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'Work now begins' for Buffalo Elmwood Starbucks location that voted to unionize

The Camp Road location in Hamburg voted against representation and the Genesee Street store's ballot count remains undecided.

BUFFALO, N.Y. — Starbucks' Elmwood Avenue location in Buffalo became the first company-owned store in the United States to vote in favor of unionizing Thursday. The votes in favor were 19 and the votes against eight.

The vote tally capped off a union push that was watched around the world and in total included three Western New York Starbucks. The stores on Elmwood Avenue, Camp Road in Hamburg, and Genesee Street across from the Buffalo International Airport in Cheektowaga. 

The Starbucks on Camp Road voted against representation. The one on Genesee Street however remains undecided, with seven contested ballots set for further review by the National Labor Relations Board.

While the vote was historic the road to forming a union remains a long one. The other key to establishing organized labor is to negotiate and ratify a contract with the company involved, in this case, Starbucks; a process that University at Buffalo Associate Professor of Sociology Erin Hatton PhD. told 2 On Your Side can take years.

"Really in a way, the [real] work now begins," said Hatton.

Work Ahead

Despite the tremendous effort involved in organizing a union drive Hatton, who has studied and written about organized labor for years, explained that not all companies that vote to unionize are able to make it a reality.

"So many times those union workplaces don't make it to their first contract, so they don't stay union workplaces. There are a lot of obstacles in the way, especially when an employer is pushing really hard against the union," Hatton said.

Union organizers have already accused Starbucks of putting obstacles in their way during the union drive process. The company has denied wrongdoing, but Hatton says while the tactics used by firms like Starbucks are legal, they are also blatantly anti-union. The CWA defines one such tactic, called captive audience meetings as "mandatory meetings held by an employer during work hours in order to pressure employees against joining a union, interrogate workers about the organizing campaign, and disseminate union-bashing materials like videos and flyers."

"[Companies] are required to bargain in good faith but it's easy to get around that according to U.S. Labor Law," Hatton said.

Whether Starbucks accepts the result of the vote, only time will tell, but if history is any indication Hatton said that it's not uncommon for companies to dial up the pressure.

"The employer is not legally allowed to close a store to prevent a union from forming but there are many, many, many cases of that type of thing happening. Where the company makes the case - well production wasn't very good, well sales weren't very good so we are looking to shift our priorities elsewhere," Hatton said.

And if the company's case is convincing enough it could sway the National Labor Relations Board. Union members however would have the option to appeal such actions.

In a statement, a Starbucks spokesperson said in part, "we are grateful for each partner who exercised their right to vote... independent of the outcome of these elections, we respect the process, and we will continue to stay true to our mission and values."

The full statement reads:

"Today we saw a split vote in two stores in Buffalo with a third vote outcome pending.

Every partner matters. It’s how we built the company. And how we will continue to run the company. We will continue to focus on the best Starbucks experience we can deliver for each other and our customers. 

We are grateful for each partner who exercised their right to vote, and as we move forward, we will continue to focus on working to exceed the expectations of all our partners and our customers. 

 We want to protect partner flexibility and transferability across all stores in a market or a district because we know that’s important to partners, which is why we maintain our belief that every partner in a district or market should have the opportunity to vote on such an important decision. 

Independent of the outcome of these elections, we respect the process, and we will continue to stay true to our Mission and Values."

Opens the Door

The service industry has long been devoid of union presence but during a pandemic-induced national labor crisis, many service employees have pushed for more representation; the same kind, those employees at Buffalo's Elmwood location approved.

At the most basic level, Thursday's 19-8 vote gives the okay for the Workers United Labor Organization an affiliate of SEIU to represent staff going forward. Hatton explained that the door opened by Buffalo could spur other Starbucks stores around the country to follow and also seek to unionize.

"I definitely think this win at the Elmwood store will inspire other Starbucks stores across the country. We know that it has already," Hatton said.

"Increasingly there are reports that workers are talking about organizing or filing with the NLRB, the National Labor Relations Board to form a union so this is already happening so this win will only strengthen that movement."

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