Starbucks Workers United’s Red Cup Rebellion, Explained

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Red Cup Day, the day Starbucks releases its collectible holiday cups, is one of the company’s most profitable. But last year, Starbucks Workers United used the occasion to draw attention to its ongoing fight for unionization. The group’s Red Cup Rebellion involved strikes at over 100 stores and was SBWU’s largest coordinated effort to date. This year, SBWU says it’ll be even bigger.

On November 16, according to SBWU, thousands of workers will once again walk out of hundreds of Starbucks locations to protest working conditions, including short-staffing and the frequency of promotional days like Red Cup Day. Promotional days bring more customers and more orders, which workers say they must manage without a full staff, leading to increased wait times, stressful conditions, and ultimately a bad experience for everyone. “Understaffing hurts workers and also creates an unpleasant experience for customers,” Neha Cremin, a barista in Oklahoma City, says in a press release. “Starbucks has made it clear that they won’t listen to workers, so we’re advocating for ourselves by going on strike.”

In a statement to Eater, Starbucks said it remains “committed to working with all partners, side-by-side, to elevate the everyday, and we hope that Workers United’s priorities will shift to include the shared success of our partners and working to negotiate contracts for those they represent.” (Emphasis theirs.)

Shepard Searl, a barista and organizer in Chicago, says last year’s Red Cup Rebellion had palpable effects, setting in motion some bargaining sessions with management. But more importantly, it solidified the organizing efforts in the eyes of workers, the company, and the general public. “That reminded Starbucks that Starbucks Workers United is a legitimate entity, it isn’t just a few rebellious stores,” they said. This year’s action will be the largest in the union’s history.

What is Red Cup Day and why did the SBWU choose it for its strike action?

Red Cup Day is a testament to Starbucks customers’ brand loyalty. It would not be the sensation it is if customers weren’t coming back every year, wanting to collect the free, reusable holiday cups and be the first to try new winter drinks. “Starbucks relies so heavily on its customer base. Starbucks doesn’t value its workers as much as it values its money, and its money comes from its customers,” says Searl.

This year, SBWU wants to leverage that relationship by asking customers to stand with the workers who create the experiences they return for day after day. SBWU is asking customers to join rallies outside of Starbucks locations, write to Starbucks executives demanding they bargain with the union, or to bring pamphlets to non-unionized stores. They’re also inviting non-unionized Starbucks workers to walk out in solidarity.

Why are Starbucks workers striking now?

Though Starbucks locations have continued to unionize over the past year, Searl says SBWU and Starbucks have been stuck in a “stalemate.” The union has filed multiple National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) complaints over illegal punishment and firings, unfair labor practices, and using the company media policy to keep workers from exercising their right to speak to the press. Workers also took to social media in June, drawing attention to some workers not being allowed to decorate their stores for Pride month. But for all these actions, no contracts have been signed.

In its statement to Eater, Starbucks said SBWU hasn’t agreed to meet with the company in four months, and that the company is ready to “progress in-person negotiations with the unions certified to represent partners.”

A spokesperson from SBWU tells Eater they have never refused to meet at the bargaining table with Starbucks, and that it is the company that has stalled, found excuses to walk out of sessions, or made unreasonable demands. According to the National Labor Relations Board, as of October 16, regional offices of the board “have issued 105 complaints covering 369 ULP charges against Starbucks Corporation and Siren Retail Corporation following investigation. This includes a consolidated complaint that alleges that Starbucks has failed or refused to bargain with 242 certified bargaining units in 31 states (and DC).”

Starbucks has also denied unionized workers benefits it gives to workers at non-unionized stores, and has threatened to remove benefits from workers if they unionize. For instance, an NLRB judge found a Starbucks manager in Wisconsin illegally told workers they’d lose their abortion travel benefit if they formed a union. And recently, Starbucks raised wages and introduced better benefits at non-union stores, but says unionized stores need to bargain over receiving these same benefits. Previously, Starbucks, and specifically former CEO Howard Schultz, argued that it can’t give better benefits to unionized stores because under federal law they’d need to bargain over those benefits. “Starbucks has adhered to long-standing legal obligations, which required it to differentiate between unionized or organizing partners and partners in all other stores,” Starbucks spokesperson Rachel Wall told CNN last week. This is an argument the NLRB has repeatedly said is not true and is in fact a violation of labor law.

What’s different about this year’s Red Cup Rebellion?

While the stalemate continues, one of the biggest differences to the Red Cup Day strike this year is coordinated actions from colleges. Cornell University recently decided it would end its contract with Starbucks, and students at Georgetown, UCLA, Boston University, University of Washington, and more are asking their colleges to divest from the company.

In a petition to Georgetown President John DeGioia, a group of over 300 students, staff, faculty and campus organizations has asked the school to terminate its licensing agreement with Starbucks, and to divest from Starbucks stock, of which the school owns 49,957 shares, valued at nearly $5 million. “Removing Starbucks from our campus and divesting from the corporation would be an incredible show of solidarity with Starbucks Workers United and employees fighting for the right to form a union at Starbucks, as many of the leaders in this movement are either students themselves or recent graduates,” the group says, noting the numerous unions representing workers and students on campus, and the Jesuit school’s stated values of justice and care.

A year out from the first Red Cup Rebellion, what’s certain is that Starbucks’ attempts to curb unionization efforts so far have not been working. Over 100 more stores have unionized since last year, the total being over 360. Which means workers are going to continue agitating, protesting, and organizing. “One thing that we’re pressing is the urgency, because this movement isn’t going anywhere,” says Searl. “If they don’t bargain with us now, they will have to bargain with 400 more stores in a few years.”

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