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.

Just over a month after overwhelmingly voting to unionize, Howell Mill Starbucks workers on Sunday staged a one-day strike to protest management’s refusal to start talks about union contract negotiations–as well as cuts in hours for employees who voted to unionize. 

Management may have been trying to stall contract talks in hopes that only a limited number of employees supported unionizing–and their support would eventually die out, the Howell Mill store’s lead union organizer, Page Smith, told Atlanta Civic Circle around 11 a.m. on Sunday outside the store. 

“Management had a perception that it was all just a small group, but we shut down the store today,” said Smith, who’s a shift supervisor at the Howell Mill location, which is ordinarily open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Sundays. 

“That means that not only did the people scheduled to work today say no, but the people who could come in to replace them also refused,” Smith said. About a dozen employees and supporters were gathered in the outdoor seating area with protest signs, t-shirts, and literature to hand out to passerbys. 

Store employees voted 10-1 on June 7 in favor of unionization. After going the rest of June and early July with no response nor timetable from Starbucks corporate to their request to start contract talks, the Howell Mill employees sent a letter to corporate on July 11 demanding that management come to the negotiating table in good faith and recognize the unionized employees’ right to bargain. 

After again receiving no response, they organized the all-day Sunday walkout and shut down the Howell Mill store. Their union, Starbucks Workers United, and the Atlanta Democratic Socialists of America helped organize the demonstration.

The Howell Mill Starbucks is located in a high-traffic area of Atlanta, so some vitriol might have been expected from the community when they saw their go-to coffee location unexpectedly close. 

But employees told Atlanta Civic Circle that it’s been the opposite. “Everything has been overwhelmingly positive,” Smith said. “No one’s been mad at us at all–and even on a daily basis, we get congratulations and people excited for us to get a contract.” 

The reception from Starbucks management has not been as warm. 

“Soft retaliation” 

“There has been recurring and targeted soft retaliation since the vote,” said Smith, such as cutting hours for pro-union employees. 

“We’ve seen people who are not pro-union getting more hours than they asked for, and people who are pro-union getting less than ten hours per week,” said Snow Rindfleisch, another shift supervisor who’s worked at the Howell Mill store for just under a year. 

As shift supervisors, Smith and Rindfleish are the direct link between team members and management. They said they’ve seen first-hand how management has been further squeezing hours, forcing other workers to do more on their shifts. 

Cutting shifts was one reason the Howell Mill employees voted to unionize on June 7, and employees such as Smith and Rindfleish believe Starbucks management has been further cutting shifts since then as targeted retaliation for union support. 

“It’s completely unreasonable for a multi-billion dollar company to cut hours and not give the hours people need to survive,” said Smith. 

Other Starbucks locations have voiced the same sentiment, including the Ansley Mall location which was the second Atlanta Starbucks store to win a union election–by an 11-3 vote on June 23. 

Starbucks’ moves to cut labor costs by hiring fewer employees as labor demands increase and stripping some employees of benefits were inciting causes of the union election push that started last December with stores in Buffalo, New York. Starbucks management is now exacerbating the issue by continuing to refuse to listen to the complaints of shift supervisors and team members, said Smith and Rindfleisch.

Like Starbucks corporate, in-store management at the Howell Mill store is not receptive to the union, Smith said.

“Our store manager seems to take this personally,” Smith explained. “We’re asking for things that she can’t give us. They have to come from corporate. But she takes it as an attack on herself.” 

Contract negotiations

Kelsea Bond, the co-chair of the Atlanta Democratic Socialists of America, said Starbucks’ management’s stalling tactics for contract negotiations are a part of the process. Winning the union election is just the start for the Howell  Mill employees’ new struggle to get a contract, they said.  

“It’s not like you get a union, and management just suddenly works to negotiate with you,”  Bond said. “You really need to keep the pressure on. Honestly, the vote is just the beginning.” 

The Howell Mill employees expect negotiating a contract and seeing improvements in their workplace to take some time. 

“I would be satisfied if it would all just be taken seriously by management,” said Smith. “That’s what I want to see tomorrow.” 

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