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Unionizing Workers Fight
“Feckless Thugs” Everywhere

Starbucks bullying of workers looks familiar to unionized New York construction crews.


Mandie Cantrell led the employees of a Portland Maine Starbucks location to unionize. Starbucks answered by shutting down the store.

There are almost 250 Starbucks in New York City, and many of them provide the early morning caffeine for construction workers who typically start their work days before sunrise. But many union construction workers are rethinking their coffee-allegiance because of what is happening inside Starbucks’ workforce.


Three hundred and thirteen miles northeast of New York City stands a piece of Starbucks history. The first store to open in the state of Maine, at the corner of Middle and Exchange streets, in downtown Portland. It’s situated at the epicenter of commerce and has been operating for nearly thirty years. Its location, along with its passionate staff and low turnover rate—some have worked there nearly as long as the store has been open—have made this location a jewel on the Starbucks chain of stores.


Despite these stellar qualities, Starbucks corporate shuttered the location shortly after its workers voted to unionize. The willingness of corporate leadership to shoot themselves in the foot to avoid stepping to the bargaining table reveals an irrational fear of what unions represent: a challenge to the power of big money over workers. Or as barista Mandie Cantrell put it, “They're worried about losing their chokehold, really, that they have on their employees.” 

The willingness of corporate leadership to shoot themselves in the foot to avoid stepping to the bargaining table reveals an irrational fear of what unions represent


This summer employees at Starbucks stores in Buffalo also voted unionize, and the community showed support for the effort at rallies there. — Michael Sanabria

Cantrell helped lead the unionization effort and spoke with Union Built Matters. She recalls the moment in October when her store voted overwhelmingly to unionize. “It was amazing. We were so happy. Like, that was probably one of the best moments of my life.” 


Unfortunately, her elation, and that of her fellow baristas was to be short lived. Starbucks soon announced their decision to close down the store. They claimed the closure had nothing to do with the baristas' unionization. But few were buying this line. Including Maine Congresswoman Chellie Pingree. She immediately called for an investigation from the National Labor Relations Board: 


Starbucks soon sent a cadre of c-suite types out from Seattle to attempt to quell the outrage sparked by their decision. “It was just so bizarre,” Cantrell recalls of the meeting, in which the workers pled their case to a room full of supportive Portland customers, and the Seattle suits, didn’t say a word. “They said they were here to answer any of our questions. And then they just literally left and didn’t answer anyone’s questions. People at our store followed them out of the building asking them questions, and they literally just ran off into the night.” 


One of the store’s regular customers, who showed up to voice their support for the baristas, summed up the collective outrage felt at the behavior of the conglomerate, “they’re feckless thugs.” 


The date set for the location’s shutdown—just two days before Christmas— adds insult to injury for the store's dozen plus employees and makes the chilling message sent by Starbucks clear to workers everywhere: don’t try to join a union. “It's unforgivable. The store didn't deserve to be shut down. And the way that they're doing it, and the day that they're doing it, the 23rd of December, they're like literal cartoon villains,” says Cantrell. “It's just, it's devastating. We love our store, so it sucks.”


Though Starbucks is making efforts to bust her union, Cantrell and her fellow baristas have the support of New York’s union construction industry. One union worker outside an early job site, holding a steaming cup of coffee told Union Built Matters, “This java from the food truck is delicious. That union-busting Starbucks coffee leaves a very bitter after-taste. I won’t drink it. Ever.” Big moneyed interests will go to great lengths to stymie the efforts of workers. But unions will stand together however they can in the fight for fairness.


Mark Colangelo is a writer and blogger.

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