When Starbucks management came for Sean Andrews, it didn’t surprise him, exactly. Tensions were already running high in the Denver coffee shop where he worked. A few days prior, Andrews’ fellow baristas had walked off the job in a six-hour strike. They were demonstrating for their unionization effort and against what they saw as a sustained pattern of anti-labor tactics by Starbucks.
Workers knew the strike was an escalation and expected retaliation. Even so, Andrews was unprepared when the Denver Starbucks district manager pulled him aside before a shift, forced him to turn off his phone and asked him to take a call. The woman on the other end would eventually identify herself as a “corporate investigator” who looks into losses in stores.
After some innocuous questions about company policy, she began quizzing him about leftover food, according to a recording of the interaction obtained by the Guardian. Did his coworkers ever take any for themselves? Did he?
After sticking to the company line at first, an audibly exasperated Andrews turned blunt. In the back of the store, there’s a box for leftover food that goes to a local food pantry. If a piece of food was about to turn bad, or if a store item was expired and set to be thrown away, he or his coworkers would at times grab something on their way out, “like every [barista] who works for Starbucks,” he said.
Cost of living has ballooned in Denver in recent years, with housing prices growing by 21% in the past year alone. The starting hourly salary for baristas is $16.37, according to a job posting from March (experienced employees can make more than $21 an hour).
One of Andrews’ coworkers was functionally homeless at the time, a fact that he shot back at the company investigator when she asked for the names of people who took food. (Several Starbucks employees interviewed for this story described regularly being behind on rent.) The investigator then asked if Andrews had a home. “Yes,” he replied, “no thanks to Starbucks.”
At this point, the Starbucks investigator began grilling him, repeatedly demanding the identities of workers who took food, and demanding to know who was homeless.
Andrews felt angry and uncomfortable. He refused to answer. “I know exactly why you’re doing this,” he said, referring to anti-union retaliation.
Eventually, he stood up and announced that he quit.
“I will let all the other [baristas] know that this is happening,” he said to the investigator and his district manager. The investigator told him that if he did not leave immediately, his manager would call the police.
Andrews’ run-in with his bosses is a small part of an ongoing struggle between the world’s largest coffee chain and thousands of its American workers. For years, unions had considered Starbucks notoriously difficult to organize. In December, workers at a Starbucks in Buffalo, New York, voted to form a union, the first in the history of the iconic Seattle coffee chain. The victory broke the dam, and the subsequent flood has spread across the country.
“I was amazed that they were able to pull it off,” said Trey Slopsema, a Denver barista and an early organizer at the Denver store. “And it really just stuck with me that this is something that we could actually do.”
The union vote results for this Denver Starbucks will be announced on 10 May. This store is one of more than 200 locations with active union campaigns. More than 50 stores have successfully voted to unionize, including, in late April, one in the small town of Superior, Colorado, the first in the state.
Taken along with the recent labor win at an Amazon warehouse – Amazon was another white whale for labor organizers – the Starbucks union push is part of a historic outpouring of worker activism in the US.
But even in this context, the Denver union drive is notable.
Buffalo, the site of the first Starbucks union win, has a strong labor culture and hundreds of local unions. By contrast, Colorado is a nominally liberal state that has trended Democratic in recent elections, but its union culture is noticeably weak. Colorado has a modified right-to-work law, which means that employees in unionized workplaces are not required to join the union. The state’s rate of unionized workers is several points below the national average.
At a basic level, Denver residents are far less likely to know a union member, or have been exposed to labor organizations, than in some other parts of the country. Colorado labor historians and union leaders described a pro-business, libertarian-tinged political climate that adds an extra degree of difficulty to an already hard process.
“If you go to Great Lakes cities, rust belt cities, there are old industries that still carry strong union identity,” said Nate Bernstein, health care director for United Food and Commercial Workers Local Number 7, which represents 23,000 grocery store and retail workers in Colorado and Wyoming.
Denver’s economic makeup, he said, is not conducive to union density. On top of that, Bernstein identified a cultural resistance to unions that stems from Denver’s self-image as a “cowboy town”, where myths of rugged western individualism are dearly held.
John Enyeart, a labor historian at Bucknell University, called this a common trope among western employers, one with little basis in historic fact.
“The mountain men worked together,” he said. “It’s hard to fight off a bear on one’s own. The idea that they were doing this all individually is nonsense.”
Corporations want you to think of the workplace as your family. For decades, American companies have often talked about their workplace in friendly terms. Workers are encouraged to trust their employer, to meld personal identity and professional occupation. Starbucks’ is part of this lineage. A press release on the company website from 2016 begins: “Colleagues at work can sometimes feel like family.”
The company has long referred to all their employees, from high-level management down to baristas, as “partners”. In a video call leaked to the pro-labor news site More Perfect Union, Starbucks’ CEO, Howard Schultz, recently told company managers that “it’s an American right of workers not to unionize and to embrace the values and the culture of his or her company”.
Appeals of this sort to a sympathetic company culture have not always been the norm. In Colorado, the state’s labor history recalls a time when the seesawing conflict between organized labor and corporate power was often confrontational – and sometimes violent. At the turn of the 20th century, the state’s unions were strong and well organized across industries. More conservative craft unionists would go on strike with workers in other industries. And in the mines, the unions were radical, powerful and ready to fight.
At the time, Colorado’s economy relied on coal, gold and silver extracted from the Rocky Mountains. “If you wanted to do any kind of work in a mining town like Cripple Creek – bartender, musician, anything – you had to be a union member,” said Thomas Andrews, a historian of the Western United States at University of Colorado. He also noted that these mining towns were often racially exclusive, with animus toward Mexican Americans and Chinese and eastern European immigrants running high among the unions.
In this period, large and aggressive mining strikes were the norm at least once per decade, as miners went on strike for better working conditions, while the companies retaliated in often brutal fashion. In 1913, the United Mine Workers of America called a general strike in Colorado’s coalfields, one that targeted the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company, the state’s largest miner and owned by John D Rockefeller Jr.
To break the strike, the company hired private guards to harass the workers and their families, who had gathered in a tent encampment in the town of Ludlow. On 20 April, the private soldiers, along with troops from the Colorado national guard, attacked the camp, killing at least 21 people, including 11 children. A 10-day war followed. Well-organized militias of striking miners – including many veterans of older mining conflicts – fought a guerrilla campaign against the Colorado national guard and the mining corporations, killing more people than died at Ludlow.
The Ludlow Massacre became a pivotal moment in early 20th century labor struggles. An investigation by Congress into mine safety conditions followed, and there was widespread outrage and the Rockefeller family. But labor’s reputation suffered as well. Colorado newspapers turned against the unions, and business interests believed that the state’s reputation needed to be restored.
After the second world war, Colorado’s economic path largely tracked that of the rest of the sun belt: huge investments of federal funds into the national highway system, technology and military infrastructure brought lifestyle-oriented, upper-class professionals to the state in droves. This economy endures today, with aerospace, telecommunications, financial services and tech driving the booming economy on Colorado’s Front Range. None of these industries have strong union membership.
This thin labor culture meant that some Denver Starbucks employees were unfamiliar with unions when the store’s employees began organizing.
Kelly Morris took a job at Starbucks six years ago to supplement her income as a preschool teacher, which did not cover groceries and rent. In that time, she had never considered the need for a union. Morris was born in Golden, a Denver suburb. Growing up, she didn’t know any union members or have any personal connection to labor. She was not against unions, more that they weren’t a part of her life.
So when her coworkers began to discuss unionizing, Morris was hesitant. She didn’t want to be fired and lose the healthcare she desperately needed. She wrestled with the idea for some weeks. But talking to her coworkers eventually convinced her. Morris signed a union card, as well as the initial letter to management announcing the staff’s intention to unionize.
Putting her name out there still makes her nervous, but Morris ultimately feels proud to stand with her coworkers. “We need to have a say,” she told me. “A union would give us that.”
Enyeart, the Bucknell historian, drew a connection between the mine wars of the past and the struggles of Starbucks baristas today. “[Starbucks workers] are being intimidated and their livelihoods are being destroyed,” he said. Back then, Rockefeller knew he was never going to jail for violating labor laws that were on the books. The Starbucks people are doing the same thing. They know that, worst-case scenario, they have to pay some fines.”
The Starbucks store where Andrews worked is on Colfax Avenue – the longest continuous commercial street in America. It offers a procession of taco counters, electronics stores, laundromats and several of Denver’s famous theaters and music venues. The Starbucks store sits between an apartment complex and an addiction treatment center.
It looks like a barn, and that’s what locals call it.
In the Denver Starbucks community, the Barn has something of a reputation. The pace is fast, with no space for inexperienced baristas. It’s also notorious for being understaffed, and the clientele includes a fair share of unhoused people.
These factors, according to multiple interviews with store baristas, make it so workers from suburban Denver locations virtually never pick up shifts at the store.
“‘Oh God, you work at the Barn,’ that’s not an uncommon thing to hear,” said Slopsema. But the store’s isolation creates a distinctly close-knit team, he went on.
When he turned 18, Slopsema wanted to travel around the country and used Starbucks to fund his wandering. He worked at stores in Indiana and Florida before moving to Colorado to see the mountains. The camaraderie at the Barn stands out. “That’s why I stick around. I’ve never worked with a team that’s been so close.”
This cohesion helped the store’s team weather the pandemic. Many employees have been sick at various points in the past two years. Customers were often belligerent in response to mask mandates. Some were even violent.
Last fall, Andrews was punched in the face so hard by an angry customer that his tooth chipped. Another employee, Michaela Sallero, was pepper-sprayed in the face at the drive-thru window by a man upset that the store was out of mocha Frappuccinos. For a month after the incident, baristas would find shattered glass bottles littering the outside of their store in the morning. The man was throwing full Frappuccino bottles at the store in the night.
According to Sallero, Starbucks management was of little help. The bosses refused to allow workers to hang a picture of the man in the store, so baristas shared it among themselves. Sallero noted that management did offer her a trauma counseling session in the back of the store. Overall, she said, “I don’t think they took it very seriously.”
So when news of Buffalo’s union win broke, employees at the Barn were immediately excited. Talk of the union benefits proposed in Buffalo consumed the group chat – better pay, workplace protections, a policy where, if the store is short-staffed, the other employees absorb the missing employees pay for that shift rather than the company – as well as basic discussion of what unions are.
The horizon of possibilities for their workplace had just expanded.
After the Barn announced its union drive in January, high-ranking Denver Starbucks figures began to appear in the store, observing the baristas and nitpicking tiny infractions, like not wearing a name tag. According to several baristas, the store is chronically out of name tags, and refill requests often go ignored.
Every barista sat through a one-on-one meeting with management over the course of three days in February. They were asked what they knew about the union and how they intended to vote. Companies cannot legally tell workers that they will lose benefits because of labor organizing. Instead, according to more than a half dozen Starbucks employees, managers made vague insinuations, stating that they could not promise that benefits would not get worse. “If we have a union, we’ll be doing the bargaining,” Sellaro said. “Why would we argue for worse benefits?”
There’s a reason Sellaro’s bosses honed in on benefit loss. Benefits are why many workers seek out Starbucks in the first place – and part of what has made organizing the company historically difficult.
Starbucks was the first large US corporation to offer healthcare benefits to part-time workers. Several workers at the Barn mentioned this as an incentive to stick with Starbucks. Most of them are in their 20s and 30s. Some have other service industry gigs. For many others, Starbucks is their only job.
The company’s college tuition aid program is “the only reason” why Vanessa Castro has stuck with Starbucks for four years and three different stores, including a move to Portland and then back to her home state of Colorado. Her getting a communications degree from Arizona State University would not be possible otherwise, she told me in an interview at a park down the street from the Barn.
“If you start to empower employees by giving them benefits, options, resources to get success, you don’t get to choose when to stop,” she said.
The next step, for Castro, is a union.
Shortly after the first union win in Buffalo, Schultz, Starbucks’ well-known CEO, came out of retirement to lead the company again. The timing appears to be no accident. Schultz has a long history of opposing unions. In recent months, as the nationwide unionization campaign has gained momentum, Starbucks has deluged employees with anti-union messaging, fired pro-union workers, and spent millions of dollars on a law firm famous for union-busting.
It’s unclear whether his advocacy is going well. At a recent event, Schultz promised workers that Starbucks would soon be getting into NFTs. In November, he made a shocking comparison between the company’s benefit program and Jewish concentration camp prisoners sharing blankets during the Holocaust. At the same time, Schultz has argued that Starbucks can treat its employees well voluntarily, just without the presence of a union.
Now he plans to do just that – and pit unionized workers against non-unionized ones.
On May 3, Starbucks announced immediate nationwide pay increases, with better sick time benefits and, for the first time, the option for customers to tip with their credit cards coming this fall.
But in the fine print of the announcement, the company stated that the entire benefit expansion would apply to non-unionized stores only. On Twitter, the Starbucks Workers United union account claimed that pressure from the union campaign led to the raises. The union also stated that it has “filed charges against Howard Schultz’s threats that union stores won’t receive these benefits.”
At the Barn, loss of benefits became a concern in February and March, as workers who once had no trouble getting shifts found their hours abruptly cut – a strategy, most believed, meant to demoralize them or force them to quit so new employees could be hired and potentially change the union vote. Some of them relied on Starbucks for all of their income. Requests for more shifts went unheeded. Yet several shift supervisors – a role reserved for experienced baristas – describe being left with skeleton crews during busy times.
Lillian Sanders, a shift supervisor who has worked in five Starbucks stores in three states over almost four years, called the tactics “retaliatory” and “purposefully isolating”. “I’ve never had to work so hard to get my manager to answer her phone,” she said.
Then there were the write-ups. In mid-February, Slopsema, a barista at the Barn, was given a final warning – the last step before being fired. The reason given was that the store safe was found unlocked after one of his shifts, as well as a failure to lock the store. According to Slopsema, the safe’s latch was broken, an issue he raised with his bosses weeks before the incident. In a recording of a conversation about the warning obtained by the Guardian, Slopsema can be heard expressing shock at the severity of the punishment.
“I’ve never received a written warning before,” he said in the recording, “so it’s kind of upsetting to see that it’s just a final right off the bat after working here for four years.
He takes responsibility for leaving the store unlocked – he blames it on a mental lapse – but pushes back regarding the safe. “I’ve also showed that the safe itself needs to be worked on,” he can be heard saying to his manager. “It doesn’t shut properly. Unless you really press onto it, it will just open back up, but I’ve already connected with you on that.”
Two weeks later, Sellaro received her own final warning after she left her keys in her apron, hanging in the back, locked in the store overnight. Sellaro thought so little of her oversight with the keys that she subsequently mentioned it to her boss. Nothing happened for more than two weeks, at which point she was informed that she was one step from being terminated.
Below a final warning are two less severe disciplinary levels. Both she and Slopsema had worked at Starbucks for years and never been written up for any infraction (Andrews now suspects that his encounter with the company investigator would have led to a final warning had he not quit on the spot). Both were known to be leading union advocates. Sellaro called it intimidation. “If it was so egregious, why didn’t you say something to me sooner?” she said.
After baristas at the Barn went on strike in early March, messages from the company became more direct. “Please vote and vote NO,” read a letter distributed to employees. Another letter from around that time accused the workers and their supporters of physically intimidating and yelling obscenities at customers during the walkout and strike. The letter urged employees to vote against the union. It was signed by Andrea Streedain, Starbucks’ regional vice-president for the mountain west.
In an internal company video call for store managers that recently leaked, Denver district manager Kaylin Driscoll can be seen tearfully recounting these allegations against the striking workers. “We watched everything we know about Starbucks and our culture erode,” she said.
(Driscoll was the manager in the room when Andrews was questioned by the investigator. The Guardian called and left voicemails requesting comment with both Driscoll and Streedain. The company did not respond to a list of questions by press time).
Multiple workers who participated in the strike called allegations of physical intimidation a lie, though they acknowledge booing cars that broke the picket line to use the drive through. “We behaved as if we were on the clock,” Sellaro said. Several recalled irate customers screaming at the demonstrators. Someone threw an egg at them from a nearby building. In the staff group chat, one worker described the letter as “pure propaganda”.
On 20 April, Starbucks’ lawyers filed a complaint to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) against Starbucks Workers United (SBWU is an affiliate of the Service Employees International Union, which represents millions of workers across multiple sectors), one that specifically cites the March walkout at the Barn. It mentions the alleged yelling at customers and physical intimidation, according to CNBC.
With less than a week before the results of the vote are announced, there has been serious attrition among the Barn’s leading union voices.
Andrews had quit after his encounter with the Starbucks investigator. Sanders gave her two weeks notice in early April, along with two other baristas. She described feeling “forced out” by a difficult and intentionally unhelpful management. And Slopsema was finally terminated. (He declined to discuss the details of his dismissal, but several coworkers described the firing as not justified.)
At least four Unfair Labor Practice complaints had been filed to the NLRB on behalf of employees at the Barn, to go with dozens from other locations around the US, alleging anti-union activities of many kinds.
Despite – and perhaps in response to – this pressure campaign, several workers said they are confident in the results of the vote. Corporate higher-ups continue to make regular appearances in the store. Sellaro said that the short-staffing persists. At least eight employees have quit or been fired in recent months, several in response to Slopsema’s dismissal. The store has been forced to close early several times, angering some customers.
“We’re consistently being staffed as thinly as humanly possible,” Sellaro said in a late April phone interview. She suspects the goal is to create resentment among the staff, but said the tactic has backfired. “The way we’ve been abandoned by leadership, the way they leave us to flounder, and don’t seem to understand how exhausting that is – [coworkers] keep saying that they are excited to have their own voice.”
I spoke to Sellaro by phone on the day she mailed in her ballot. It was a proud moment, almost three months to the day when she and her coworkers publicly announced their intent to unionize. But the recent months have tainted her relationship to Starbucks, her main source of income. She feels scrutinized, like her bosses are looking for a chance to fire her. She has had panic attacks before some shifts. Longtime work friends have quit or been fired. She can’t help feeling sad for her coworkers who began organizing with her, but will not be there at the end.
“We slogged through the, excuse my language, extremely shitty moments together, and now we’re getting those little joyous moments,” she said. “I can’t imagine how hard it is for Trey [Slopsema] and Sean [Andrews] and Lillian [Sanders] and everyone else to see us celebrating and not be able to fully share in it. Bittersweet is the only way to describe it.”