Last week, the Starbucks on Merchants Drive voted to unionize their store, making Knoxville home to the first unionized location of the coffee chain in the South.
While the victory was widely celebrated, the corporation challenged the 8-7 vote, arguing that the assistant store manager’s ballot should not be valid. The ballot remained unopened, so it was not counted in the already 8-7 tally.
But on Tuesday, Maggie Carter, a UT journalism student who has led the union charge at the Merchants Drive Starbucks, said she received an official certification from the National Labor Relations Board stating that Starbucks removed their challenge, making the store’s victory official.
Carter began working at the store in Aug. 2020 after transferring from a Jackson, Tennessee, location. That process was one of the first interactions with the company that made her feel undervalued. As the mother of a 7-year-old, she was disappointed that her only options in making the transition were to either take a leave of absence or quit and hope to be rehired. The leave of absence left her without pay for two months as she moved across the state.
From then on, Carter was skeptical of corporate Starbucks moves. When they announced they were raising their starting wage to $12 an hour, she was grateful but felt that it was so sudden and out of the blue that they were using it to cover something else up.
“This to me was not normal and my journalism lightbulb went off because I’m like there’s no corporation out here giving $4 raises within one year for no reason, something’s going on,” Carter said.
She did some digging and found that her intuition might have been right. A few months before the raise, a Buffalo store had announced they were forming a union. In Dec. 2021, the store’s victory became official.
“That made me feel like the $12 an hour was just reactionary and was an effort to stop this from spreading,” Carter said.
Carter began to educate herself on what this meant and felt that following in the Buffalo store’s footsteps could help make the Knoxville location what she wanted it to be.
“We were really going through a tough time in our store, and it really seemed like there was no path forward with the current management situation,” Carter said. “There was no actual attention being paid to our concerns, so we decided to exercise our rights to join a union and have successfully done so.”
The Merchants Drive employees who voted to unionize cite a variety of ways in which they have been overlooked by the company. For one thing, Carter says baristas have no way to accept credit card tips, as the company asks customers to use cash in an age where most people opt to use mobile ordering, Apple Pay and standard card payments.
“It’s absolutely absurd that a huge percentage of our income is tips,” Carter said. “However, in this 50-year company that has a net worth of, what, $100 billion dollars … we can’t get credit card tips. Fun fact, Howard Schultz, the CEO and founder of Starbucks, was on the board of directors for Square payment devices.”
Square is known for their minimally-designed card machines that have become popular within the past few years. After a customer uses the machine, a screen appears with simple tip options, doing percentage math for you or asking you to choose between $1, $2 and $3. Starbucks stores do not have these tipping options for card payments.
Jamie Perlow, a partner at the Kingston Pike and Montvue Starbucks shared a similar sentiment in wanting to improve day-to-day working conditions like tipping. Their store announced their intent to unionize in March.
“We had kind of joked about it for a while … and then we were like, but what if for real though?” Perlow said.
Perlow takes issue not only with the tipping but also with simple sanitary problems. Their store complained to the corporation about poor caulking that was trapping water but received little help. Eventually, it got out of hand and they started seeing maggots and mold issues that Starbucks told the employees to resolve themselves.
“It was at the point where there were maggots crawling out of the mold underneath an active food service area,” Perlow said. “After that … we were like, we can't do this anymore we need to be listened to and actually have some accountability from the company when we tell them, hey this thing needs to be repaired … that lack of accountability we felt kind of came from there’s no democratic voice for us, so that’s why the union really appealed to us,” Perlow said.
For Carter and Perlow, those day-to-day issues like tipping and cleanliness contribute to their overarching idea that the company is attempting to silence partners’ voices.
The company has two chairs at the table at each corporate meeting, one representing the partner and one representing the customer. The chairs remain empty in these meetings. Carter is asking for, quite literally, a seat at the table and believes having that say can combat those problems within the actual stores that executives do not experience.
“I don’t think that chair should be empty,” Carter said.
In terms of the business model, Carter values the goal of individually creating drinks but says they often do not reap the benefits of the labor-intensive process.
“We are considered artisans, we handcraft every drink we make,” Carter said. “Starbucks goes to every length they can to automate every process they can, but still keep it to where our hands are making that beverage, so we deserve to not be able to be terminated for no reason whatsoever from this company.”
Starbucks touts its commitment to diversity, inclusion and protecting workers. Yet, some employees seem to think the company’s backlash toward the budding unions is evidence of apathy when it comes to keeping employees’ interests at heart and providing them with enough hours to earn a living wage.
“Nationally there’s been discussion about how Starbucks has been slashing workers’ hours as a nationwide union-busting campaign and to kind of put a lot of fear into people,” Perlow said. “We have several new hires in the pipes, so they are saying that we’re slashing hours due to business but then hiring more people to work those hours, so it’s very clearly at our store a union-busting tactic … in no uncertain terms, we see this happening, and it’s part of a nationwide trend.”
For Carter, the union-busting practices and what she sees as a lack of concern for COVID-19 safety precautions have converged to exacerbate an already unhealthy environment.
“Many of these issues were just exacerbated by the pandemic so that's why I think you're seeing a huge shift now toward partners putting themselves first because we see the company putting profits before partners, habitually,” Carter said. “After being the only store in our district to stay open for the entire pandemic … a member of corporate management exposed us to COVID-19, gave multiple of my partners COVID-19 and caused a five-day store closure as a result of their very first union-busting meeting.”
“That’s just scratching the surface.”
While more and more stores are campaigning for workers’ rights at Starbucks, some sister locations do not have the benefit of using these unions as an example of how to address their concerns.
Savannah Gray, a junior English major, actually holds two Starbucks jobs, neither of which technically report to the corporation. She works at both a campus Starbucks, run by Aramark, and a Kroger Starbucks. For her, it’s difficult to differentiate between what’s a Starbucks problem and what’s an Aramark or Kroger problem.
At Kroger though, she has the option to join a union, which makes her feel more secure in her job that is helping her pay for school and simple living expenses. But, she says her job with Aramark tells a slightly different story.
While Carter and Perlow cannot accept credit card tips, Gray and her coworkers cannot accept any tips whatsoever. Her frustration with the issue is exacerbated by how busy the Student Union location is in comparison to the Kroger one, where she can at least receive cash tips.
“If somebody gives it to us and the customer is insistent, we have to take a picture and show it to corporate and give it to them,” Gray said. “It makes me angry.”
Like Perlow, Gray and her coworkers started off with jokes about unionizing. Instead of deciding to move forward though, they saw little hope in confronting a company as big as Aramark.
“I think that some of us are like, we were joking about it and wanting to do it, but it wouldn't work, so it’s not worth trying,” Gray said. “But for me personally, the reason that I wouldn’t do it is just because I need this job. I work two jobs, I pay for everything totally by myself, so I have to have a job … if I lost this job, it would be kind of devastating for me.”
Furthermore, she said that their inability to look to Starbucks for help with Aramark-related issues might be making matters worse, in terms of workers’ rights. At Kroger, she truly is a Kroger employee, trained to also work with groceries, so she says she benefits from their worker protection. But, she feels less protected when help from Aramark feels like a lost cause.
“Since Aramark has their hands in so many things, it would be nice if we had Starbucks intervene on our behalf,” Gray said.
Recently, Gray said the campus Starbucks has been losing employees, and she suspects it’s due to what feels like little payment in comparison to the crowds of students ordering drinks all day long. Due to this and thinking that Aramark does not adhere to safety and sanitation as well as the Kroger location, she feels they have grounds to unionize, even if it is unlikely.
“If nothing happens right now, at least I’m talking about it because I think about it a lot,” Gray said.
While the job has impacted Carter, Perlow and Gray tremendously, not all of the parts of it have been negative.
Gray, for example, enjoys serving the regulars at the Kroger Starbucks and appreciates the people she gets to work with on campus.
Similarly, Perlow has found community at Starbucks both before and after they became interested in unionizing. They enjoy being a barista and have been grateful for the healthcare opportunities provided for part-time employees by Starbucks.
Carter has struggled significantly to get the union at her store off the ground. As a student, barista, mom and leader of a union effort, she has more than a lot on her plate.
On the bright side, she’s just glad that she has gotten to help with this effort, bond with her partners, receive help from and get to know partners from Buffalo, talk to Sen. Bernie Sanders, one of her heroes, and have the opportunity to express her love for him in The New York Times.
She says she and her partners at the location truly care about what they do, which is why they do not just want to quit and find another place to go.
“We do love our jobs with Starbucks, we love servicing our customers and we do feel like there are things that Starbucks could do better, but that doesn’t take away the love we have for this establishment,” Carter said. “Howard Schultz himself said that when you love something, you fight for it to make it better, and that’s what we’re doing.”
Along with all of those unintended benefits, she gets to share the experience with her son. While she was speaking with The Daily Beacon on Zoom, he told her he was proud of her.
“It’s absolutely beautiful for me to have this experience with my 7-year-old while he can really soak in the experience and see it happen,” Carter said. “Really being able to see this process through with him is life-changing, really being able to educate him on things that I wish I would have known about in my youth … It's a moment I will never forget. It’s a true treasure.”
Despite institutional backlash and some tension within the store, Perlow encourages employees to pursue a union, even if they think it will be tough to convince partners. They have hope for the future of Starbucks, and see the Merchants Drive victory as a beacon of hope for what will happen with their efforts at the Kingston Pike and Montvue location.
“Celebrate that it is more possible than you think,” Perlow said. “It’s really fostered a sense of unity at our store, specifically that no matter where we are on our walks of life that people we never expected to be pro-union were like, ‘absolutely, count me in.’ So, you never know until you really get out there and have those conversations with people.”
Carter said she had been in contact with not only the Kingston Pike and Montvue stores but also four other locations in Knoxville that are interested in getting help with unionizing. She said that unions have possibly become more popular because workers are fighting for others to recognize their value as human beings and assets to companies.
“You’re seeing a shift in people realizing that the working class has … to rise up together in order to beat corporate greed,” Carter said. “We realize that now. We see that there is now an avenue and there always has been an avenue that they didn’t want us to know about, that they didn’t teach us about in the school books because they don’t want us to have a voice.”
“Unions change the entire power dynamic of your job.”