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Brewing workplace democracy: Starbucks union vote major moment for labor activism

Media Contact

Lindsey Knewstub

On Thursday, votes from Starbucks workers at three stores in and around Buffalo, New York on whether to unionize will be tallied. If they vote to organize, it will establish the first-ever unionized locations of the chain’s thousands of U.S. stores.

Ahead of the final count of votes on Dec. 9, the Cornell ILR Buffalo Co-Lab is hosting a virtual panel discussion on the legality of the tactics Starbucks is employing to prevent unionization and how the Starbucks campaign fits into recent trends in labor activism.

Cathy Creighton, director of ILR’s Buffalo Co-Lab, previously worked for the National Labor Relations Board as well as with dozens of labor unions in the Buffalo region. She says the Starbucks campaign is a prime example of how U.S. labor law is designed to put business ahead of workers’ requests to organize. She recently wrote an op-ed on the efforts to unionize at the Buffalo, New York Starbucks locations.


Cathy Creighton

Cathy Creighton

Director of Cornell University ILR Buffalo Co-Lab

“Two-thirds of Americans approve of unions, yet only 6.3% of the private workforce is organized, and less than 2% of food and beverage workers are unionized. The Starbucks campaign is a textbook example of why U.S. law is designed to make sure that business wins out over workers’ wishes to organize.

“While the voting has been ongoing, Starbucks has launched an all-out campaign to avoid unionization. First, it fired all but one of its store managers whose employees decided they wanted a voice in their working conditions. Second, Starbucks sent in the highest-level corporate managers to be at the store on a constant basis to surveil employees, calling them into the office one by one for hour long meetings to dissuade them from voting for the union. Most of us would have a difficult time holding up under the pressure of working while being surveilled constantly by the president of the company. 

“Now Starbucks is hiring multitudes of workers – which pads the voting unit – and training them in union avoidance rather than teaching them how to make drinks.”

Cornell University has television, ISDN and dedicated Skype/Google+ Hangout studios available for media interviews.