Local Starbucks workers vote to unionize

George Copeland Jr. | 4/21/2022, 6 p.m.
“Get up, get down, Richmond is a union town!”
Workers at five area Starbucks stores break into cheers Tuesday with the announcement that local employees voted to unionize. They watched the tabulation virtually at Studio Two Three, an event space in Scott’s Addition. Photo by Regina H. Boone

“Get up, get down, Richmond is a union town!”

Chants, cheers and tears of joy filled the event space of Studio Two Three on Tuesday afternoon as organizers from five Richmond Starbuck stores watched as their workplaces became the first in the state to unionize.

More than 90 Starbucks employees across the five stores voted as part of the union process, which began in late March and now allows them to form local units of Workers United, an affiliate of the Service Employees International Union.

The vote and tally, counted by Cameron Meyers of the National Labor Relations Board and livestreamed from the Baltimore office, was the culmination of months of organizing by store workers to rally support among their fellow employees. Those present were already celebrating when the first store voted in favor of unionizing, and each store that followed was a welcome validation of their hard work to build solidarity and collaboration among their fellow employees.

“Every day I come in and support my co-workers, and it’s nice to feel that they support me, too, and that we can do this together,” said J. Fletcher, an organizing employee who works at the Starbucks store in Huguenot Village Shopping Center in Bon Air. At that Starbucks location, employees voted 11-2 in favor of a union.

“It’s been a long time since I’ve felt this happy about the job,” Mr. Fletcher said.

Base pay at the area Starbucks stores is $12 per hour. Organizers are seeking a pay raise, but haven’t said exactly how much. That will be left to negotiation now that they have a union, organizers said.

The Starbucks store on Forest Hill Avenue at Cherokee Road was the first Virginia store to vote to unionize, as those ballots were counted first. The tally there: 17-1 in support of the union.

Starbucks stores on Midlothian Turn- pike and Carmia Way and in Westchester Commons in Midlothian voted 22-3 and 13-8, respectively, to unionize, while the location at Willow Lawn shopping center unanimously voted 19-0 in support of the union.

Workers began efforts to unionize the Richmond stores in February, according to Iman Djehiche, an employee at the Midlothian store, following a successful vote in Buffalo, N.Y. That spurred other stores across the United States to petition for their own union representation, Ms. Djehiche said.

Backed nationally by Starbucks Workers United, the workers then rallied to garner support among local stores while facing efforts from corporate leadership to stymie interest in unionizing, according to Ms. Djehiche and others, including an increased managerial presence, reduced worker hours and more.

These actions compounded the stressful working conditions they face daily, Ms. Djehiche said. She said employees must manage the expectations of their managers for quick, efficient and friendly service as they deal with customer abuse and try to maintain safety standards during the pandemic.

Those conditions, Ms. Djehiche said, show just how much union representation is needed, and could likely be a motivating factor for those without union representation who are stuck in similar working conditions, not just at Starbucks but elsewhere.

“It’s shown a light on exactly how much we’re being exploited by corporations for low wages while they put increasing amounts of work on us,” Ms. Djehiche said of the pandemic’s impact on the labor movement. “I do hope that it will inspire others.”

Organizers said the next step will be bargaining and negotiation with local Starbucks leaders, a potentially lengthy process that could last months or longer. Devin Martin, an organizing employee at the Willow Lawn store, said organizers now are talking with their fellow employees to compile a list of the benefits and issues they want addressed when negotiations start.

Better wages, guaranteed benefits and improved safety measures are among the potential changes sought, several said. Ms. Djehiche said workers also are seeking to ensure any benefits secured can be renegotiated in the future, as the conditions of employment could change in the future.

Employees at Starbucks stores in Loudoun and Fairfax in Northern Virginia are voting Friday and Saturday on whether to unionize.

Beyond this work, Starbucks organizers plan to celebrate their victory and the efforts at other stores at the Unity Fest on Sunday, April 24, at The National in Downtown Richmond. U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders is to be among the special guests.

“We went up against a multimil- lionaire and we won,” said Katheryn Wiggers, an employee at the Forest Hill store. “I think it’s going to send a really good message for not just Starbucks but everywhere.”