Editor's Note

Reporting on democracy isn’t limited to political elections. At a time when the dominant Democratic and Republican Parties are mired in gridlock, could using a union election to gain a greater say in workplace pay and treatment have a more immediate impact on people’s lives? Atlanta Civic Circle will be covering the nascent, but growing national unionization wave, starting with this look at Ansley Mall Starbucks employees who’ve enlisted the Democratic Socialists of America to help with their upcoming union election.

Last week, the Howell Mill Starbucks became the coffeeshop chain’s first Atlanta location to win a union election,  and now the Ansley Mall store is gearing up for a vote of its own. 

Led by shift supervisor Amanda Rivera, the Ansley Mall location’s pro-union employees are building community support for their June 22 union election to counter what they anticipate will be stiff opposition from Starbucks, whose CEO, Howard Schultz, is famously anti-union. 

“I may just be a lowly barista, but you’re not going to push me around,” Rivera told Atlanta Civic Circle in an interview. Like the Howell Mill store’s employees, who voted 10-1 to unionize on June 6, the Ansley Mall pro-union contingent has enlisted support from the Democratic Socialists of America’s Atlanta chapter, or Atlanta DSA.

Last Sunday morning, Atlanta DSA members convened in front of the Ansley Mall store for a neighborhood flyering campaign to communicate why many of its 18 employees want to unionize before next week’s vote on joining the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). 

Volunteers passed out flyers in the Ansley Park neighborhood to drum up local support for the pro-union Starbucks employees. Credit: Emilia Weinrobe for ACC.

According to the flyers, the workers are “standing up to have their voices heard and a seat at the table,” and they need community support “to stop the company’s intimidation and retaliation.” 

The Howell Mill Starbucks’ resounding majority vote to join the SEIU added momentum to a rapidly growing, national grassroots movement to unionize Starbucks store by store. Since December, 152 Starbucks stores have won union elections, while the vote has failed at only 21. That said, Starbucks owns almost 9,000 U.S. stores. 

Starbucks has acted to counter the unionization efforts. The National Labor Relations Board on May 6 filed a complaint alleging Starbucks has interfered in unionization efforts in Buffalo, New York and accused the coffeeshop chain of 29 unfair labor practice charges that included over 200 violations of the National Labor Relations Act. Buffalo is where the first Starbucks store voted to unionize in December. 

To lay the groundwork for their election, the Ansley Mall Starbucks’ pro-union employees sent an official letter on May 2 to Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz presenting the challenges they’ve faced since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and their demands, which include higher pay, better benefits, additional hires to address understaffing, and more say in store management. 

They’ve received no response from Starbucks, Rivera said. The icy reaction from corporate comes as no surprise, given Schultz’s history of union opposition and his comments at a New York Times event last week that he has no intention of embracing the “third party” of a union. In response, Starbucks Workers United filed a claim alleging that Schultz violated federal labor law, which requires employers to negotiate in good faith with workers who form a union.

Coal Miner’s Granddaughter

Rivera, who comes from a family of West Virginia coal miners, said she’s seen the need for change at Starbucks since she joined the company a decade ago, but it’s taken skyrocketing corporate profits amid the pandemic to mobilize her co-workers.

“Initially, people thought a union was more work than it’s worth–until they saw [former CEO] Kevin Johnson’s golden parachute,” she said. “The corporate greed is really crushing us all.”

After Johnson announced in March that he was retiring, SEC filings revealed that he would receive a $60.3 million payout. 

While Rivera makes a living as a Midtown barista, her roots in labor organizing go back to her maternal grandfather, who fought in West Virginia’s Mine Wars, a series of bloody labor disputes between coal companies and miners. On her father’s side, her El Salvadorian grandparents worked on coffee farms for low pay, which she said sparked her interest in both coffee and workers’ rights. 

“I’ve had people tell me to go back to school and get a better job, but I’ve got a college degree. I’m doing what I want to do,” she said. 

Rivera focused on coffee and its economic status as a commodity for her degree in geography at West Virginia University. She also started a student organization called First Hands Coffee that formed a relationship with a Nicaraguan coffee farm. 

So when she started working at Starbucks in 2012, she immediately saw the need for a change. “This is a big company, and we’re doing good business. Why are we making minimum wage?” Rivera asked her co-workers back then. 

At the time, the support wasn’t quite there, she said, but things have changed in the past couple of years. Starbucks workers were deemed essential with the pandemic’s onset in 2020, but even as corporate profits multiplied, Rivera said, she and her co-workers couldn’t get management to address even simple matters like providing adequate cover for coworkers who have called out. 

An ADSA volunteer canvasses the Ansley Park neighborhood with his dog. Photo by Emilia Weinrobe for ACC. Credit: Emilia Weinrobe for ACC

Atlanta DSA’s Role

Rivera said she knows from her family’s experience how a union can benefit workers, but some of her co-workers needed to learn more about how unionizing works. That’s where the Atlanta DSA chapter comes in. 

“We take the employees’ lead because they know what they need,” said ADSA’s lead Starbucks organizer, Lauren Shadix, who has been helping the Ansley Mall workers both to mobilize and elicit community support. “Most of our work is directing people to resources and boots-on-the-ground organizing.”

The Atlanta DSA similarly helped the Howell Mill store prepare for its successful union vote–but it also supported employees at a Starbucks in Covington, southeast of Atlanta, that overwhelmingly rejected unionizing by an 18-4 vote in its election on May 31 and June 1. 

Atlanta DSA members at Sunday’s flyering campaign said they’ve relayed warnings to the pro-union Ansley Mall employees about the scare tactics they claim Starbucks management deployed to flip the vote at the Covington store.

“Everyone was pro-union until a couple of days before,” said Atlanta DSA treasurer Nate Knauf, who contends that pressure from Starbucks management changed that. “Management held mandatory meetings, then gave the usual threats [about cuts] to benefits and insurance,” he said. 

Rivera said her co-workers have already been required to attend one-on-one meetings with Starbucks corporate managers, but she doesn’t think it’s dampened support for the union. 

“They saved me for last because they knew I’d be one of the hardest to talk to,” she said. “I told them that I didn’t want to hear any of their propaganda–and I would use this time to tell them why we’re doing what we’re doing.” 

Rivera is confident that she and her co-workers have what it takes to make their union drive successful, adding that she’s buoyed by the support she sees every day from connecting with her customers. 

“I want Starbucks to be better and be the company they claim to be,” she said. “Just because we’re better than McDonald’s doesn’t mean we’re good.” 

*A previous version of this article abbreviated the Democratic Socialists of America’s Atlanta chapter as ADSA. The correct abbreviation is Atlanta DSA or ATL DSA.

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