Starbucks employees from three stores in Buffalo, New York filed petitions with the National Labour Relations Board (NLRB) at the start of the week, requesting for a vote on union representation. The organising committee sent an open letter to CEO Kevin Johnson seeking reassurances that employees who favour union membership won’t face reprisals. If successful, the involved stores would become the first unionised Starbucks retail locations.

The filing is only a week after the launch of a campaign to unionise by employees, known as the Starbucks Workers United Organising Committee. Employees are hoping the unionisation can address significant issues like understaffing, unpredictable scheduling and insufficient training. 

The committee has representatives from 18 out of 20 Starbucks stores in Buffalo, with a total of 80 supporting employees. NLRB rules state that at least 30% of employees at a workplace have to sign the petition saying they want a union before there would be an election. Currently, they have reached majority support at four or five stores, as told by a member of the committee Brian Murray.

The open letter sent to Johnson clarifies reasons for the unionisation, stating:

We believe that there can be no true partnership without power-sharing and accountability. We are organizing a union because we believe that this is the best way to contribute meaningfully to our partnership with the company and ensure both that our voices are heard and that when we are heard, we have equal power to affect change and get things done.

Johnson was also requested by the committee to sign the Fair Election Principles which would allow employees to decide either way if they would like to unionise without consequence. 

Starbucks is currently appealing a ruling by an NLRB administrative law judge in June, where the company was found illegally retaliating against two baristas in Philadelphia who wanted to unionise. 

Starbucks released a statement in response to the open letter: 

We respect our partners’ right to organize but believe that they would not find it necessary given our pro-partner environment.

The company’s corporate communications senior manager, Jory Mendes, told a local TV station WKBW in Buffalo that unionisation is unnecessary, given the company’s work environment and competitive compensation and benefits. These “world-class benefits” the company says they offer includes health coverage, paid time off, parental leave, stock incentives and full college tuition through Arizona State’s online degree program.

Unionisation efforts in restaurant and cafe workers have been mostly unsuccessful, and union representation has been declining for decades — only 10.8% of wage and salary workers belong to unions in 2020, as compared to 20% in 1983.

Only 10.8% of wage and salary workers belong to unions in 2020

As with Colectivo Coffee employee’s recent successful unionization efforts, the situation could change. Perhaps Starbucks might just end up being the second-largest unionised coffee brand in the States. However, there is already a strong market demand for workers, and Starbucks will already have to remain a competitive and good employer to attract people, so I’m not sure there is such a strong case, as there are in other sectors, to require union involvement.


  • Nick Baskett


    Nick Baskett is the editor in Chief at Bartalks. He holds a diploma from the Financial Times as a Non Executive Director and works as a consultant across multiple industries. Nick has owned multiple businesses, including an award-winning restaurant and coffee shop in North Macedonia.

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