Union busting in our backyard: the story of the Craig St Starbucks

Starbucks branches across the United States have been unionizing at an unprecedented speed, with over 200 stores unionizing since December 2021. Carnegie Mellon’s own neighborhood Starbucks, located at the intersection of Forbes Ave and South Craig Street, voted to unionize this past May. The Tartan spoke with Kyli Hilaire (Dietrich, '25) to learn about the obstacles these workers encountered.

Their first step in forming their union was to create an organizing committee, a core group of "partners" (a Starbucks term meaning employees) who volunteer to spearhead the effort. Their committee, consisting of two University of Pittsburgh and two Carnegie Mellon students, "contacted each other around the same time," so the effort "came together naturally," Hilaire said.

Prior to Craig Street, Hilaire worked at the Elmwood branch in her home town of Buffalo, NY, which made headlines last December for being the first company-owned store to unionize. She says that her coworkers from Buffalo put her into contact with Daisy Pitkin, a local organizer who guided them through the process.

The next step involved getting at least three-quarters of the partners at the store to sign an "interest card," after which the local organizer can begin negotiations with Starbucks' lawyers to decide the terms of a union vote.

This, Hilaire says, is where the corporate malfeasance began. The Craig Street branch, located between the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon, is staffed largely by college students who don't stay in Pittsburgh over the summer. Starbucks chose May 11 to be the day of their vote, after both schools had let out for the summer. Furthermore, they insisted the vote be in-person, which would exclude many of the interest-card signatories from voting.

Corporate representatives also put posters up around the branch to discourage workers from unionizing. One poster, pictured here, said that workers who formed unions would lose the right to transfer between stores, alluding to the case of a unionized store in Canada. This is by no means a guaranteed outcome of unionization.

In another case, the district manager told a partner who worked at the Carnegie Museum that they were not allowed to be in two unions at once. This is not true, and furthermore, it is illegal to say this. Corporations are required by law to bargain "in good faith," and to imply they've already decided a term of the contract implies they mean to control the outcome.

Despite this, the representatives of Starbucks Workers United negotiated the use of mail-in ballots for Craig Street, and the partners voted in favor of unionizing by a narrow 9-8 margin. Starbucks still challenged this result, arguing that votes from partners who weren't actively working in the store shouldn't be considered.

Recently, the National Labor Review Board filed a complaint against Starbucks, alleging intimidation against workers at Craig Street and three other Pittsburgh branches.

When asked how working in a unionized store is different, Hilaire pointed to a few tangible improvements. For example, workers are now allowed to have another employee present when receiving disciplinary action. However, the final step is for the workers to negotiate a new contract, a process which can take months or years — Starbucks has yet to ratify a contract with the first unionized branch in Buffalo.

Hillaire says that one of their main goals is to "establish a base of security." She describes a work environment in which the number of schedulable hours are determined by corporate representatives, who often "stretch [the workers] thin" through deliberate understaffing. If your shift gets cut because there's not enough hours to go around, Starbucks provides no recourse. The scheduling happens "at will," and the workers have no protections or safety net.

This is one of the many issues that has spurred workers to organize. Hilaire says that talking with organizers across the country opened her eyes to certain larger issues that she had no firsthand experience with. She learned about workers with disabilities being mistreated, people being forced to work with their abusers, and people accused of workplace harassment being shuffled around to new stores. "We can do nothing, just go into work and go home. Or when the opportunity is there you can do something about it … even if you're not dealing with the big problems, you have to join in the effort, because we can't really do it in small numbers."

Craig Street is one of now 11 Starbucks stores in Pittsburgh to have unionized, and Starbucks Workers United is continuing to establish the infrastructure for large-scale organizing.