overland Park locations.

“Hearing other partners have the same experience, it's kind of allowed me to see just how divided we really are from management in terms of like, actually having a seat at the table,” Claypool said.

Claypool has since gotten her job back at Starbucks, although Doran and Vestigo have not. She says it's been especially difficult to watch Starbucks use the very benefits that attracted her to the job to discourage union efforts.

“Working with so many people at this store who are like trans or non-binary and need these life changing, life-saving surgeries,” Claypool says, “it’s been, like, really hard to see the company just dangle them above people's heads and just make so many comments about losing those benefits if we unionize.”

A mass of people wearing mostly blue and red hold signs that read "UAW" and wave signs and flags with "UAW" and "Unionize" in front of a Starbucks coffee shop.
Carlos Moreno
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KCUR 89.3
Protesters at Starbucks in County Club Plaza begin setting up to demonstrate for unionization efforts at the coffee chain in Kansas City.

‘On the lawful side of being very anti-union’

While Starbucks’ alleged actions have been widely criticized, they’re not necessarily illegal.

The National Labor Relations Act of 1935 provides protections for unionizing employees through Section 7 rights, which says among other things that companies cannot "threaten employees with adverse consequences" if they support a union or "promise employees benefits if they reject a union."

But according to Risa Lieberwitz, a professor of labor and employment law at Cornell University, the way the law is written and interpreted still allows companies to oppose union efforts.

“Employers use the weaknesses in the law as ways to engage in very vociferous anti-union campaigns that stay on the lawful side of being very anti-union,” Lieberwitz said. “They do it because they want to interrupt the momentum of employees unionizing, and they also do it because the law isn't strong enough to create disincentives to their engaging in those kinds of campaigns.”

In 2021, the Biden administration appointed a new general counsel to the NLRB, Jennifer Abruzzo. It’s been seen as an encouraging move for workers' rights and pro-union advocates across the country.

Despite attempts from Starbucks to slow down unionization, the efforts at Kansas City stores continue moving forward.

The Starbucks store at 39th Street in Independence is scheduled to learn the results of their unionization vote Tuesday. If organizers win, it would become the second unionized store in the region.

“We really do think that through our unionization effort, we're not only going to improve the working conditions of the store, we're also going to improve how we do our jobs,” says barista CJ Miller. “We really do feel like it is a movement that can help all sides.”

Miller is optimistic about their chances, and he says that regardless of the outcome of the vote, the union effort will be remembered as a movement that improved the lives of workers like him.

“The movement sparked really by the workers in Buffalo has led to the other workers in fast food and service in the service industry to stand up and say that we're not going to take the abuse that we've been facing anymore, and that we're going to make our lives better for our futures,” Miller says.

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