Starbucks Workers Take on the South
Starbucks Workers Take on the South
How have organizers claimed victories in a more hostile legal and political climate?
The story of organized labor in the South is well known. The region has some of the lowest rates of unionization in the country. South Carolina lies at the bottom of the heap; in 2021, only 1.7 percent of the state’s workers were unionized.
But many Starbucks workers in the South have recently bucked the trend by voting to form a union. Starbucks Workers United (SBWU) has successfully established a presence in the South, with more than thirty unionized stores in the region out of a total of more than 200 nationwide. Workers at Southern Starbucks stores have organized largely around the same issues as Starbucks partners in the rest of the country: unlivable wages, unresponsive management, short staffing, too few hours, broken equipment, and union-busting. Yet the rates of success are not as high as in most of the country: the union has won a lower percentage of elections in Southern states, and its margins of victory have been smaller.
Across the country, Starbucks workers face organized opposition to union drives, but the challenges in the South are perhaps greater than in any other region. How have some workers managed to claim victories in a more hostile legal and political climate?
“It feels much more difficult here than in some other areas of the country,” said Maggie Carter, a Knoxville barista who led the first union drive in the region. “But it’s also so important to do it where density is so low.” She made $8.35 an hour when she started working at Starbucks three years ago, and she now makes a little over $12.
Carter and her coworkers filed for a union election on December 23 of last year. To give a sense of the conservative atmosphere in Knoxville, Carter mentioned that eight days later an arsonist burned down a Planned Parenthood clinic in the city. It was the second violent attack on the facility in less than a year.
“It’s rough. Sometimes you can feel like you’re alone,” Carter said. “But then you meet those people . . . that stand with you. And then you start to build a community.”
The South is a more culturally diverse region than stereotypes about it would suggest. Networked islands of progressive community create more opportunities for organizers than outside observers might assume. The surrounding right-wing culture, which can bubble into political violence, means, however, that organizers also face more resistance than in most parts of the country.
The progressive island in Anderson, South Carolina, can sometimes feel as small as a single Starbucks. Trump won Anderson County in the 2016 and 2020 elections by more than 40 points. In a conservative town of fewer than 30,000 people, the store voted 18 to 0 to unionize. “Even though [the company is] kind of a menace at the moment, Starbucks is kind of a safe haven for all the liberals,” Aneil Tripathi, a college student who worked as a shift supervisor at the store until being recently fired, said. “[It’s] this kind of cluster of us all having, you know, the same views on political and economic stuff.”
It’s probably not a coincidence that, according to Tripathi, of the nineteen employees at the store before Labor Day, fifteen are LGBTQ+, including three who were trans. Olivia Lewis, a shift supervisor at a Starbucks in Boone, North Carolina, that voted to unionize, called her store “queer as hell.” It’s also notable that workers in the Anderson store, like those in most Starbucks stores in the region, skew young. Tripathi said that workers in Anderson range from teenagers to adults in their late twenties.
But even in Anderson, the workers are supported by a pro-union network that goes beyond the store. When baristas have gone on strike, “there’s been a good bit of community support,” Tripathi said. He added that a frequent sentiment among allies is “Go, y’all, stick it to them! They make billions and billions and can’t pay y’all adequately.”
Workers at stores in larger metropolitan areas in the South have also benefited from the support of allied groups. In New Orleans, the grassroots labor network Southern Workers Assembly, the public worker group New Orleans City Worker Organizing Committee, and the education justice group Step Up Louisiana have played important roles in organizing efforts. Without these groups, “[we] definitely would not have had the resources to do as much as we did,” said Billie Nyx, who was fired from their job as a shift supervisor at a store in New Orleans after organizing their store. They cite community support for events such as a partner-appreciation barbecue and “sip-ins” at the store. (At sip-ins, community members come into the store, order drinks, and take up space to show support for the union and disrupt the normal flow of business.) In Jacksonville, a Black-led grassroots group called Jacksonville Community Action Committee and the local Democratic Socialists of America chapter have lent support to organizing workers.
Nonetheless, there are many reminders of the tenuous position of these workers in a region where management has historically used state violence to support its aims. A few weeks ago, the manager of the store in Anderson reported workers to the police for “kidnapping” and “assault.” Cops visited the store on August 4 to investigate the allegations, but no formal charges have been filed. (What had actually happened, as a TikTok video that has received more than 10 million views confirms, was that the store’s employees held a meeting to request a raise and refused to physically budge when the manager tried to leave.) As of this writing, eight Anderson baristas remain suspended with pay because of the incident; five have been fired, allegedly for an unrelated incident, and six workers remain at the store.
Sometimes, though, the law backfires against management. In Memphis, Tennessee, seven Starbucks workers who had been involved in organizing efforts were fired for minor policy infractions. It was a clear union-busting move, but, in a major victory for the union, on August 18, just five days after the NLRB brought the case to court, a federal judge ordered Starbucks to reinstate the workers, known as the Memphis 7. The order stated that the disciplinary measures must also be expunged from the workers’ records and that Starbucks must put a halt to anti-union actions. The company subsequently lost a request for a stay as it appealed the decision.
Several of the Memphis 7 workers are people of color. Nabretta Hardin, one of the fired workers, said that being a Black woman in the South made her a target, even though Memphis is one of the more pro-union cities in the region. “A woman of color is passionate about something and is vocal about it, and we are seen as dramatic, aggressive, or doing too much just to get attention,” she wrote in an email. “Really, we just want to be seen and our problems heard and fixed.”
For other Starbucks worker organizers, the main obstacle has not been outright opposition but a lack of knowledge among fellow workers, and a resulting fear of and resistance to change. These feelings are buttressed by phrases like “right to work” and “at will,” even when many don’t know what they actually mean.
“When I had first brought up organizing in my store, one of my partners countered with, ‘But we’re a right-to-work state and we can’t unionize,’” according to Mason Boykin, a shift supervisor at a Jacksonville Starbucks. Right-to-work laws allow an individual worker to opt out of paying union dues while working at a unionized workplace. Although they have nothing to do with the legality of unionizing, they have sent a signal to many non-union workers that unions are unwelcome in a state’s workplaces. Organizing in the South requires helping people to both “learn” and “unlearn,” Boykin said.
For established unions, right-to-work laws pose a huge problem: they threaten to cut heavily into dues and suppress membership numbers. However, at the store in Anderson, Tripathi argues, right-to-work laws didn’t impede organizing but instead may have ironically helped to garner support. “Paying union dues was a big concern for my partners, because we’re already tight on money for paying bills,” Tripathi said. The fact that his coworkers weren’t legally required to pay dues made some of them feel more inclined to support the union drive.
It is common during union drives for management to pepper workers with propaganda about dues, saying that the union is out to take their money (a trope that is already particularly common in the South). Meanwhile, unions usually insist that workers will not have to pay dues until their first contract is finalized and they receive a raise that outstrips the cost of the dues.
“A certain anti-union mindset has been drilled into people. Trying to break through that and get people to consider other perspectives or other information is the biggest challenge for me,” Lewis, the shift supervisor in Boone, said. “I think that the word ‘union’ and the idea associated with it are a big hindering factor. . . . That’s why it’s so important to organize in the South, because we’ve been purposely misdirected by people controlling education.”
Some SBWU worker leaders have expressed resignation over the organizing climate in the region. “People are sitting here in the South like, ‘I just have to take what I have and just work with it. I don’t want to lose it. There’s not much I can do, I can’t even afford to move,’” said Haya Odeh, a barista at a Starbucks in Wilmington, North Carolina, that is currently trying to unionize.
Carter, the barista in Knoxville, echoes what other organizers have said about the challenges of unionizing in the South. The lack of knowledge about and familiarity with unions poses a big challenge even for workers who call to express interest in unionizing, she said.
“I have to actually be able to gauge how to address the call, where to take it. I enjoy it. Because I’m a mom, that’s what I do,” she said. “At the same time, it also adds a layer to an already difficult process.”
Carter nonetheless expresses joy at being a regional leader for SBWU, and she believes that some aspects of the region are even advantageous for organizing. “Southern people are more friendly most times, so it’s a lot easier when you’re stopping in for a cup of coffee,” she said. “Up north, the conversation doesn’t flow as easily as it does down here.”
Lewis put together a document that went over everything about the unionization process and combined this with old fashioned, one-on-one organizing conversations. “We would approach a partner and [say], ‘Hey, this is something that we’re going to move forward with. Are you interested in learning more?’”
She would then set up a phone call with the new recruit. “I would give them access to the document, but I would walk through it step by step and explain everything,” Lewis said. “And generally, by the end, they were either like, ‘I’m on board, I just need a little bit more time to think about it,’ or were for sure on board.”
Boykin said that since they use the word “union” in the presence of management, their coworkers are more comfortable with it too. “Now, I’ll be talking about it with my manager right in front of me: ‘You know, we’re a unionized store,’ and I’ll talk about XYZ,” they say. “It’s dissolving that boundary that exists between us and management, because ultimately, our shop is unionized . . . and it’s OK.”
Saurav Sarkar is a New York–area freelance writer who frequently covers the Starbucks union drive. Follow his writing at sauravsarkar.com or on Twitter at @sauravthewriter.