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‘Sick and tired of being sick and tired’: Starbucks in Boone becomes first location in NC to unionize

Starbucks employees at Pride Drive and Blowing Rock Road voted 33-2 in favor of unionizing on April 30, becoming the first location in North Carolina to join the nationwide Starbucks unionization movement.  

The location officially declared its intent to join Starbucks Workers United on April 4. After being offered the opportunity for an in-person election instead of using mail-in ballots, the branch conducted its election on April 30, dramatically shortening the time it would have typically taken to officially unionize. 

“Almost all stores have conducted their elections [with mail-in ballots], and we assumed ours would be set up the same way,” stated a tweet from Starbucks United Boone. “This process takes weeks to initiate and complete.” 

Workers started considering unionization when Starbucks began cutting store hours after the holiday season. 

“A lot of people had to pick up second jobs just to pay their bills. It was at that point [that] we were like, ‘We don't have a say in this. We're very frustrated with how everything is going,’” said Grace Marvell, a union organizer at Starbucks United Boone.

Rachel Eakes, another union organizer at the location, also expressed concerns about the uptick in verbal abuse experienced by store customers over the holiday season. She added that the Starbucks corporate office didn’t offer its support to workers. 

“When it happens three times a day every day over the holidays, it really wears you down,” Eakes said. “Then you’re like, ‘Well, they’re calling corporate. There’s nothing I can do.’ As soon as they do that, they basically get a $25 gift card for being a jerk, and you’re told to treat customers better.”

The partners at Starbucks United Boone reached out to a larger network of contacts through Starbucks Workers United, learning from the past successes of other unions. Since the first Starbucks unionization petitions in late August, close to 250 Starbucks stores have followed in their footsteps. 

“This network of unions is all people who have already unionized, reaching out to other stores and saying, ‘Here's what worked, here's what didn't.’” Eakes said. “There's not really a defined system. It's all pros and cons and store-to-store advice.”

Even with help from their network, the nascent union faced a number of challenges. 

As a right-to-work state, North Carolina labor regulations say that “the right of persons to work shall not be denied or abridged on account of membership or nonmembership in any labor union or labor organization or association.” 

State law thereby prohibits union membership or the payment of union dues from being a condition of employment.

“They’re going to try to do everything they can–every trick in the book–to get us not to unionize because it’s easier to have workers that aren’t unionized from a management perspective,” Marvell said. “North and South Carolina are both right-to-work states, so us unionizing is not nearly as easy as it would be in states where it’s not.”

Marvell and Eakes described corporate efforts to convince employees to vote against the union.

“[Corporate] threatened to take away our benefits, which they can't do, because they've already promised them to us,” Eakes said.

Marvell also recounted tactics reportedly experienced by other unions across the nation, such as Starbucks corporate associates making false promises to workers in an effort to entice them into voting against a union. 

“They have also been holding captive meetings–we at our store didn't see them as much as other stores. It’s where they thank partners, sit them down and talk to them, try and discern what kind of grievances they have with the company,” Marvell said. “Basically the bottom of it—of all of it—is to try and get people to vote no.”

Despite the roadblocks, Marvell pointed out that convincing their coworkers “didn’t take much convincing.”

While there were hesitant members of the branch, the union organizers made a point to maintain workers’ anonymity from the very start. The authors of the letter announcing the intent to unionize nodded to the 31 signing employees “deliberately chosen to protect through anonymity” in the letter’s signature.

The partners noted that this decision was in response to the worry that unionization could be used as a reason for termination. According to the North Carolina Department of Labor, North Carolina is an employment-at-will state, signifying that “the employer can discharge an employee at the will of the employer for any reason or no reason at all.” 

In addition to protecting the anonymity of their co-workers, the union organizers aimed to provide the Starbucks workers at their location with resources to assist them in navigating the situation. 

“Our main strategy was arming our people with knowledge of what we can promise for sure and what Starbucks is going to try to do in captive audience meetings. We armed our people with knowledge, in hopes that that would help protect them,” Eakes said. 

The Starbucks unionization movement represents a budding trend in the food service industry. In 2021, only 1.2% of workers in the industry were unionized. Yet, petitions to organize in the industry, notable for their high turnover rate, have exploded in recent years. Since January 2022, accommodations and food services industry have made up 27.5% of all union election petitions, and Starbucks accounts for nearly a quarter of all petitions filed since January in the first half of the 2022 fiscal year. 

Despite Starbucks Union Boone’s success, other North Carolina Starbucks locations have seen mixed results in a state with the second-lowest union membership rates in the nation.

On May 11, the Charlotte Street Starbucks located in Asheville, North Carolina, voted against unionizing after a final tally of 11 votes yes, six votes no. 

Another Starbucks located at Wake Forest and Six Forks Road in Raleigh is currently challenging a vote held on May 3 after a final tally of five votes yes, seven votes no. The vote comes after Sharon Gilman, one of the seven employees who signed the letter declaring the location’s intent to unionize, was controversially fired on April 9.

Nevertheless, the organizers at Starbucks United Boone hope that their success will lend strength to their movement.

“People are realizing that they're worth a lot more than how they're being treated by their employers,” Marvell said. “Being able to unionize like this, [we’re] hoping that it'll give other workers, especially in the service industry, that momentum to go out and organize for themselves.”

Ultimately, the partners point to the solidarity that they feel for those in the food industry and their hopes that their victory will inspire and aid other workers.

“You're going to want to pass out water to people who are thirsty if you have the water to give,” Eakes said. “It's just a statement about how the system is breaking. We need a different system that pays workers a living wage because we are sick and tired of being sick and tired.”


Audrey Wang | University News Editor

Audrey Wang is a Trinity sophomore and a university news editor of The Chronicle's 118th volume.

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