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Starbucks workers win union vote at Midtown café, the third in Kansas City metro

Large sign of the Starbucks mermaid sits in front of a single-story building with "Starbucks" sign attached the roof. Cars are parked in front of it and a customer is walking out of the building.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
Traffic and customers flow in and out of the Starbucks located at 41st Street and Main on Tuesday morning.

A narrow win means that baristas at the 41st and Main Street café can now begin collective bargaining as part of Workers United.

Starbucks workers at the 41st and Main Street cafe in Kansas City narrowly won their vote to unionize.

After athree-month unionizing effort, baristas voted 5-4 on Wednesday to organize as members of the Chicago & Midwest Regional Joint Board of Workers United (CMRJB).

The Midtown location is the third in the Kansas City metro area to unionize, and the fifth in Missouri. They now join more than 160 unionized Starbucks nationwide.

Katie Baumberger, a barista at the Midtown location, said the wait to vote was stressful but worth the end result.

“I was on the floor whenever we got notification that we won — I was really excited,” Baumberger said. “I high-fived one of my other coworkers who’s for the union. It was just a really nice, exciting moment during the stressful time of our peak.”

Workers at the 41st and Main Starbucks say they began their union effort because of frustrations over working through the pandemic, and complaints that the company did not address concerns about discrimination in the workplace.

However, the company has taken a squarely anti-union stance since a Buffalo, New York, store became the first to organize in December 2021. As the wave of unionizing locations grew, the company published an anti-union website, expanded benefits only for non-union employees, andfired a number of union organizersacross the country.

Avis Sulzer, a barista and organizer at the Midtown Starbucks, said the close vote was due to low voter turnout and apathy. Sulzer says many employees feel like they’re being forced out by the company's union-busting measures.

“They're enforcing rules that they never did until we announced our intent [to unionize],” Sulzer said. “We've had such crazy turnover since the three months have happened just because the manager is just really brutal. Every attendance issue that wasn't a problem before suddenly is worth a write-up, and everyone's scared for their jobs all the time.”

Baumberger said the corporate pushback was staggering, and workers have filed multiple complaints of unfair labor practices.

“It's been really hard to see how corporate tries to push us down to make us give up hope and push partners away,” Baumberger says. “It was just really hard, like being fearful of management. Management should be supportive of you and understanding. It's very unsettling to have that right in your workplace.”

In a statement Wednesday, the company said that a union isn’t necessary for it to respect its employees.

“We are listening and learning from the partners in these stores as we always do across the country,” a Starbucks spokesperson said. “From the beginning, we’ve been clear in our belief that we are better together as partners, without a union between us, and that conviction has not changed. We respect our partner’s right to organize and are committed to following the NLRB process.”

In May, the Starbucks at 39th Street in Independence voted 17-3 to unionize. Workers at the 75th Street location in Overland Park voted in favor of a union a month before that. Starbucks contested several of the votes in the Overland Park election.

At the Country Club Plaza Starbucks, the union vote earlier this monthended in a tie, which technically means a loss according to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). But organizers with the CMRJB are pushing to drop some of the contested ballots and possibly challenge the results.

In May, the NLRBfiled complaints alleging the company had engaged in union busting efforts at the Plaza and Overland Park locations, including illegally firing pro-union employees.

Now that the 41st and Main Street vote is complete, the newly-unionized baristas will now be able to begin collective bargaining with the coffee conglomerate. Sulzer says they’ll begin by hosting union meetings to see what employees want in a contract.

“I hope that our store is another hopeful success story that may inspire more baristas and more partners to start or continue working with the union,” Baumberger said.

Updated: June 22, 2022 at 4:59 PM CDT
This story was updated with comments from Starbucks and café employees.
When news breaks, it can be easy to rely on officials and people in power to get information fast. As KCUR’s general assignment and breaking news reporter, I want to bring you the human faces of the day’s biggest stories. Whether it’s a local shop owner or a worker on the picket line, I want to give you the stories of the real people who are driving change in the Kansas City area. Email me at savannahhawley@kcur.org or follow me on Twitter @savannahhawley.
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