Effort to unionize Starbucks takes root in Atlanta

Union-organizing efforts are underway at several Starbucks stores in metro Atlanta, part of a nascent but growing national campaign.

So far, just one Atlanta store has turned in a petition that could trigger a vote.

Employees at a Starbucks on Howell Mill Road say they have turned in more than the necessary signatures to the National Labor Relations Board. If the NLRB agrees that more than 30% of non-management employees are on board, it will order a vote.

The campaign here was not sparked by miserable work conditions, said Page Smith, a shift supervisor and a member of the group leading the effort at the Howell Mill location. “We love to work at Starbucks, to be partners here, to be part of a community,” said Smith, who started work there in April. “But we feel strongly that we are not held in as much respect as we’d like to be.”

Starting pay differs across the country. At the Howell Mill Starbucks, a new barista typically receives $15 an hour. But it’s not just about hourly wage, since many workers do not get assigned enough hours each week to make a decent living, Smith said. “It’s not particularly consistent and it’s hard to anticipate,” Smith said. “We all have to have roommates.”

A Starbucks spokesman told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that whatever the outcome of the campaign in Atlanta, the company wants to avoid conflict. He cited Rossann Williams, a Starbucks executive vice president who recently said that “the vote outcomes will not change our shared purpose or how we will show up for each other.”

Two Starbucks stores in Buffalo and one in Canada have voted to unionize. Efforts at unionization are also underway in 14 other states besides Georgia. The union, Workers United, represents about 86,000 workers in a range of industries, according to Chris Baumann, director for the southern region.

Seattle-based Starbucks last year had revenues of $29.1 billion and about 400,000 employees. More than one-quarter of its stores are in the United States, including about 40 in metro Atlanta.

Georgia has a long history as a state where unions lack clout. Organizing campaigns can be longshots.

Government and business officials who market the state to investors and large companies typically tout the lack of unions as a plus that can lower payroll costs.

Georgia last year ranked 41st among the states for the share of workers who were union members, 4.8% of the workforce, or 211,000 people, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Moreover, Georgia’s law allows workers in unionized shops to forego membership, but requires the union to represent them. About 256,000 workers are represented by unions.

“Our efforts are meant to set a precedent, to inspire other stores to speak up and to show it’s totally possible,” Smith said.

It doesn’t hurt that unemployment is low and that many companies are competing to lure workers with better benefits and higher pay.

“I think that informs the confidence that a lot of us have,” Smith said. “There are cultural changes happening. We don’t have to just take what we can get.”