Workers at San Antonio Starbucks are on the front line in a growing labor movement

Starbucks coffee slingers, who keep the nation caffeinated, are lifting each other up in solidarity against a company they see as exploitative.

click to enlarge Shift supervisor Sarah Wayment said her interest in organizing grew after she saw the union’s success in Buffalo, N.Y. - Sanford Nowlin
Sanford Nowlin
Shift supervisor Sarah Wayment said her interest in organizing grew after she saw the union’s success in Buffalo, N.Y.

It may seem odd that a labor movement is percolating in Texas right now.

After all, this a right-to-work state where corporate welfare takes precedence over a security net for workers and all levers of power are controlled by a rapacious Republican Party indifferent to the working class. Indeed, it's a state built on the bent backs of the working poor.

However, the pandemic changed the relationship between businesses and many of their employees. White-collar workers allowed to work from home found a new sense of freedom from the dead time of commutes. Essential workers — many in low-paying food service and medical jobs — were forced to risk their lives to stay afloat. Along the way, many discovered that employers and state governments didn't give a damn about them. 

As part of that great rethinking, Starbucks coffee slingers, who keep the nation caffeinated, are lifting each other up in solidarity against a company they see as exploitative. Some labor experts now see those employees and the Starbucks Workers United union as lighting the way for a wider swath of workers to organize for better pay and conditions congruent with 21st-century America.  

The union maintains that more than 180 of Seattle-based Starbucks' stores are organized, a fraction of the nearly 9,000 corporate-owned locations nationwide. In San Antonio, four locations have unionized since April, with more stores set to vote on joining in the coming weeks, employees told the Current.

San Antonio Starbucks worker CJ Craig, 26, has been with the company for four years. Craig, an actor who struggled to find roles during the pandemic, said he never thought about organizing a union until the first outlets in Buffalo made it a reality. A manager sent a letter to stores assuring staffers a union wouldn't dare come to San Antonio, let alone Craig's store at Loop 410 and Vance Jackson Road.  

"The letter made unionizing a real possibility," Craig said. "The initial chats among the partners were, 'It's going to take off, it's going to blow up into a national movement.'"

click to enlarge CJ Craig’s San Antonio store became the first in the state to organize. - Sanford Nowlin
Sanford Nowlin
CJ Craig’s San Antonio store became the first in the state to organize.

The partners at the 410 and Vance Jackson store made their intentions to unionize known in February, becoming the first in the state. They quickly realized the best way to prepare for what now seemed like the inevitable — a union shop in Texas — was to strengthen their relationships with coworkers.

Craig helped organize game nights and social events after work. The coworkers' growing bonds, the excitement of stores organizing across the country, and finally, the first Starbucks in Austin unionizing early last month helped reach a tipping point.

"We realized we could pull it off," said Craig. "Let's do it so other people can feel like they can."

Craig's store became the first in San Antonio to unionize and the third in the state. Within a week, two more Starbucks locations announced an intention to join the union. 

'Battle for hearts and minds'

In April, billionaire Howard Schultz took over as Starbucks' CEO for the third time. The reason for his return, he told the New York Times, was "to reinvent the role and responsibility of a public company at a time where there is a cultural and political change with regard to the crisis of capitalism — the needs, requirements of the employee in a company today."

Or, as he explained further, to save Starbucks from its rapidly expanding union.

"We don't believe that a third party should lead our people," he said. "And, so, we are in a battle for the hearts and minds of our people."

Later, Schultz emphasized that Starbucks is not abusing its employees, whom the company calls "partners," like the coal mining industry did 60 years ago. 

Despite Schultz's pledge to reinvent the public company's role, organizers argue it's resorted to union-busting efforts straight out of last century's playbook.

The National Labor Relations Board last month accused Starbucks of illegally intimidating workers in New York stores to keep them from unionizing. The petition, filed at the U.S. District Court in Buffalo, argues the company fired and disciplined union supporters, threatened workers and tried to bribe workers with benefits to vote against the union.

The federal regulators sought to reinstate seven employees Starbucks fired for organizing. A spokesman for Starbucks said the accusations are false. 

Almost 100% support

At the Starbucks on East Houston Street in downtown San Antonio, 30-year-old shift supervisor Sarah Wayment works part-time, about 20 hours weekly. She wants 25-35 hours, but her manager cut her back after the last holiday rush ended.

"I try to plan and work more to save," said Wayment, an 11-year employee. "Our store closed for a long time during the pandemic. If you're not salaried, you're basically part-time. Only the manager is salaried."

After Wayment returned to work last year as the pandemic waned and the Buffalo Starbucks organized, a union no longer seemed like a vague dream. She read books about labor movements and talked about possibilities with her co-workers on the morning shift.

"Some were like, 'Oh, that's great for them. That's not going to happen for us," she said.

Little did she know another partner on the evening shift had the same idea. Soon, nearly all her co-workers were in favor of unionizing. 

"We didn't have union-busting at our store," she said. "Our manager tried to talk us out of it. We kept it on the DL until we went public. Once we did that, it was clear we were almost 100% in favor."

In February, Starbucks hired Parker Davis, a 20-year-old chemical engineering student, as a barista at its Blanco Road and Wurzbach Parkway store. Davis said it didn't take him long to realize he and his co-workers needed a union to protect themselves from the brand of capitalism CEO Schultz defends. 

In May, a shift supervisor was burned on the job. Davis described it as a workplace accident that left the partner with second-degree burns. Yet, the supervisor couldn't leave the store without finding her replacement, which took more than 30 minutes, according to Davis.

"It was jarring," he said. "Management was completely out of touch. The supervisor was denied workers comp. And then they had to prove they weren't under the influence of drugs. We can all say they weren't under the influence. After that day, I felt motivated to organize."

click to enlarge Parker Davis said a fellow worker’s on-the-job injury prompted his interest in the union. - Sanford Nowlin
Sanford Nowlin
Parker Davis said a fellow worker’s on-the-job injury prompted his interest in the union.

Last year, Texas ranked as the third-worst U.S. state for labor, according to an Oxfam analysis. Working 40 hours a week at minimum wage, a mere $7.25 per hour, only covers 24% of a living wage for a family of four.

What's more, the state has provided no worker or union organizing protections beyond what's necessary to comply with federal law. The average unemployment benefits cover about 12% of the required wages to live. 

"The labor movement has deep roots in Texas, especially in San Antonio," said Greg Casar, the Democratic nominee for the 35th Congressional district, and an advocate for a $15 minimum wage. "It wasn't that long ago we had a lot more union activity and worker power in Texas."

Indeed, the Republican Party, which has steadily eroded rights from power centers at the Supreme Court and in Austin, wants to eliminate the last few worker protections in Texas, worker advocates argue.

Empowered to do something

In its 2022 platform, the Texas Republican Party calls for the "Legislature to preempt local government efforts to interfere with the State's sovereignty over business, employees and property rights. This includes but is not limited to burdensome regulations on short-term rentals, bags, sick leave, trees and employee criminal screening."

In other words, the big-government Republicans want to forbid San Antonio and other blue-leaning cities to choose their own local, and higher, minimum wage, or pass laws offering employed residents paid sick leave. In fact, Texas Republicans want to get rid of all minimum wage and mandatory sick leave laws. 

The battle Starbucks is waging for the hearts and minds of its workers is similar to conflicts between management and labor from earlier eras. Unions helped achieve the minimum wage and other significant workplace benefits many now take for granted.

Yet, those rights may soon be taken away if laborers of all classes don't fight to keep them, organizers warn. John L. Lewis, leader of the United Mine Workers union from 1920 to 1960, urged labor in all industries to organize the unorganized.

"With good organization, you have the aid of your fellow man," Lewis said. "Without organization, you are a lone individual without influence and without recognition of any kind, and exploitation of you and your family when it pleases some industrialist to desire to make more money from your misery." 

That's precisely what Starbucks employee Davis was doing when he reached out to the Starbucks United website for organizing help. Now, his store is set to vote in early August.

"It felt like an insurmountable task, but then I felt empowered to go forth and do something," he said. 

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