UB labor experts discuss Starbucks union vote


Published December 13, 2021


Starbucks workers in Buffalo last week voted to form a labor union, the first for the coffee giant’s 9,000 corporate-owned stores in the United States. UB labor experts Erin Hatton, associate professor of sociology, and Matthew Dimick, associate professor of law, spoke with UBNow about labor history in Buffalo, the influence of a local café unionizing in 2019, and why some left-leaning companies oppose organized labor.

Buffalo is among the most unionized metro areas in the U.S. Why is that?

headshot of Matthew Dimick.

Dimick: Most native Buffalonians have a union member or two or more in their family history, for whom having a union on the job made possible a higher standard of living, better work conditions and a better work-life balance. Most Buffalonians probably see unions as a positive, and are therefore more willing to join and form unions than in other parts of the country.

headshot of Erin Hatton.

Hatton: New York State has the highest union density of any state. Buffalo-Niagara’s union density is lower than the state average, but it’s still higher than similar cities in other states. Buffalo and other Rust Belt cities had a strong tradition of labor organizing in their industrial sectors in the mid-20th century, but that dropped sharply — in Buffalo and elsewhere — due to deindustrialization, which included industrial employers moving to the South, Southwest and abroad to avoid unions, and employers’ aggressive push against unions.

Has the vote in 2019 to unionize by workers at the local SPoT Coffee chain played a role in this effort?

Dimick: The workers’ victory at SPoT Coffee showed it was possible to organize baristas and other workers in the food service industry. And it’s in SPoT Coffee workers’ interest to organize all coffee shop workers, so that these businesses aren’t competing with each other based on the lowest wages, and therefore lowest prices.

How might approval of the union in Buffalo affect other Starbucks locations?

Hatton: I think we are already seeing growing interest across Starbucks locations, in Buffalo and elsewhere, in unionizing. It’s an exciting moment for these workers, who have been largely overlooked by the labor movement and who, themselves, may not have even considered unionizing in the realm of possibility.

Dimick: This is an enormous symbolic victory that gives a green light to organizing in other Starbucks. With Starbucks’ very well-known brand and public profile, it will also probably have effects beyond Starbucks. Workers in the food service industry are typically not union members, and wages and working conditions are among the worst. If unionizing workers can win against a corporate behemoth like Starbucks, they can win anywhere.

Starbucks is a left-leaning company, yet it opposes this effort. Why?

Hatton: Regardless of corporations’ professed politics, at the end of the day, most corporations care about the bottom line more than any particular political issue, which — it is important to note — is itself political. What’s more, they tend to believe that unions are bad for their bottom line, even though that’s not necessarily true. Yes, labor costs may increase with unionization, but other costs usually decrease. The resounding success of UPS, which is strongly unionized, in weathering this economic crisis and supposed labor shortage is a case in point.

Dimick: Despite being a company with “liberal values,” Starbucks opposes unionization because for giant, profit-oriented companies like Starbucks, the “do good” rhetoric only goes so far. Among all left-leaning values, nothing hurts the bottom line like unionization and requiring a company to treat its employees better. By putting on a good corporate citizen visage, Starbucks earns the support — and patronage — of the (probably) majority of consumers who hold these same values. Being a good environmental steward, for example, helps Starbucks win over consumers, sales and therefore profits. In that respect, Starbucks is acting consistently with its profit-maximizing goals.

Thus, in terms of winning over consumers, profits and left-leaning values go hand in hand — although one could certainly question the depth of this commitment as well. When it comes to unions and workers, rather than consumers, left-wing values and profits are in contradiction. Unfortunately, for Starbucks’ workers, profits win out over giving workers an independent voice on the job.