Starbucks baristas at five locations in Chicago have voted to unionize in recent months. Credit: Michael Izquierdo

About three weeks before Christmas, the sticker machine that prints out mobile orders at the Logan Square Starbucks was jammed, yet again. Customers were getting impatient, and Maria Fantozzi was behind on multiple orders. 

“If only we had a union,” the 23-year-old barista joked to her coworker as she tried to fix the machine, which had been broken for months. Starbucks still hadn’t replaced it, despite multiple requests. 

Fernando Vargas-Soto laughed. “Wait, but really?” 

The 27-year-old shift manager was closely following the union drive in Buffalo, New York. But this was the first time he heard from his coworkers about a union. 

“Yeah really,” Fantozzi replied, not realizing that her offhand remark would set in motion a long, drawn-out challenge to organize their store. 

At the time, it still seemed as if all eyes were on Buffalo, watching David take on Goliath as baristas there pursued the improbable. Starbucks employees tried to organize in the 1990s in Seattle and British Columbia, in the mid-2000s in New York City, and in 2019 in Philadelphia, but the company quashed those efforts. 

When the Buffalo baristas voted 19-8 to unionize in December, that set off a wave of similar efforts that soon grew into a deluge. After Buffalo, it “really started to take off,” said Brick Zurek, a barista at a Starbucks in the Loop. “Mesa, Arizona, got on board and it started to look like they could really win.”

Stores across the country began following the Buffalo baristas’ lead by filing for union elections with the National Labor Relations Board. Organizers at six stores in Chicago — 2543 N. California, 155 N. Wabash, 1174 E. 55th, 2101 W. Armitage, 5964 N. Ridge and 1070 W. Bryn Mawr — have collected enough union authorization signatures to qualify for a union election with the labor board, while baristas at dozens of other stores in Chicago are quietly working to build union support behind the scenes. 

As of publication, workers in at least 175 Starbucks stores across the country have filed to hold union elections, and 17 stores have won a union. 

There are about 9,000 Starbucks stores nationwide, but what baristas have managed to achieve in the scores that have filed for union elections so far is no small feat. Private-sector union membership is at an all-time low, especially in the food service sector, where less than 2 percent of workers are members of a union. And in response to organizing efforts, Starbucks has waged one of the most aggressive corporate anti-union efforts in decades. 

The success of the campaign boils down to the grassroots, worker-led movement made of “people with a lot of guts,” who contacted Workers United in the wake of the Buffalo union drive despite knowing the odds weren’t necessarily in their favor, said longtime Chicago labor activist Pete DeMay, who is midwestern organizing director for Workers United, the union representing Starbucks workers. 

“It’s a worker-to-worker campaign,” DeMay said. “They create a lot of relationships organically on their own.”

Vargas-Soto and Fantozzi hit it off as friends soon after they met. They “quickly realized that we see eye-to-eye on a lot of things,” said Vargas-Soto, a DACA recipient who is studying elementary education.

Both liked working at Starbucks, but were keenly aware of the growing gulf between themselves and the corporate bosses they worked for. 

“I’ve always been angry about it, but it really escalated during COVID when we are literally putting our lives on the line to make them money, and they won’t even pay us a living wage,” said Fantozzi, who had graduated with a degree in political science in the spring last year and was working at Starbucks between job hunting for nonprofit work.  

Former Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson made $20.4 million last year, a 39 percent raise from his 2020 salary. Fantozzi and Vargas-Soto made a little over the hourly minimum wage of $15 an hour that Chicago mandated for employees at companies the size of Starbucks. 

A few days after the pair met, Vargas-Soto sent a message to the Starbucks Workers United Twitter account and got connected with DeMay, who walked them through the union process, shared a few informational handouts, and sent them union cards. DeMay cautioned them that, “Despite the progressive veneer, [Starbucks] is a cutthroat company that takes a renegade approach to the law.” 

After hearing about the aggressive anti-union tactics that Buffalo baristas faced, Vargas-Soto said that “the fact that it’s possible to create a situation in this company where things are so bad, and to see workers get treated the way that they have been . . . it really motivated us to stand in solidarity.” 

A few weeks later, Vargas-Soto would meet Zurek, a 25-year-old barista at the Loop store. The baristas there had been dealing with violent customers almost daily at their store but weren’t getting the support they needed from Starbucks. 

A customer threw scalding water at their manager, and female coworkers were constantly being threatened with sexual assualt. Starbucks corporate hired a therapist to sit in the store’s lobby for an afternoon, but didn’t schedule extra staff on the shift so that baristas could find time to talk to the therapist, Zurek said. The final straw came when a man threatened to return with a gun and “come back here and kill you all.” The store closed early that night, but continued to stay open after dark the rest of the week. When, out of concerns for their safety, the baristas asked management to close the store early, Zurek said an upper manager dismissed her and said, “I’m not downplaying it, but you have nothing to worry about.”

Zurek had started to talk to their store about a union a few weeks before. People were supportive but still on the fence. “Then this incident happened and then it was like, OK everybody’s signing the cards,” they said. “This monumental disrespect and disregard for our safety just pushed everyone over. It became like, ‘We need to do this for our safety.’” 

With the exception of two partners (what Starbucks calls employees) who were on vacation, the Randolph and Wabash store’s workers filed unanimously for an election on December 30.

“We are listening and learning from the partners in the stores, as we always do across the country. From beginning to end, our belief [has been] that we are better together as partners without a union and that conviction has not changed,” a Starbucks spokesperson told the Reader.

By mid-December, the Logan Square store was buzzing with talk of a union. Vargas-Soto, Fantozzi, and a few other partners started an informal organizing group of people who expressed interest in taking an active role in unionizing. 

(From top) Fernando Vargas-Soto, Maria Fantozzi, Brick Zurek, Sara Spry, and Jasper Booth-Hodges helped organize union drives at Starbucks stores across Chicago.
CREDIT: Michael Izquierdo

They made plans to talk to everyone in the store. Organizers would casually bring up the idea of a union when the store wasn’t busy, and continue the conversation on the phone at night so management wouldn’t get wind of what they were doing, said Emilia Fenzil, 25, who was excited to be helping out with the union when she heard about it from Vargas-Soto.

It wasn’t hard to figure out who was for or against the union, and most partners didn’t take much convincing. A lot of the conversations, Fenzil said, just involved clearing up misconceptions about what forming a union would entail stemming from what Starbucks had started telling partners about unions, such as emphasizing that no existing benefits would be taken away without their consent.

By early January, the group had gathered more than enough signatures to meet the NLRB threshold of 30 percent of the potential bargaining unit, and on January 7, 2022, the Logan Square store officially went public with the union and filed a petition for an election with the NLRB. Fourteen partners signed a letter addressed to Kevin Johnson, Starbucks’s then-CEO, sent it to their district manager, and tweeted it out on the Workers United account. Then, they stood at the ready, waiting for whatever Starbucks was going to throw at them. 

On January 10, Starbucks requested the labor board consolidate the Chicago elections by district, arguing that a single store is not an appropriate bargaining unit. The board will hold a hearing to decide whether to accept or deny that request.

The NLRB is expected to rule, as it previously has, in the union’s favor, but “Starbucks is taking advantage of the fact that it takes a long time to render those decisions, and that’s why it’s a stall tactic,” DeMay said. 

Aside from the legal challenge, which employees had expected, the next few weeks at the store were eerily quiet. 

But it was the calm before the storm. At the end of January, Starbucks began sending anti-union language to the store’s group chat and flooding the store with outside managers. Their district manager, who normally visited once a month at best, would come in three or four times in a week. One afternoon, six managers sat in the store’s lobby for hours, watching partners on their shift. 

“I’m here all the time because I love this store so much, you can come to me with anything,” the district manager told Fenzil. The district managers would pull partners into one-on-one conversations, suddenly curious about where partners went to school, what they studied, even how many siblings they had. 

The purpose of the meetings, said a Starbucks spokesperson, “is to answer any questions that they have and give them the information that partners need to make a decision.”

Management almost never pulled the union organizers aside, said several partners the Reader spoke to, who believed they were using the one-on-ones to plant seeds of doubt in partners who they thought were on the fence. 

Sara Spry, 27, was one of the first baristas to sign a union card after Vargas-Soto approached her about it in early December. She was also one of the few pro-union partners who was good friends with the baristas who opposed the union — most of the anti-union partners were more tenured at the Logan store, said Spry, who had worked there since the summer of 2020. 

Spry knew relationships were already starting to strain. Balancing her friendships while knowing some of the anti-union partners were “talking smack” about people in the union “hurt my heart,” Spry said. “When I see good people having bad things said about them, that’s not fair, it’s just not right.”

Her anxiety over the divisions came to a head on February 4, when her district manager and store manager called Spry and three anti-union partners for a “coffee tasting” in the back of the store.  

The managers had a small table set up with a French press, a few paper cups, and printouts with notes on the flavors of the coffee. “What’s bergamot?” asked one of the baristas. “Oh, it’s like in Earl Gray,” Spry said. It was an awkward affair — they all knew why they had been summoned during their shift. 

Finally, the district manager addressed the elephant in the room. “‘We just wanted to have this meeting to see how you guys are feeling during this time and to talk about anything that might be on your mind,’” Spry recalled them saying. “‘We want to continue to have dialogues like this with you, and it’s possible that with the union, we may not be able to do things like this.’”

For the next hour, the anti-union partners each voiced their concerns about joining the union, some more vocally than others. Spry tried to stay silent, not wanting to alienate her friends, but also feeling isolated. At one point, someone asked whether they could transfer stores if the store became unionized, and the district manager told them that in a store in Canada, they forced a number of partners to quit and be rehired at a non-union store, an answer that visibly upset that partner, Spry said. She left the meeting afraid that “the bonds in our store were starting to break over the union.” 

Fenzil had walked by while the meeting was ongoing, and texted Spry right after to check if she was okay. Spry saw in the union group chat they already knew about the meeting, and were assuring her to not let what their managers say get to her and to stay firm. 

Although she was rattled, Spry said that the entire meeting only reiterated why a union was necessary. “A union rep can be there with you,” she said. “These kinds of meetings are very stressful when you’re alone.”

Tensions in the store began to spike in mid-February, when hours were cut for almost everyone in the store, a change that the company seems to have made, according to Workers United, at stores across the country. Workers United also filed an unfair labor practice charge, alleging that cutting hours was an illegal retaliation against pro-union employees. 

Partners in Chicago and across the country are struggling because of the reduction in hours, and some are at risk of losing critical benefits because their hours have dipped too low to qualify for health insurance.

“We always schedule to what we believe the store needs based on customer behaviors, and that may mean a change in the hours available, but to say we’re cutting hours wouldn’t be accurate,” said a Starbucks spokesperson. 

When the Reader asked what was accurate to say about the change in scheduled hours, the spokesperson said, “like many industries, there are busy seasons and there are slower seasons, the holidays, summer, those are always busier times and the winter months are a bit slower. We schedule to those needs based on customer behavior, you know, it’s cyclical.”

“The only reason I’m able to make it by the past couple of months is because I have my tax return and my stimulus check finally came, but once that runs out I’m going to have enough money to pay for rent, gas, WiFi, electricity, and that’s it. I won’t have money for food or to spend on myself,” said Fantozzi, who has lost an average of ten hours per week since February.

The reduction in hours came at a time when three partners had just left the Logan location, so the store was short-staffed, and business was getting busier, Fantozzi said. On some shifts there were only half the usual number of employees on the floor, Spry said. 

Pro-union workers were increasingly blamed by upper management for harassing anti-union employees. They said management started writing them up for minor infractions that would have never been enforced, or noticed, before. Others were afraid they were going to get fired after seeing baristas in other locations lose their jobs

“They’ll create situations where people have less hours and things are really hectic, and then they’ll purposely blame it on the union, even though it is Starbucks doing it,” Fantozzi said. “Starbucks has really played into this psychological warfare, like, they will organize your coworkers against you.” 

But she adds that the company’s efforts have only strengthened her resolve. 

“The more Starbucks tries to union-bust, the more we obviously feel the need for a union,” she said. “You know, they’re cutting hours and there was nothing stopping them from cutting hours in the past for any reason. There’s nothing stopping them from doing it now.” 

Four months have passed since the Logan Square store filed for an election, and two months since the NLRB held a hearing for the three Chicago stores on Starbucks’s appeal to consolidate elections. Both Starbucks and the union have filed post-hearing briefs.

Starbucks stores in LaGrange — which filed a week after the Logan Square store did — Cary, and Peoria have received their election dates; their ballots went out on April 5 and 6 and will get counted on May 6 and April 26 (for Cary and Peoria), DeMay said. “We expect [an election] soon, but we’ve been saying that for months.” 

“We’re all waiting to hear for an election date,” Fantozzi said. ”We’re all just holding our breath.” 

Tensions in the Logan Square store have subsided in the last few weeks, especially as the weather has warmed up and the store has gotten busier. Partners have begun putting their differences aside and focusing more on the work at hand, Spry said. 

But baristas in the organizing committee have also been working to repair the relationships in the store. Fenzil organized an active listening session on Zoom and invited all partners in the store; even a few who were opposed to the union attended. Some were more tenured and worried about what changes the union would bring. Others supported unions but didn’t believe one was right for Starbucks. Fenzil had a presentation ready and answered questions from partners who were opposed to the union about dues and benefits. 

“The listening session went really well,” Vargas-Soto said. “Everyone was incredibly respectful, and patient, and kind in how they approached it. That really helped bring everybody a little closer together even if we weren’t agreeing on whether or not to vote for a union.” 

Despite the risks, the setbacks, and the stress of trying to unionize at a company that desperately doesn’t want you to, the Starbucks organizers say that what they’re fighting for is completely worth it.

“Every year there’s higher expectations, the demand for profits increases, cost of living keeps getting higher, and money is funneling upwards. At least the way I see it, this is our way of taking things back,” said Fenzil, who now sees herself staying at Starbucks for a while, especially if they win a union. The journey to unionizing has made her job much more fulfilling than she initially expected when she applied.

“If what I’m doing inspires someone else to stand up for the treatment they deserve, that’s a good thing and I’m honored to be part of that.”