Community Economy

Hourly workers at a Starbucks on Factory Lane in the East End have begun the process to unionize. They’re the latest in a group of more than 130 Starbucks stores to undertake that process since late last year, when employees of a Buffalo, Ny., location organized. If they succeed, the Factory Lane employees would represent the first Starbucks worker union in Kentucky.

Workers at the store announced their intent to unionize Monday. Thirty employees signed a letter to CEO Kevin Johnson, in which they explained that feeling as though they have no say in company matters was a driving factor to join the wave of unionization efforts across the country. 

“We can no longer wait on the company to fix itself,” the letter read. “We feel that we are voiceless in a company that is more concerned about profits and dividends than the people that hold it together. We have decided to unionize not out of anger or retribution, but our desire to make (Starbucks) a better place for ourselves and our community.”

According to a press release from Chicago and Midwest Regional Joint Board of Workers United, which represents and supports unions and union efforts, a majority of employees at the Factory Lane location signed union authorization cards Monday. That indicates that most of that store’s staff are ready to take a vote to unionize.

“The overwhelming majority of people are of the opinion that the corporation does not care for its employees at all,” Nathan Potter, a shift supervisor who is in support of unionizing, said.

Potter said that Starbucks corporate attempts to make lower-level employees feel they are more important in the company, but that is not the case.

“We feel like we’re not being looked out for,” Potter said. 

The Factory Lane store’s employees say they hope unionizing will help them negotiate for better pay.

“I see co-workers struggle to pay rent, pay for food, pay for transportation and just basic necessities they need despite working just constantly,” Potter said.

He said there aren’t pay increase opportunities at Starbucks based on seniority, particularly for baristas. Someone who’s been working as a barista at the company for five years could be making only a few cents per hour more than someone who has been there a year.

“It’s really sad to see that, especially knowing how much the executives make and knowing how wide the profit margins are,” Potter said.

Beyond pay, the workers in support of unionizing at the Factory Lane location hope to eventually address concerns that other union locations have begun to address. 

These issues include updates to the tipping policy, hazard pay, paying for health insurance premiums and guaranteed yearly pay increases aligned with increases in the cost of living. 

“The decision to take on a multi-billion dollar corporation that has not been shy about its anti-union position deserves to be applauded,” Michelle Eisen, a barista at the Buffalo, Ny., Starbucks location that became the first store in the company to unionize, said in a press release.

Potter said he and his coworkers were inspired by the efforts of the Buffalo employees. He hopes other food service workers in the Commonwealth will be inspired by the effort at Factory Lane. 

“It’s definitely for workers that are in the food service industry and everywhere to understand that they have power and they have an ability to negotiate with people, with the corporation,” Potter said. “They can organize and they can make changes that help improve their lives.” 

While not everyone at the Factory Lane location agrees with the idea of unionizing, the workers that do see it as an important step in gaining power.

“It’s just about protecting yourself really and empowering yourself and others to earn what you deserve,” Potter said. 

The Factory Lane Starbucks workers planned to file Tuesday for a vote with the National Labor Relations Board, the federal agency responsible for labor relations and collective bargaining.

From there, the process to become a fully recognized union by Starbucks could take a few weeks.

A spokesperson for Starbucks said the company continues to stand by its stance that it does not want unions between corporate and partners, referring to store employees.

After losing court cases to oppose union efforts in other states, Starbucks executive vice president Rossann Williams sent a letter to employees in December saying, “From the beginning, we’ve been clear in our belief that we do not want a union between us as partners, and that conviction has not changed. However, we have also said that we respect the legal process.”

The letter went on to say Starbucks will “bargain in good faith” with unions. The company has been accused of employing union-busting tactics. Ahead of the company’s annual shareholder meeting Wednesday, some investors have pushed Starbucks to take a neutral approach to unionization efforts.

Breya Jones is the Breaking News Reporter for WFPL.