Starbucks employees went on strike on Thursday at dozens of unionized locations nationwide, citing what they say is the company’s refusal to bargain in good faith and anti-union tactics like firings and store closings.
The work stoppage, which organizers have called “the Red Cup Rebellion,” after the reusable holiday-themed cups that Starbucks is distributing with certain purchases, was expected to last for the day. Striking workers said they would distribute union-branded cups to customers.
“Starbucks has left behind the very values that drew many of us to the company in the first place,” Michelle Eisen, a worker who helped organize the first of more than 250 locations that have unionized over the past year, said in a statement. “You cannot be pro-L.G.T.B.Q., pro-B.L.M., pro-sustainability, and anti-union. This Red Cup Day, we’re organizing for a voice on the job and a true seat at the table.”
In a statement, Starbucks said it was aware that “union demonstrations are scheduled at a small number of our more than 9,000 U.S. company-owned stores.” The company added that it respected the right of its employees, whom it calls partners, to engage in lawful protests, but that its focus was “uplifting the Starbucks experience for our partners and customers.”
The strike on Thursday is the largest single labor action, at least in geographic sweep, that the union has undertaken since the campaign began. The union said workers at more than 100 stores were taking part, though that number could not be independently verified.
Organizing specialists have argued that such an escalation is necessary to force the company’s hand and allow the union to secure a contract with concrete benefits like increased wages and better sick leave benefits.
Gene Bruskin, a longtime organizer who advised the Amazon workers who successfully unionized on Staten Island this year, said in an interview that a large, coordinated action like a nationwide strike was important because it showed the company that “things are going to get worse, not better,” unless it came to the table and engaged with them.
The unionization wave spread quickly after a Buffalo-area store won a union election in December, with dozens of stores around the country filing for union elections over the next few months. (The National Labor Relations Board later found that workers at a second Buffalo-area store had won their vote in December as well.)
But the campaign had slowed by late spring, and the pace of election filings dropped precipitously over the next few months, from about 70 in March to fewer than 10 in August.
Workers who support the union blamed the slowdown on the company’s response to their campaign, which they say has included the firing of dozens of union supporters and wage increases and new benefits that applied only to stores that had not unionized or were not in the process of unionizing.
The National Labor Relations Board has issued multiple complaints against the company over these accusations, and agency judges have ruled against the company in a few cases so far.
The company, which can appeal the rulings, has denied that it has acted unlawfully, saying that it has fired union supporters only when they have violated company policies, and that it is prohibited by law from unilaterally introducing new benefits and wage increases in unionized stores because they must be bargained over. Labor law experts have viewed that argument skeptically.
The strikes on Thursday appear to reflect a new phase of the campaign, during which the union has seen little progress in bargaining sessions that began in October. The company has walked out of many of the sessions, asserting that worker representatives are violating agreed-upon ground rules by seeking to broadcast the sessions using video-chat software.
Casey Moore, a Buffalo-area worker involved in the union campaign, denied that representatives were seeking to broadcast bargaining sessions, saying the purpose of the video feed was to include workers who could not attend in person, an accommodation many companies have made since the start of the pandemic.
In Chicago, workers stood outside shuttered stores in temperatures in the 30s and occasional snow, holding signs that read “Solidarity Brewing” and “Will Strike if Provoked.”
Teddy Hoffman, a unionized shift supervisor at a Starbucks store on the city’s North Side, said company representatives had left a bargaining session with workers in late October shortly after it started.
“We had our Skype open so some of our organizers could tune in, and they said they weren’t going to do hybrid bargaining and they got up and walked out,” Mr. Hoffman said, alluding to a setup in which workers could join either in person or remotely. He said another session had not been scheduled.
Reed Essex, a worker at another Chicago store, said company representatives had not turned up for that store’s scheduled bargaining session in October and had not rescheduled.
A Starbucks spokesman said he could not immediately comment on what had happened.
The escalation in union tactics began over the summer, when workers at individual stores began to wage more frequent and longer strikes, including workers at a Boston-area store who walked out for more than two months. Workers at the company’s New York City Roastery have been on strike for more than three weeks.