Union workers picket Starbucks: ‘We can make a change’

Four Los Angeles-area Starbucks stores closed Friday morning as employees gathered on the picket line, joining a three-day national strike by unionized baristas and other workers demanding better treatment for their corporate leaders.

The strike is the second by Starbucks employees in recent weeks over concerns that the Seattle-based chain has unfairly retaliated against unionized workers and failed to negotiate in good faith to win contracts for the first time.

“Right now we’re on strike…demanding that you stop closing union shops, that they reopen the shops they’ve closed and [stop] their anti-union campaign against us,” said Tyler Keeling, a union organizer at the Lakewood Starbucks on Candlewood Street. Strikers plan to remain on the picket line through Sunday, forcing all four stores to remain closed.

Starbucks, in a statement, said the company “does not tolerate any illegal anti-union behavior” and had continued to schedule bargaining sessions with union members to “make their voices heard.”

“It is unfortunate that Workers United continues to spread misleading claims while disrupting the Starbucks experience that our members and customers have come to love and expect,” the statement said.

The other closed stores were at 3390 E. 7th St. in Long Beach and, in Los Angeles, at 138 S. Central Ave. and 3241 Figueroa St.

Veronica Gonzalez, who works at the Figueroa Street location in Cypress Park, joined the picket line Friday with about 10 other workers, standing at the cafe’s entrance with signs that read “Strike!” and “No contract, no coffee!”

Every few minutes, drivers honked their horns or waved in support of the baristas.

“Starbucks is doubling down on union busting, so we’re going to double down,” said Gonzalez, a barista who has worked at the store for three years. “They want to close stores, we’ll show them we can close stores too.”

People in hoodies stand next to a city street with signs.

Striking Starbucks workers appeal to motorists passing a Starbucks store in Long Beach on Friday.

(Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times)

The stores are among 270 Starbucks locations nationwide that have unionized in the past year, part of a wave of labor movements that have swept the country, including a strike by academic workers at the University of California and organized by Amazon warehouse employees. The Workers United union, which represents Starbucks employees, said about 100 U.S. stores were on strike as of Friday.

“Every step we take is inspiring more workers to take back power and create change in the workplace,” Keeling said. “We must not sit back and accept these horrible working conditions; we can make a change.”

Starbucks, citing safety concerns, recently announced the permanent closure of the first Seattle location to unionize; union leaders noted that the closing fell near the first anniversary of the first Starbucks to win a union election. United Workers described it as part of an “anti-union campaign” by the company.

The chain closed several Starbucks stores this summer, also citing safety concerns, including six in L.A. None of the Los Angeles locations were union stores, but union leaders at the time saw the move as a “response to the spread of the growing trade union movement…all over the country.”

The relationship between Starbucks – which opposes unionization – and its unionized employees has become increasingly contentious over the past year, with United Workers leaders asking a federal court to intervene four times in alleged cases unfair labor practices, such as firing union leaders and withholding pay raises. Starbucks has also alleged unfair labor practices by the union.

The company has asked the national labor board to temporarily halt all U.S. union elections, citing allegations that regional labor officials in Kansas improperly coordinated with unionized workers.

“We remain focused on working together … to make Starbucks a company that works for everyone,” the company’s statement said. Starbucks promoted its attendance at the negotiation sessions; officials planned to appear in more than 75 sessions through the end of the year. But LA-area union leaders said none of the sessions had resulted in meaningful discussions.

“We were literally reading them our pitches and they left while we were still talking,” said Josie Serrano, a barista at the East 7th Street store in Long Beach. Other union leaders said that “bargaining sessions at their stores lasted only a few minutes before Starbucks representatives walked out.”

“We want them to negotiate in good faith,” said Araseli Romero, a 22-year-old shift supervisor at the Central Avenue location. He said the last negotiating session lasted seven minutes before management and lawyers left.

Workers at all four locations argued that there were problems with faulty equipment, that they were understaffed despite employees being available to work, and that they were given too few hours to qualify for benefits.

At the Figueroa Street location, protesters cheered as cars honked and waved, and discussed issues with passersby. A Long Beach driver stuck a thumbs up out the window, yelling, “Let’s go!” A Metro bus driver honked his horn as he drove past the cafeteria pickets.

But some did not support the strike as they tried to drink coffee in closed shops. Darren Burtenshaw walks his dog Eros to the Central Avenue store every day and said he was disappointed to see workers taking a stand against a company he considered better than most: offering more than minimum wage and programs to help pay for college.

“They should go to other places and big corporations,” the 57-year-old said. Starbucks is “actually doing very well for its employees.”

But Gonzalez said that’s exactly why he joined the union and was on the picket line: to help people understand the conditions workers really faced.

“They claim to be people over profit, but they really aren’t,” he said. “We don’t see things getting better, and if we’re not going to stand up for ourselves, who is?”

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