Across the country, Starbucks has seen growing momentum for unionization. After a year-plus of organizing, workers at more than 140 Starbucks locations have announced plans to unionize as Starbucks Workers United, and at least six of those stores have won their union campaigns, demanding higher wages, better health insurance, and better safety protocols during the pandemic. “Workers’ rights here in Knoxville have prevailed,” said Knoxville barista and organizing committee member Maggie Carter after the vote. “We are carving our path to a successful partnership with this company that we truly adore, and it’s taken a lot of patience and perseverance to get to this moment.”
The union wave that is sweeping the hospitality industry isn’t limited to Starbucks. Workers at Oregon burger chain Burgerville ratified the first union contract in the fast-food industry in December 2021, and similar campaigns have occurred at chains like Voodoo Doughnut and Colectivo Coffee. But Starbucks in particular has often acted as a bellwether in the restaurant industry, for better and worse, under the guise of corporate progressivism. It brought “the third place” into our everyday consciousness, which made working on your laptop from a coffee shop nearly as normal as sitting in an office, and it’s credited with making brand-loyalty apps and online mobile ordering a thing across quick-service restaurants. It was among the national chains that normalized mask mandates at the onset of the pandemic in lieu of actual guidance from the government. On the local, neighborhood level, the arrival of Starbucks is considered a universal sign of impending gentrification. Put simply: As Starbucks goes, so goes the industry.
Right now, all eyes are on Starbucks, because what’s happening there offers some major insight into the future of the American labor movement. Starbucks is one of the restaurant industry’s largest employers, with more than 350,000 workers on its payroll across 9,000 stores, more than 140 of which have announced union campaigns. But the rapid momentum building is a glimpse into what it might look like for unionization to find success in an industry that could desperately use more workplace protections. Despite organizing in a variety of sectors, the labor movement has been stagnant for decades. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, union membership hit an all-time low in 2021, with just 10.5 percent of American workers belonging to unions. This decline in union membership has been associated with both wage inequality and wage stagnation, issues that became abundantly clear during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Workers have been attempting to organize unions at Starbucks since the 1980s, but those efforts were largely considered failures until 2021, when baristas in Buffalo, New York, won their first union election. According to Andrew Ross, professor of social and cultural analysis at New York University, that success has a lot to do with timing. The pandemic provided an opportunity for workers in the restaurant industry — Starbucks included — to really contemplate their working conditions. Unions, which promise benefits like yearly wage increases and contractually negotiated safety protocols,