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Queer Starbucks workers wanted to unionize. They say the coffee giant is punishing them for it.

A man at the counter at Starbucks
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On October 3, the director of corporate counsel at Starbucks was honored by the National LGBTQ+ Bar Association. Among other things, she was honored for making “good trouble” and for her “strong moral compass.” But not everyone at the company was happy.

“Stop the [pinkwashing] and political cover!” said a group of Seattle Starbucks baristas on Twitter. “We should all publicly shame @LGBTQBar— you don’t speak for LGBTQ+ workers. Cancel this,” tweeted another group of baristas from Chicago.

The tit-for-tat was emblematic of an ongoing struggle between the $100+ billion company and its baristas, several thousand of whom have formed a network called Starbucks Workers United (SBWU). SBWU has been trying to organize unions affiliated with Workers United at the approximately 9,000 company-run stores in the United States. 

They are seeking contracts that would guarantee a raft of proposals including a minimum $20 hourly wage for all baristas, higher quality and more accessible health care, consistent hours, and protection from harassment. 

Since the very beginning, the barista network’s attempts to unionize the approximately 9,000 company-run stores in the U.S. have encountered stiff resistance from the corporation. And LGTBQ+ issues have become an increasingly public terrain on which Starbucks and SBWU are tussling. 

“This year, they wouldn’t allow anyone to have Pride flags up in their stores,” said Pittsburgh-area barista James Greene. 

Danbury, Connecticut, barista Luis Sanches similarly says that the district manager for his area took down Pride decorations. Sanches says that, when confronted, the district manager said, “It’s not part of the guidelines. And Starbucks is trying to go a different direction.”

Jacksonville, Florida barista Mason Boykin says that “the coverage that they provide for trans-affirming surgeries, trans-affirming healthcare has been rolled back.”

Starbucks denies these allegations, with CEO Laxman Narasimhan insisting in a statement, “We want to be crystal clear — Starbucks has been and will continue to be at the forefront of supporting the LGBTQIA2+ community, and we will not waver in that commitment. Despite public commentary, there has been no change to any of our policies as it relates to our inclusive store environments, our company culture and the benefits we offer our partners [employees].”

But baristas who spoke with LGBTQ Nation tell a different story about what has happened since unionization efforts began.

“They’re attacking queer workers”

Starbucks workers have reported being deadnamed by management at a corporate event, seeing a trans coworker bullied by the prospect of a loss of health care if unionization succeeded, and having break room Pride decorations torn down upon filing for a union.

Most broadly, the baristas argue that generalized union-busting and retaliation against workers has been playing out in an anti-LGBTQ+ way. The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) is looking or has looked at upwards of 670 separate unfair labor practice (ULP) charges against the company, and federal courts have already ruled against Starbucks several times. In one recent instance, an administrative judge found the company’s violations of labor law to be “egregious and widespread.”

The alleged violations include scores of firings allegedly for union activity, the provision of better benefits and higher wages to non-union stores, and hours cuts that force union-friendly workers under the line needed to maintain Starbucks’s vaunted health insurance.

“They’re attacking their workers, and when a predominant amount or ratio of your workers are queer, you’re not only attacking workers, you’re attacking queer workers, the forefront of your workforce, the people who are your brand or your image,” says Jacksonville barista Mason Boykin.

Sarah Wayment, a San Antonio barista, went even further than Boykin, saying, “A lot of times the partners they target to fire are… queer partners or… partners of color.” (Starbucks calls its employees “partners.”)

Retaliation can hit differently when you’re in a vulnerable group. For instance, queer Pittsburgh barista Brett Taborelli was taken aback when his manager threatened to call the police on him after trying to force him to quit without letting him use his Weingarten rights.

Starbucks has denied several of the allegations its workers have made.

Starbucks spokesperson Andrew Trull told LGBTQ Nation, “Starbucks trains managers that no partner will be disciplined for engaging in lawful union activity and that there will be no tolerance for any unlawful anti-union behavior. To support adherence, Starbucks launched a robust management training program and established a dedicated labor relations team last fall for real-time counsel and to support management adherence to company policies and compliance with labor laws.”

Trull also provided links to thisthis, and this statement, several of which reference Unfair Labor Practice charges filed by the company against the union for alleged misrepresentation of changes to gender-affirming care in insurance and Pride month decoration policies.

Fighting back

SBWU, which as of November 15 had successfully unionized 363 stores according to NLRB data, launched its campaign in August 2021 in upstate New York. The national barista network overcame intense union-busting to achieve its first victory when a store in Buffalo voted to unionize in December of the same year. (Each Starbucks store files for its own bargaining unit affiliated with Workers United.)

After a meteoric rise in union filings in early 2022, the company began pushing back hard and new filings slowed to a trickle. The union began filing ULP charges with the NLRB while Workers United also established a strike fund that SBWU members could take advantage of.

By August of 2022, Massachusetts area stores held the first regionally coordinated strike in SBWU’s short history. While most of the stores went out for about a week, one store’s workers struck for 64 days to replace their manager and win other demands. By the end of last year, SBWU was holding nationally coordinated periodic short-term strikes. 

This past summer workers also protested at various Pride events around the country. “I thought it would [be] a good cause to help out my fellow baristas and my partners,” says Sanches.

A siren song

Few corporations can match what Starbucks has done in defining itself as LGBTQ+-friendly. According to a company spokesperson, it has offered domestic partnership health benefits since 1988, coverage for gender reassignment surgery since 2013, and expanded family benefits to same-sex couples since 2019. 

“Starbucks is a queer employer. And they specifically market themselves like that,” says Boykin. They say, “They did a whole commercial about your chosen name being on your cup, and… being trans and getting to go to Starbucks.” 

Such marketing tactics have an impact. Boykin says, “That was really formative on… my perspective on Starbucks, and that ultimately pushed why I wanted to work there.”

But Starbucks’s alleged retaliatory moves have scuffed the sheen on the company’s image among much of its unionizing workforce. Former Portland, Oregon barista Alicia Flores (who was fired) says she used to “[sip] on…[the] Kool-Aid hard.” She even got involved in Starbucks’s corporate LGBTQ+ activities.

Now, though, she says, “It’s really ironic that they paint themselves as [an] LGBTQ company… when they don’t really practice what they’re preaching.”

Greene puts it strongest: “They really are what their mascot is…the siren is just [a] monster [that] lures people in with a beautiful song and then [kills] them.”

Starbucks denies that its LGBTQ+-friendly policies are predatory or serve to take advantage of a vulnerable LGTBQ workforce. It insists that its concern is genuine. But thousands of baristas beg to differ.

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