Starbucks’ New York City Reserve Roastery becomes the 9th cafe to unionize

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Employees serve customers at a newly opened Starbucks’ Reserve Roasteries in the Meatpacking District on on December 14, 2018 in New York City.
Spencer Platt | Getty Images

Starbucks baristas at its New York City Reserve Roastery voted 46-36 in favor of forming a union on Friday, dealing a blow to incoming interim CEO Howard Schultz that may be more personal.

The Reserve Roastery is the ninth company-owned Starbucks to unionize. On Tuesday, the National Labor Relations Board counted votes for a Knoxville cafe, but a challenged ballot left the results of that effort uncertain. The union was winning by a single vote. Last week, a cafe in Starbucks’ hometown of Seattle and a second location in Mesa, Arizona, also voted to unionize.

To date, only one location has held an election and voted against unionizing under Workers United, an affiliate of the Service Employees International Union. However, the union pulled a petition for a union election for Roastery manufacturing workers, who were slated to cast their votes on Thursday.

Friday’s win for Starbucks Workers United represents more than just another location in the growing tally of unionized cafes. Starbucks opened the nearly 23,000-square-foot cafe in Manhattan’s meatpacking district in December 2018, during the tenure of CEO Kevin Johnson. But the luxurious store and others like it was actually the brainchild of former CEO Schultz, who retakes the top job Monday on an interim basis as Johnson retires.

“I’m proud of the culmination of our efforts to make our workplaces more democratic and equitable. Community is a value near and dear to my heart and I am grateful and joyous to be in solidarity with my peers,” said Ley Kido,” Starbucks partner of 9 years.

The Reserve Roasteries located in cities like Seattle, Shanghai and Milan were meant to be immersive, upscale coffee experiences to attract both tourists and city-dwellers alike. Schultz wanted to open several dozen of them, but Johnson said in 2019 the company would scale back on those ambitious plans. The last one opened launched in Chicago that year.

Friday’s vote at the New York City Roastery was the first election for Starbucks conducted in person, rather than via mail-in ballots.

]People exit a newly opened Starbucks’ Reserve Roasteries in the Meatpacking District on on December 14, 2018 in New York City.
Spencer Platt | Getty Images

Starbucks’ growing union push will be among the challenges facing Schultz as he once again assumes the chief executive role. During his prior stints as CEO of the coffee chain, Starbucks gained a reputation as a generous and progressive employer, an image that’s now in jeopardy as the union gains momentum and workers share their grievances.

The chain is far from the only company seeing pushback against pay and working conditions by way of union representation. Earlier on Friday, Amazon workers at a Staten Island warehouse voted to become the e-commerce giant’s first unionized facility. And in March, REI Co-op employees at the Manhattan flagship store voted to form the company’s first union in the U.S.

The National Labor Relations Board issued a complaint against Starbucks earlier in March for allegedly retaliating against two Phoenix employees who were trying to organize. The union has also alleged that Starbucks engaged in union-busting across many of its stores that have filed for elections. The company has denied those accusations.

Early union victories in Buffalo have galvanized other Starbucks locations nationwide to organize. More than 150 company-owned cafes have filed for union elections with the National Labor Relations Board, including other New York City locations. Workers at the Astor Place cafe in Manhattan starting casting their ballots on Friday for their mail-in election.

That’s still only a small fraction of Starbucks’ overall footprint, though. The company operates nearly 9,000 locations in the U.S.

The NLRB’s regional director will now have to certify the ballots, a process that could take up to a week. Then the union faces its next real challenge: negotiating a contract with Starbucks. Labor laws don’t require that the employer and union reach a collective bargaining agreement, and contract discussions can drag on for years.

At Starbucks’ annual shareholders meeting several weeks ago, Chair Mellody Hobson said the company understands and recognizes its workers’ right to organize.

“We are also negotiating in good faith, and we want a constructive relationship with the union,” she said.

She said on CNBC’s “Squawk Box” earlier that day that Starbucks “made some mistakes” when asked about the union push.

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