‘They could be doing so much more’: Cottonwood Heights Starbucks employees file for unionization

If their bid to join the Workers United Labor Union is successful, the Starbucks would be the first in Utah to unionize.

(AP Photo/Ted S. Warren) A sign at a Starbucks Coffee store in south Seattle is shown, Tuesday, Oct. 27, 2020.

Unionization may be coming to a Starbucks near you.

On Thursday, employees at a Cottonwood Heights Starbucks, located at 7025 S Highland Dr., filed for unionization and announced their intentions publicly in a letter emailed to interim CEO Howard Schultz.

If successful in joining the Workers United Labor Union, the store would be the first Starbucks in Utah to unionize.

In their letter, the employees stressed the need for a mutually beneficial “partnership” between labor and management moving forward.

“’Partnership’ means sharing power, accountability and success,” they wrote. “That is why you are receiving this letter today. We as the partners of Starbucks 50326 ... have decided to stand united with partners across the country in expressing our intentions to unionize.”

In doing so, the store’s employees hope the company will bargain with them for fairer wages, particularly considering the year’s precipitous rise in inflation.

“Starbucks has billions and billions of dollars, and they just pay us so little, especially here in Utah,” said Jacob Lawson, one of the store’s shift supervisors. “... Our cost of living rose exponentially [last year]. My parents bought their house in 2000 for roughly $100,000. And that same house is a $600,000 house today. And Starbucks only pays $12 starting.”

“They could be doing so much more,” he said later.

Their letter also noted that a union would allow workers to deal with problems relating to COVID-19 in-house.

To form a union, workers can either petition the National Labor Relations Board for an election, or an employer can “voluntarily recognize” a union if they are presented with evidence that a majority of their employees wish to be represented in such a way, according to the NLRB’s website.

The Utah-based Starbucks filed a formal petition with the board Thursday morning. To conduct an election, NLRB requires that at least 30% of workers indicate they want a union, either by signing cards or a petition.

The Cottonwood Heights store employs 21 workers, Lawson said. And, at last count, 16-18 of the employees had signed union authorization cards. A simple majority among voters is all that is needed for an election to pass.

Lawson said he would welcome Starbucks’ voluntary recognition, in light of the workers’ broad support of the action, but is not expecting the company to cooperate.

“Whether you decide to recognize us or not now,” the letter stated, “we are ready for the months to come until an election is held.”

A Starbucks spokesperson later confirmed to The Salt Lake Tribune that the employees would have to vote to form a union.

“We want all of our partners to have the opportunity to have their voices heard and weigh in on this matter in a manner that is confidential and anonymous and democratic so that they feel comfortable expressing exactly what it is that they want for their store,” she said. “And so we believe that the best way to do that is by following the NLRB’s process for an anonymous vote.”

The store’s unionization efforts add to a growing nationwide movement called Starbucks Workers United. Already, the initiative includes workers at “over 150 locations across 28 states,” a news release said.

“It takes an immense amount of courage to be the first to do anything, but it is especially brave in this case,” Michelle Eisen, a Buffalo barista who helped lead the first successful organizing campaign at Starbucks in December, said in the news release. “The decision to take on a multi billion dollar corporation that has not been shy about its anti-union position, deserves to be applauded.”

Lawson said he and other employees have already felt the displeasure of the company, with Lawson admitting the process has been “absolutely terrifying.”

“We’re getting union busted really hard,” he said. “And that’s the number one place and source of contention and discomfort in our store. And, definitely, we felt the tone shift after we were forthright with the company about our union efforts.”

Initially, the employees had planned to file for unionization three months ago but held back because doing so would have delayed another vote happening in Colorado, Lawson said. Since the employees opened up about their intentions, the store’s working environment has become increasingly tense, according to the shift supervisor. The employees’ letter also decried recent “targeted lies and threats” meant to dissuade employees from supporting the union.

While saying she wasn’t familiar with the specifics of the case and couldn’t speak to it directly, the Starbucks spokesperson highlighted the company’s respect for the NLRB’s process and their partners’ right to vote for a union.

“We’ve been clear from the beginning that we do respect our partners’ right to organize,” she said. “And that we will respect the outcome of the vote.”

When asked if he thought more Starbucks in Utah might unionize, Lawson said, “There’s definitely more going on in Utah, and the movement will continue to grow and spread. ... It’s just been really neat having the opportunity to really kind of oversee this and have other stores reach out to me and help them, you know, get the ball rolling.”