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Hub Starbucks strike has national implications

Tori Bedford

Starbucks workers declared a strike victory Wednesday after 64 days of around-the-clock picketing at their Boston store, the longest strike of its kind in the country. While Starbucks maintains that no concessions were made, workers said their announcement was a move to hold the company accountable and set a precedent for hundreds of other unionized stores around the country.

“We got the things we wanted and we’re returning to work,” barista Taylor Dickerson said. “I don’t know how you can claim that’s not a victory.”

After becoming one of the first Starbucks locations in Boston to win a union election in June, striking workers at the 874 Commonwealth Ave. store alleged the company retaliated against them by mandating that all employees meet a minimum number of work hours per week, effectively forcing out workers who could not accommodate the new schedule requirements.

Starbucks denies any kind of retaliation against union activity and denies that the company ever implemented the hourly minimum policy at unionized locations, which would be illegal.

“Legally we are not allowed to change conditions of employment without bargaining,” Starbucks spokesperson Reggie Borges said. “The partners at this location are returning to work under the same conditions at the same time that they went on strike.”

The striking workers say the corporate acknowledgement that mandated hourly minimums will not be enforced in their store is a win.

Multiple unfair labor practice complaints filed with the National Labor Relations Board and obtained by GBH News allege that managers at the Boston store verbally enforced the hourly rule — though never in writing.

Earlier this month, Jaz Brisack, a high-profile Starbucks union organizer in Buffalo, N.Y. shared a letter with the Associated Press alleging that the company refused to accommodate her availability requests for seven months, imposed arbitrary hourly minimums and forced her out due to union activity.

“The same thing happened in Boston: management makes up a new policy, applies it to workers there in retaliation for their union activity and never actually puts that policy into writing anywhere,” Hayes said.

More than 350 unfair labor practice charges have been filed against Starbucks by unionizing workers across the country.

Last month, a federal judge ordered Starbucks to reinstate seven employees at a Memphis store after finding the company illegally retaliated against them for organizing a union.

In a press release, unionized workers also claim their district manager said he is “actively seeking a replacement” for the current store manager. The store manager has been cited in multiple NLRB complaints from employees alleging intimidation, dramatic cutting of hours and “perpetuating harmful rhetoric” against employees of color and LGBTQ staff.

Starbucks spokesperson Borges denied any “current plans” to remove the store manager, saying that, “In communications between representatives, we made clear that the store manager at that particular store is going to remain and there are no plans to make any changes.”

The Boston workers’ public declaration of victory — which Starbucks representatives describe as “inaccurate” — is a move to hold the company accountable and ensure that promises are kept, barista Kylah Clay said.

“We have faith in our district manager and we are going to hold him to his word,” Clay said. “This is a monumental win.”

But Starbucks workers still have a long way to go in their confrontations with management. Workers in Buffalo are still working to negotiate a contract, which will set a precedent for stores across the country. Dickerson says it has been a struggle to get Starbucks to come to the negotiating table to work on a contract at Boston stores, which began to formally unionize in April.

“I continue to be frustrated with Starbucks, despite the victory, because we still don’t have a contract and they aren’t really acknowledging us in a satisfactory way,” Dickerson said. “But at the same time, they just did this kind of silent thing where they changed the [hourly minimum] requirement, which means they’re seeing what we’re doing and responding to it, even if it’s in a very hushed way.”

In a statement, Starbucks’ Borges said the company “looks forward to scheduling collective bargaining sessions with [union] representatives at this location.”

Ian Hayes, an attorney representing the striking workers, says the victory was hard-won.

“The workers made a very strong showing at the store, they absolutely achieved victory and that’s why they’re going back to work,” Hayes said. “The company has done a pretty shameless job of trying to reframe reality with respect to the union campaign and union activity across the U.S. for some time now. It doesn’t really mean much to me that they are trying to water down the victory that the workers achieved.”

The 64-day strike inspired many other stores across Boston to strike for days or weeks at a time, many in response to an announcement from Starbucks earlier this summer that unionized stores would not be receiving the same new benefits as non-organizing stores.

In response to the initial strike on Commonwealth Ave., Starbucks said in a statement that the company has the legal right “to hire permanent replacements for striking workers under certain circumstances,” and employees prepared for the possibility of a legal battle with the corporation.

Workers were joined on the picket line by Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, union leader Sara Nelson, Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley, Mayor Michelle Wu and several other elected officials from across the city.

There are now 238 unionized Starbucks stores in the United States, and 328 stores that have filed union elections.

“This has been really difficult and really tiring, but we didn’t just do it for us, we did it for this huge group of people and I think we inspired a lot of people along the way,” Dickerson said. “It just shows that if you do take the time to unionize and fight, while it is exhausting, it is so rewarding and big wins like this can bolster the movement and show that anything is possible.”

Tori Bedford covers Dorchester, Roxbury and Mattapan for GBH, 89.7.