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Unionized Workers at a Brookline Starbucks Are Striking for Better Working Conditions

The employees allege that an interim store manager hired after last month’s vote to unionize has contributed to a “hostile work environment”

Green Starbucks logo hangs on a wooden wall. Gary Hershorn/Getty Images

Baristas at a Brookline Starbucks are on strike until further notice as of this morning, July 18, Greater Boston Starbucks Workers United announced. The organizers are on the picket line outside the store at 874 Commonwealth Avenue near Boston University from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. today.

This is one of a dozen Massachusetts stores that have unionized so far. In total, employees at 16 stores in the state have filed to unionize, with the votes failing at just two stores. The outcome at a South End location has yet to be determined due to a number of challenged ballots, and a store in Reading has not yet held its vote.

The wave of unionizations is part of a nationwide movement that began in Buffalo, New York, in late 2021. As of mid-July 2022, workers at over 300 stores in 36 states have filed to unionize; of those, the teams at nearly 200 stores have already won their union elections, 37 have lost, and elections are underway or coming soon at the rest.

The Commonwealth Avenue location voted to unionize last month by a vote of 10 to 0, with six ballots not reflected in that count due to a challenge by Starbucks, per a June announcement from Greater Boston Starbucks Workers United.

In a July 18 letter to management announcing the strike, employees at the Brookline location allege that they have been “subjected to not only a slew of unfair labor practices” since their vote last month, “but also a chaotic and hostile work environment.”

The letter alleges that an interim store manager who was assigned to this location after the unionization vote has been cutting long-time employees’ schedules and understaffing shifts while simultaneously hiring new employees.

“I’ve worked here for over a year under three different managers,” says barista Sarah Chan, via an announcement from Greater Boston Starbucks Workers United. “The store has never been so consistently understaffed, yet our new manager claims there aren’t enough hours to give out while simultaneously hiring five new people.”

Additionally, in the July 18 letter to management, the employees claim that the interim manager has “made illegal threats of discipline or termination of employees” who don’t comply with a new availability policy, and they allege that the interim manager’s actions go against company values by “perpetuating harmful and offensive rhetoric with respect to the race, gender, and orientation” of employees as well as customers.

The letter continues with a request for Starbucks to terminate the store manager or at least remove her from this location and undergo additional training and supervision. The employees also request that management reviews labor needs with workers every month to ensure adequate staffing.

One employee at this location, Taylor Dickerson, was hired in February and consistently scheduled for an average of 30 or more hours a week but says, via an announcement from Greater Boston Starbucks Workers United, that following unionization, her hours were “cut virtually in half despite [her] open availability, consistency, and hard work.” In addition to the personal financial implications, she says this “hurts the store as it is often grossly understaffed, affecting our sales, cleanliness, and morale. This response feels like a direct punishment for unionizing.”

Shift manager Nora Rossi, per the announcement from Greater Boston Starbucks Workers United, also notes that these scheduling changes result in employees “frequently hav[ing] to skip breaks to get things done on time.” Rossi adds, “We are so understaffed, we’re being set up to fail every day.”

Calls placed to the Commonwealth Avenue location of Starbucks went unanswered Monday morning, and an email sent to Starbucks’ corporate press team was not immediately answered.

As Starbucks workers across the country continue to unionize, the company has been accused of engaging in union-busting behavior, with the National Labor Relations Board issuing complaints in several states, alleging various labor law violations.

Meanwhile in Massachusetts, the Starbucks unionization efforts are just one piece of a larger movement of cafe workers organizing, with several locally owned groups of coffee shops seeing unionization efforts over the past thirteen months. Workers at Pavement Coffeehouse, a Greater Boston chain with eight cafes and a coffee roastery, announced their intention to unionize in June 2021; Darwin’s Ltd., a four-location Cambridge cafe group, followed suit in September 2021; and the workers at Diesel Cafe, Bloc Cafe, and Forge Baking Company, a trio of Somerville siblings, followed in December 2021. In June 2022, City Feed & Supply, which has two locations in Jamaica Plain, also unionized, as did 1369 Coffeehouse, with two locations in Cambridge.