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How a Starbucks in Warwick became the first in Rhode Island to join the union wave

Providence Journal logo Providence Journal 4/8/2022 Antonia Noori Farzan, The Providence Journal
Barista Cassie Burke at the Pace Boulevard Starbucks in Warwick. © David DelPoio/The Providence Journal Barista Cassie Burke at the Pace Boulevard Starbucks in Warwick.

The day before she fired off an email to Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, informing him that baristas at the Pace Boulevard store in Warwick planned to unionize, Cassie Burke showed up to work and discovered they were short-staffed again.

With only two employees, they had to lock the front doors because it wasn't possible to take walk-up orders at the counter and deal with the line wrapping around the drive-through at the same time. Then, between breakfast and lunch, “we had what I would describe as a four-hour rush,” Burke said. “It was kind of an assurance that I was doing the right thing.”

For the past month, Burke and some of her fellow baristas had been quietly talking about forming a union at the store, off Bald Hill Road near Savers, Market Basket and Best Buy.

Part of their motivation was a desire to have a legally binding contract that could address some of their frustrations — for instance, the way it seemed like Starbucks was scheduling the fewest people possible to work at any given time, meaning that everything would fall to pieces if one person called out sick. 

"For me personally, I just fundamentally believe that unions are good, and having a democratized workplace is something everyone has a right to," Burke said. "Only good things can come from giving workers a say in the company they work for."

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On Wednesday, the Pace Boulevard store became the first Starbucks in Rhode Island to announce its intent to unionize.

It's part of a trend that's swept the country in recent months: According to Starbucks Workers United, a total of 185 stores in 29 states have filed petitions with the National Labor Relations Board. Many were inspired by the success of two stores in Buffalo, New York, that in December became the first in the country to unionize. 

Starbucks opposes unionization efforts.

"We are listening and learning from the partners in these stores, as we always do across the country," the company said in a statement. "From the beginning, we’ve been clear in our belief that we are better together as partners without a union between us, and that conviction has not changed.”

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In several other cities, including Memphis and Phoenix, Starbucks has fired union leaders, claiming that they violated company policies.

The company denies engaging in union-busting or retaliation, but to employees at the Warwick store, those incidents are just further proof that they need the protections of a union.

"Nobody should have not only their job, but [also] their health or education ripped from them on account of an unjust termination," Burke wrote in the organizing committee's letter to Schultz. "In your response to the unionization of other stores, you've shown that this is not a fear without backing." 

Burke told The Providence Journal that one of the main reasons people choose to work at Starbucks is the benefits, which include being able to enroll in online degree programs at Arizona State University free of charge, and expansive health-care coverage for transgender employees.

"These are things people cannot get anywhere else," Burke said. "You’re relying on it not just for your income, but your health care, your education, any number of things. That is grotesquely horrifying, that someone can take all those things from you because you are impeding on some corporation’s bottom line." 

'If we’re working together, there’s not much they can do hurt us.'

Burke, a Massachusetts native who lives in Warwick, became a full-time barista at the Pace Boulevard store in January. By then, union drives were already popping up at Starbucks locations around the country.

"That was always something in the back of my mind," she said.

When there was a change of management at the store, Burke saw a window of opportunity. Initially, she encountered some hesitation from employees who were nervous that they'd face retaliation. 

"The first response people have is, 'Please don’t get me involved, I don’t want to get fired,'" she said.

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By and large, employees at the Pace Boulevard store "are reasonably happy with their working conditions," Burke said. But that didn't mean that there wasn't room for improvement. In break-room conversations, she explained that a union was "a long-term solution to short-term problems."

It's possible that Starbucks' response to the union drive will be to fix problems at the Pace Boulevard store, like understaffing and ongoing plumbing maintenance issues, she said. But without a legally binding union contract, there's nothing requiring them to do so in the future. 

Over time, Burke said, "We all kind of unified behind the cause ... If we’re working together, there’s not much they can do hurt us." 

To petition for recognition by the National Labor Relations Board, at least 30% of employees need to sign cards indicating that they want to form a union. The Pace Boulevard store surpassed that threshold within a week, Burke said, with more than 50% of workers signing cards.

"That 50% doesn’t even include some people who we weren’t able to get signatures for but are supporting us," she said. "We feel really good about where we are. Everyone’s on the same page; we’re ready to make this happen together." 

Hoping other local stores will follow suit

The next step will be for the NLRB to hold an election at the Pace Boulevard store. If a majority of employees vote in favor of the union, the store will join 13 other Starbucks locations nationwide that have unionized so far. 

For now, the main thing that people can do to show their support is "really just a matter of coming in the store, telling us you support what we’re doing, and throwing us a tip," Burke said.

Already, a number of people have stopped by to express their enthusiasm for the union drive. "It's honestly very exciting," Burke said.

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Burke said the NLRB vote could take place "somewhat soon," but it depends on whether Starbucks decides to launch a court challenge. In other states, the company has argued that elections shouldn't happen on a store-by-store basis, "an argument that has really no precedent and has lost in every state they’ve tried it in," she said. 

In the meantime, she hopes that other Starbucks stores in Rhode Island will launch union drives of their own. The guidance of Starbucks Workers United organizers made the process "astoundingly simple," she said.

"We’re in sort of a big moment for American labor, that we’re gaining such momentum going into Starbucks and Amazon," she said. "It's a great time to educate yourself, see what your rights are and see how you can improve your lives and your coworkers' lives."

This article originally appeared on The Providence Journal: How a Starbucks in Warwick became the first in Rhode Island to join the union wave


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