Workers at four Michigan Starbucks stores join unionization movement

Jordyn Grzelewski
The Detroit News

Employees at four Starbucks locations in Michigan are joining the movement to unionize workers at the country's biggest coffee chain.

Starbucks Workers United, the union behind the movement, announced Friday that workers at two stores in Ann Arbor and one each in Clinton Township and Grand Blanc are filing petitions with the National Labor Relations Board to hold union elections.

Pro-union pins sit on a table during a watch party for Starbucks' employees union election, Dec. 9, 2021, in Buffalo, N.Y.

“We believe that a union will make us true partners of this company," workers on the Grand Blanc store's union organizing committee wrote Thursday in a letter to Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson. 

The move follows a successful campaign in Buffalo, New York, to unionize a corporate-owned location of the chain for the first time. Another Buffalo store followed soon after, prompting stores in about a dozen metro areas to move to unionize.

Starbucks Workers United — affiliated with Workers United, a labor union that represents tens of thousands of members across industries including retail, food service and apparel — said in a news release Friday that "an overwhelming majority of eligible employees" at the four Michigan locations have signed union authorization cards.

The stores are at:

  • 120 S. Zeeb Road, Suite 101 in Ann Arbor
  • 17410 Hall Road, Clinton Township 
  • 4585 Washtenaw Ave., Ann Arbor
  • 11353 S. Saginaw St., Grand Blanc

The Michigan Starbucks workers who are moving to unionize cited working conditions during the pandemic as an issue.

"Partner safety has taken a back seat at our store, exemplified by the removal of hazard pay two months into the COVID-19 pandemic, a lack of a fire escape in our building, and rescinding the requirement of customers to wear masks in our building," the Grand Blanc organizing committee wrote to Johnson. "We feel that this union is the best chance we have at improving conditions and being able to make a sustainable, meaningful career.”

In a statement Friday, Starbucks said it is "listening and learning from the partners in these stores as we always do across the country. Our position hasn't changed: Starbucks success — past, present, and future — is built on how we partner together, always with Our Mission and Values at our core."

Amid the unionization movement and a tight labor market, the company last fall announced pay raises. The wage hikes would see all hourly workers in the U.S. making at least $15 per hour and an average of nearly $17 per hour by this summer.

The company also has noted some of the steps it's taken in response to the coronavirus pandemic, including offering paid time off for employees to get their COVID-19 vaccines and recover from any side effects, and catastrophe pay for workers who contract COVID-19 or are exposed to the virus.

Dylan Skinner, 28, is among the employees at the Clinton Township store who is pushing to unionize. Skinner told The Detroit News on Friday that he likes working at Starbucks but feels the company no longer treats its employees as the "partners" it says they are. He and his co-workers also are concerned about changes in the company's COVID-19 policies, such as no longer enforcing mask requirements for customers and putting tables back in place so customers can linger in the store even amid the spread of the highly contagious COVID-19 omicron variant.

Skinner, who started working at the store in August 2020, said his location's organizing effort gained momentum over the last month or so as he and his co-workers saw other stores across the country take similar actions. Now, he said, most of his co-workers are in favor of unionizing.

“We were obviously inspired by our fellow partners in the Buffalo store and other states that came before us," he said. What they are hoping to achieve by unionizing, he said, is "a seat at the table." 

"Starbucks refers to their employees as partners, but there’s not very much of a partner relationship between the corporate side of Starbucks and the side of Starbucks that keeps things running and churning, which is the baristas," he said. "Starbucks used to have a great reputation for that sort of thing and it’s kind of fallen by the wayside in the past few years. We’re hoping to reconnect that and get back to being partners with Starbucks.”

Meanwhile, Workers United International Vice President Kathy Hanshew expressed her support for the Michigan workers in a statement Friday.

“Starbucks is a multimillion dollar corporation that boasts of working in partnership with (its) employees, all while attempting to silence workers by aggressively union busting," she said. "It is time for Starbucks to treat their employees like true 'partners' and allow their workers to unionize without interference.”

Starbucks operates nearly 9,000 corporate-owned stores and has some 230,000 employees in the U.S.

Twitter: @JGrzelewski