Discontent among front-line Starbucks workers who say they are overworked and not adequately protected from the pandemic has led to new efforts to unionize, with one location already taking the leap and others hoping to join it.
Starbucks has long has a reputation for treating workers well, and until recently, no Starbucks locations in Canada were unionized, save for a location in Quebec City which briefly joined a union in 2009.
But this past August, the employees at a Starbucks in Victoria, B.C., voted to join the United Steelworkers union, becoming the only unionized Starbucks in Canada.
The workers joined the union with the hope it would lead to higher wages, more paid hours to avoid understaffing, and better health and safety measures during the pandemic to keep staff safe, said one employee, who asked to remain anonymous to avoid retribution.
The Victoria employee said they have heard from Starbucks employees in other cities interested in following suit.
“I am really, really optimistic and hopeful that more people take on unionizing as a way to keep themselves safe and to demonstrate to the world and to demonstrate to their employers that they know how valuable they are,” the worker said.
Steve Hunt, district director for the United Steelworkers, said the union has heard complaints from various sectors during the pandemic, often about a lack of proper protective equipment.
One of the main concerns the Starbucks employees want the union to address is concerns about COVID-19 safety precautions and communication about those precautions, Hunt said.
A Starbucks employee in Quebec watched the unionization of the Victoria store with keen interest. The worker, who asked to remain anonymous to avoid retribution, said problems such as understaffing that existed pre-pandemic became worse after COVID hit. They have also had concerns about proper protective equipment and ongoing promotions like “Happy Hour” that can result in lineups and overcrowding.
In an emailed statement responding to the allegations made by the Victoria and Quebec employees, a Starbucks spokesperson said the company is “proud of every step we have taken to continue to protect partner (employee) safety and financial well-being, and we continue to monitor, listen and make decisions deeply rooted in partner care.”
Starbucks’ website states the company is offering extra pay through Oct. 25 for employees who are self-isolating, whose store is closed with no available alternative, whose hours have been reduced or who can’t work due to child care limitations.
When news broke about the Victoria store’s unionization, the Quebec employee shared a link to a group chat of Starbucks employees — and a call to action: “Guys, it’s time.”
A week later, Starbucks began holding conference calls, cautioning employees against unionization, the worker said, adding that Starbucks referred to employees as “family,” saying it made them “sad” to see employees inserting a mediator between them and their employers.
After these meetings, the company began asking workers for more details about their complaints, the worker said. The main one was understaffing. The company promised to double up on staff, said the employee, but didn’t always follow through.
The Starbucks spokesperson said the company is listening to its employees and continuously evolving its operations in response to the new working environment, “which includes increasing scheduled hours on a store by store basis.”
Unionization could provide higher wages and give workers a say in decisions that affect them, such as safety measures, the worker said.
Jim Stanford, director of the Centre for Future Work and formerly an economist at Unifor, said he predicts more interest in unionization because of the pandemic, which has shown the protection unions can offer.
Stanford said workers are most likely to be interested in unionization if they’re in a sector where the pandemic has raised intense issues of safety, such as long-term care homes, or if they’re in a sector where workers felt devalued prior to the pandemic, such as retail, hospitality and grocery.
But while forming a union can help protect employees, existing labour laws don’t always make it easy.
Bob Barnetson, a labour relations professor at Alberta-based Athabasca University, said while a successful unionization drive often sparks other employees in similar situations to do the same, the success of the other locations could depend on whether the United Steelworkers union decides to help them out. As well, he said it’s likely Starbucks try to dampen interest in unionization, perhaps by making some improvements, or through other measures such as punitive measures or appeals to employees.
Stanford thinks more Starbucks workers will unionize.
“It is a challenging environment to unionize for many reasons, including high turnover. But the fears and frustrations of the workers in Victoria are certainly shared by others in the broader hospitality sector,” he said in an email.
“Starbucks workers want more protection, and more respect, so this union drive is definitely not an isolated event.”
Barnetson said the high turnover of staff in certain sectors, such as at cafes like Starbucks, can make it hard to retain union solidarity.
If these movements gained traction citywide or province-wide, they “would have more staying power,” he said.
There are provisions for this in Quebec, Stanford said, where groups of businesses, such as those belonging to a particular franchise, or employees across a certain industry, can negotiate a collective agreement. There are other models in Canada for sector-wide bargaining in specific industries, which is common in construction, he said.
This involves a sort of “master agreement,” explained Barnetson, which makes it easier to organize and sustain unions in a particular sector.
The pandemic has also highlighted that Canada’s occupational health and safety system isn’t good enough, said Barnetson. In particular, he thinks provincial health and safety agencies, the ones responsible for inspections and work safety complaints, don’t do enough to protect workers.
“COVID has demonstrated very publicly that workplaces clearly are not safe,” said Barnetson. “You can’t rely on the government … so maybe you need to rely on other workers via unionization.”