Why Lethbridge Starbucks workers want to unionize

An exclusive report, made possible through a collaboration between The Alberta Worker and Rank and File, as well as the contributions of many Lethbridge Starbucks workers.

As you’ve probably heard by now, United Steelworkers announced last month that they were helping workers at 5 Starbucks locations in Lethbridge to unionize.

According to Pablo Guerra, an organizer with USW, “from challenges of PPE, employee shortages, being forced to come into work sick, and added pressures from mobile ordering and complex drink orders, workers have had enough and are demanding better from Starbucks.“

Guerra went on to say that the Lethbridge Starbucks workers “strongly believe joining the USW is the only way to drive change in their workplaces.”

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The media coverage on this development has primarily focused on the union itself rather than the mobilization of the local workers on the front line.

As a result, The Alberta Worker and Rank and File have teamed up to bring you this exclusive article, based primarily on feedback we received directly from the Lethbridge Starbucks workers themselves.

Despite how some people might portray unions as money-grubbing institutions interested in only enriching people at the top, the move by local Starbucks workers to reach out to USW wasn’t motivated just by money.

For example, according to the workers, work hours is a main issue that has prompted to unionize. These workers claim that they want more hours but that when they ask for them, management tells them that “hours are never guaranteed”.

Starbucks apparently uses a metic called “customer connection score” to determine where more workers can work the floor during a shift.

Starbucks sends out surveys randomly to customers who use the Starbucks app. The company then uses the survey responses to determine the customer connection score for that store.

Once the customer connection score is high enough and the items sold per half hour is high enough, then Starbucks will allow more workers on the floor.

This setup motivates workers to focus on speed and connecting with customers—doing more in less time—but this focus risk safety for workers and for customers.

Speaking of worker safety, another issue local workers told The Alberta Worker and Rank and File was foundational to their unionization drive was inadequate equipment in the workplace.

The workers who spoke to us reported that some equipment—such as refrigerators, espresso machines, and air conditioners are often unusable—or even outright broken—for weeks.

For example, the workers claim that the air conditioning at one of the Lethbridge stores recently broke. The lack of sufficient air conditioning led to multiple workers suffering from heat exhaustion and having to be sent home. Despite the reduction in the workforce at the store, the management refused to close the store or even reduce the workload on the remaining workers.

According to the workers, individual stores can’t control the temperature at their locations. Instead, the temperature is controlled by a remote centre in Texas, through a system installed by Starbucks.

Further to worker safety, while a retail coffee shop might not seem a dangerous work environment, one local worker spoke out on some of the injuries they’ve seen.

“Over the course of my journey at Starbucks, I have seen several partners develop injuries from overuse, overwork, slips, and broken equipment. Most of them are still on medical leave or modified duty.”

And that’s not including the harassment from customers, which the workers told us includes “physical violence, throwing drinks at workers, hate speech, racism, and queer-phobia”, as well as sexual harassment. Furthermore, Starbucks rarely seems to respond to these report, and “many of these issues have been exacerbated by the pandemic”.

A third issue that has motivated the workers’ collectivization efforts is benefits. To qualify for benefits, workers must put in a set number of hours per quarter. Naturally, students who work part-time can’t meet those labour quotas and thus fail to qualify for benefits.

Benefits are offered in a 3-tier system, modelled after Starbucks coffee beans. Starbucks claims that their benefits are comprehensive, but according to one worker, some basics, such as prescription coverage seems to be overlooked.

“I had a lower-tier plan a couple years ago that covered a life-changing medication. When I went to apply for benefits this year, the highest plan did not cover my medication anymore. Collectively, these plans cost much, much more than the union dues Starbucks is so worried about.”

Four years ago, Starbucks announced that they had expanded healthcare benefits for their transgender workers. One media outlet called it “the most comprehensive trans health policy in the world”.

However, the Lethbridge Starbucks workers we talked to said that the coverage Starbucks offers for gender-affirming surgeries is less comprehensive in Canada than it is in the US. Plus, only some surgeries are covered by Canada’s provincial healthcare plans and often requires significantly longer wait times than private options.

A fourth issue that has prompted the Lethbridge unionization push is the lack of health and safety workers.

Alberta labour laws require workplace have a health and safety committee if the location employs at least 20 workers. Or they can appoint a health and safety representative, for smaller companies employing 5 to 19 workers.

The health and safety committee must have worker members, they must work for the employer, and cannot be managers or supervisors. Plus the number of employer members must not outnumber the number of worker members.

Finally, non-unionized workers select the worker representatives on the committee

According to local Starbucks workers, however, the health and safety committees are instead are staffed with people “handpicked by store and district managers”. Starbucks workers in Lethbridge filed a complaint with a Starbucks human resources representative, but no changes have been made in this area.

It has become apparent to local Starbucks workers that reporting issues and trying to change them at an individual level isn’t making a difference.

“We believe organizing is the only way to gain more control at a store-level. We want a democratic workplace where everyone has a voice, where partner feedback is taken seriously and followed-up on.”

This desire for a more democratic workplace is further fuelled by the corporate culture at Starbucks itself.

“Starbucks likes to hire personable and creative people. The relationships between partners and their stores run deep. The culture that Starbucks would like us to emulate stimulates this idea of making Starbucks and our community a better place. Seeing American and Canadian partners organize is inspiring, and we relate to their reasons to do so.”

Lethbridge workers specifically chose to work through Untied Steelworkers because they successfully organized the Victoria Starbucks, the only currently unionized Starbucks location in Canada, as well as “their long history”.

The corporation has not taken kindly to the unionization efforts here in Lethbridge. The workers trying to unionize here report that “regional and district managers, HR representatives, and a vice-president have been hovering over our city since finding out about
our effort.”

Plus, they’ve been sending out communication that is worded in a way to frame those pushing for unionization as aggressive and negative. Check out the following statement, which local workers saw was recently included in an email sent out by their district manager:

“If you ever feel uncomfortable or pressured, or subject to unwanted communication, remember that you are empowered to express your position and not engage. If the conduct continues, Starbucks has policies for your protection that prohibit harassment and bullying. If you have concerns, please reach out to your leader.”

Or this email recently sent out from Starbucks Canada:

“While we hope you choose to continue working directly with us, without a union between us, we respect our partners’ right to organize or not to organize… our top priority is your partner experience.”

Lethbridge workers behind the unionization effort, however, insist that their campaign has been anything like the portrayal from the corporation.

“As an organizer who is well connected to many partners across the city, [I can tell you that] our effort has been nothing but welcoming, informative, patient, and respectful. The union drive was successful because we wanted to focus on education, accessibility to sign, and discretion.”

And even though the corporation has responded to some requests since the unionization drive has began—such as anti-slip mats and “labour that reflects and improves service”—the workers are confident that “without the union effort, once those people leave, everything will go back to the way it was.”

If you support the workers’ union drive, you can support them by ordering a drink with the name “Steelbucks,” “Union Strong,” or
“Solidarity.” This way, when they call out your “name”, everyone in the store will hear them call out that word or phrase.

You can also follow them on Twitter and Instagram.

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By Kim Siever

Kim Siever is an independent queer journalist based in Lethbridge, Alberta. He writes daily news articles, focusing on politics and labour.

5 replies on “Why Lethbridge Starbucks workers want to unionize”

[…] One final thing. Notice right at the end, where Nelmes suggests that a union will become between Starbucks management and the workers? I think that’s kind of funny. Because if Starbucks management did actually work directly with the workers, why do the Lethbridge workers have a list of grievances about their work environment? […]

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