BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB) – Starbucks workers at the Elmwood Village location made history last week by becoming the first of nearly 9,000 corporate-owned locations in America to form a union. But the virtue of their 19-8 vote doesn’t mean they’ll see changes on the job any time soon.
In fact, if their push for better working conditions was equated to a football team trying to score a touchdown, University at Buffalo law professor Matt Dimick says, “They’re at the way other end of the field.”
“If you include the win (last week), that’s some serious yardage,” said Dimick, who teaches labor law and employment law. “That’s a big symbolic victory. But there’s a lot more work to do.”
The next big hurdle for the union, after it elects officers and gets its house in order, will be getting the company to sit down to negotiate a new contract. But if Starbucks drags its feet, the workers don’t have much recourse, Dimick said.
Here’s a look at some of the remaining questions regarding Starbucks unionization efforts.
When do we find out if other locations are unionizing as well?
The union vote at the Cheektowaga location remains unclear after a number of votes were contested.
The result last week was 15 Yes votes, 9 No votes and 7 contested votes. The union believes not everyone who was sent a ballot was eligible to vote because the Cheektowaga location wasn’t their home store. The workers need 50% of the vote plus one to unionize, which means Starbucks would need six of the seven contested votes to be in its favor to defeat the union.
The situation will have to be resolved during a post-election proceeding with the NLRB. We’re told both sides have until Wednesday to submit objections to the NLRB, which must start reviewing the challenged ballots by that date. More info should come on later this week.
“These are not partners that are on our payroll, these are not my store partners, they don’t work at my location,” Alexis Rizzo, a worker at the Genesee Street location, told News 4. “They all picked up shifts for a period of about a week a few months ago. So we’re very confident we’re going to win these challenges easily.”
Where do things stand with the other local stores seeking unionization?
Three other Buffalo-area Starbucks location have begun the unionization process. They are Sheridan Drive and Bailey Avenue in Amherst, Walden Avenue and Anderson Road in Cheektowaga, and a Depew location at Transit and French roads.
Ballots have not yet been mailed to these stores. The NLRB is reviewing the testimony from their hearing and will make a decision on whether they can hold elections soon.
Will the union get Starbucks to negotiate with them?
“Once the union wins the election, they’ll invite the employer to come sit down and bargain, and from there it’s really in Starbucks’ ballpark,” Dimick said. “They’re free to just start bargaining. A lot of times they’ll resist. If they refuse to start bargaining, the next step often is for the union or the workers to file a petition with the National Labor Relations Board to get an order to bargain. If the Board does that, that means by law Starbucks has to bargain, but there’s not a lot of teeth there in terms of the enforcement. It really is going to depend a lot on how Starbucks responds and how much leverage the workers have over Starbucks either in the public sphere or in the workplace.”
How long does it usually take?
“It could take a while,” Dimick said. “It could take months. I’ve seen this process take years. … It’ll be interesting to see how Starbucks responds. They really care about their image.
“If they win and they want to start bargaining tomorrow and Starbucks is fine with it, then it can happen immediately. But I kind of don’t see Starbucks doing that. It can take up to years to try to get this ball rolling.”
What recourse does the union have if Starbucks drags its feet?
“There’s not much,” Dimick said. “I imagine they could go on a strike, but if we’re just talking about three Starbucks stores against a giant corporation like Starbucks, that’s probably not going to make much of a dent. They can appeal to the public insofar as Starbucks cares about its brand image – especially if Starbucks likes to tout its progressive values, they’re going to have to explain why that’s stopped short of recognizing workers’ rights and the right to bargain. Short of that, there’s not much they can do if Starbucks resists.”
Why is it that way?
Dimick: “A lot of people point to labor law as it’s written now, it lacks enforcement. In Congress right now is legislation, a bill proposed called the PRO Act (H.R.842 – Protecting the Right to Organize Act of 2021) that would do some things to address that. … Those are the kind of solutions people have proposed, but it’s not the law now.”
Why would a company be against unionization if it’s a right of American workers?
“Because it takes a chunk out of the bottom line,” Dimick said. “If workers get their wages raised, if they get better benefits, that increases costs and lowers profits, especially if they can’t just pass on the costs to the customer. I think that’s the No. 1 issue. Beyond that right, I think companies are terrified of losing control of the workplace. They see the workers unionizing as an independent voice – which it is – that they don’t want. They don’t want an independent voice, they want to run the show.”
Will unionization have any effect on consumers?
“If three stores unionized and they bargained a contract, I don’t see Starbucks doing a whole lot to change their prices,” Dimick said. “Just to begin with, people can go to Spot Coffee or Tim Hortons or [other coffee shops]. If Spot raises their prices, people are just going to go elsewhere. As long as it’s competitive in the product market, that’s going to prevent stores from raising prices. At least at this point, I don’t see a huge change coming for customers.”
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Nick Veronica is a Buffalo native who joined the News 4 team as a Digital Executive Producer in 2021. He previously worked at NBC Sports and The Buffalo News. You can follow Nick on Facebook and Twitter and find more of his work here.