CHICAGO — Earlier this week, Starbucks fired seven employees in Memphis. The company says they violated store policies, but the employees claim retaliation for their unionization efforts. The move isn't sitting well with many.
In the last six months, there's been growing momentum behind employee organizing efforts nationally at the world's largest coffeehouse chain.
These days, Maria Fantozzi and Fernando Vargas-Soto have traded in steaming lattes for Zoom meetings with Starbucks lawyers.
“I remember three months into working with Starbucks, I was talking to coworkers like, ‘We should unionize. We should form a union,’” said Fantozzi, a Starbucks barista and union organizer.
The young Starbucks employees are part of a growing movement sparked during the pandemic to press the coffee giant to meet with them at the negotiating table.
“The fear of a disease maybe claiming our life, I think made people really start to think about what they want for the rest of their lives,” said Vargas-Soto, a Starbucks shift supervisor and union organizer. “That also includes the dignity that we want to feel at work.”
In December, Starbucks employees in Buffalo, New York celebrated becoming the first in the company to successfully unionize.
Hundreds of coffeehouse workers are following suit, pushing for pay rates that rise with inflation, better COVID protections and lower costs for company benefits.
“We're not scared of the corporations anymore because we know that they rely on us. And I think that I think that that's empowered people,” said Fantozzi.
So far, Starbucks employees at 66 stores in 20 states have filed applications for union elections with the National Labor Relations Board.
“In Buffalo, the workers who organized there were successful and that inspired others to try to replicate what they did,” said Ruth Milkman, a distinguished professor of sociology at CUNY School of Labor and Urban Studies who specializes in the study of labor and labor movements.
“I think there's a new awareness among young people, especially college-educated young people, about the possibilities for change via trade unionism that we haven't seen for some time,” said Milkman.
According to Gallup’s most recent survey from September, approval of labor unions reached its highest point since 1965, with young adults ages 18 to 34 approving of unions at a rate of 77%.
Many of the organizers at Starbucks Workers United and pro-union employees like Maria and Fernando are in their twenties, dubbed "generation U."
"Most of them young. Most of them, people of color. Most of them queer. This is a movement at this point that's being led by people like you said, are not just young, but also incredibly diverse," said Vargas-Soto.
Currently, union membership nationally remains at its lowest point in more than a century. While it’s still unclear whether new union organizing efforts at multi-billion-dollar corporations like Amazon and Starbucks are the beginning of something more transformative, Milkman says something is happening.
“For example, journalists are organizing like crazy. In my profession, college teachers, especially adjuncts and graduate students, are also unionizing,” she said.
For young organizers like Maria Fantozzi and Fernando Vargas-Soto, whatever is driving union efforts across the country, they say, they want to be a part of it.
“I know for a fact that a lot are considering it,” said Fantozzi. “And so, I think the movement is just going to grow bigger and bigger.”