Starbucks baristas at a Seattle location on Tuesday unanimously voted to unionize, a first in the company’s hometown.
The Seattle location on Broadway and Denny Way joins six other company-owned Starbucks cafes in Buffalo, New York, and Mesa, Arizona, in deciding to form a union under Workers United, an affiliate of the Service Employees International Union. Only one location, in the Buffalo area, has voted against unionizing, giving Starbucks Workers United a win rate of 88%.
The growing union push is among the challenges that incoming interim CEO Howard Schultz will face once he returns to the helm of the company he helped grow into a global coffee giant. Starting April 4, Schultz will take over so outgoing CEO Kevin Johnson can retire and the board can search for a long-term replacement.
Under Schultz’s leadership, Starbucks gained a reputation as a generous and progressive employer, a position that is now in jeopardy as the union gains momentum and workers share their grievances.
Six other Seattle Starbucks locations have filed for union elections, including the company’s flagship Reserve Roastery, a flashy cafe designed to compete with more upscale coffee shops.
The initial Buffalo victories for the union have galvanized other locations nationwide to organize. More than 150 company-owned Starbucks cafes have filed for union elections with the National Labor Relations Board, all within the last six months.
Still, a small fraction of the company’s overall footprint has been swept up in the union push. Starbucks operates nearly 9,000 locations in the U.S.
The National Labor Relations Board’s regional director will now have to certify the Seattle ballots, a process that could take up to a week. Then the union faces its next challenge: negotiating a contract with Starbucks. Labor laws don’t require that the employer and union reach a collective bargaining agreement, and contract discussions can drag on for years.
At Starbucks’ annual shareholders meeting on Wednesday, the company’s Chair Mellody Hobson said the company understands and recognizes its workers’ right to organize.
“We are also negotiating in good faith, and we want a constructive relationship with the union,” she said.
She said on CNBC’s “Squawk Box” earlier that day that Starbucks “made some mistakes” when asked about the union push.
“When you think about, again, why we’re leaning on Howard in this moment, it’s that connection with our people where we think he’s singularly capable of engaging with our people in a way that will make a difference,” she said.
Schultz appeared in Buffalo ahead of union elections there to dissuade workers from voting to unionize, a move that may have signaled his return to the company and his approach to the organizing push.