Earlier this month, more than 100 Starbucks stores were met by picket lines on this year’s Red Cup Day — the one day per year that the chain’s highly sought-after holiday collector’s cups are available. Striking workers set out to make a point about their employer’s practice of chronically understaffing retail locations by staging their single-day walkout on one of the brand’s highest-traffic days. The strike was also meant to draw attention to the company’s “scorched earth” response to unionizing efforts. Such efforts could be a sign that organized labor is headed for a comeback in the U.S. as employees from food service and retail industries with historically low unionization rates have attempted to bring collective bargaining power to their workplaces over the last few years — many of them successfully.
The Red Cup Day strikes were just the latest protest from food service employees frustrated with their working conditions. Workers at a Chipotle Mexican Grill in Michigan are among those who have done so, with more of the chain’s restaurants looking to follow the course. Fast food services like Starbucks and Chipotle, or fast casual as the chain dubs itself, have long been thought of as almost impossible to effectively unionize. But a Burgerville in Portland, Oregon proved that it could be done — forming the first fast-food union in 2018. The following year Little Big Burger, a Portland based chain, formed the Little Big Union.
It isn’t just better pay and benefits that are motivating fast food and other food service employees to finally unionize. Chipotle workers have been spurred into the movement in large part by a need for better health and safety measures in their restaurants — for themselves as well as their customers. Likewise, workers at a small locally owned distillery and cocktail bar in Minneapolis, Minnesota – Tattersall Distilling – unionized in the name of not just overtime pay but antiracism training and proper personal protective equipment. Employees at Anchor Brewing in San Francisco, California reportedly organized in part to protect the brewery’s legacy from being lost under new ownership. They’re also fighting to recover falling real wages and better labor conditions.
Working conditions are a big part of the union drive by Starbucks employees, which began almost a year prior in Buffalo, New York. Aaron Cirillo, who protested along with co-workers outside one of the Manhattan shops is quoted in Reuters as saying, "They're working us to the bone because we're so understaffed.” While the barista reported that he originally did not want to pursue unionization due to the likelihood of retaliation by the coffee retailer he changed his mind after waiting indefinitely for equipment to be repaired and better benefits — “This is a hostile environment and we have to do something about it.”
Red Cup Day generally boasts a substantial increase in sales over previous days the same year and was 87 percent higher in 2021. Customer typically show up early and wait in long lines for the cups until they run out. Because of this it is also a day that employees report being run ragged beyond their usual fast-food hustle. This made Red Cup Day an ideal setting for unionized Starbucks workers to get their point across to customers, who were largely supportive of their efforts. And those customers still got to take home a red cup — but this one came with the Worker’s United logo and a grinch motif to represent Starbucks’ union busting.
Striking stores represent just 1 percent of the coffee chain’s 9,000 venues. Still – with most of those 1 percent forced to close by lack of staff while those left open were operated by management and borrowed crew – the union is hopeful that its actions will have a big effect. “With 100 stores nationwide on strike today, I think it will definitely make an impact,” employee Ash Macomber told Vox from the picket line outside of the closed Starbucks near Portland Maine where she works. “Not only with profits, but to show the company that we are stronger together, and once we collectively take action, then maybe change can really be made.”
Image credit: Starbucks
Riya Anne Polcastro is an author, photographer and adventurer based out of the Pacific Northwest. She enjoys writing just about anything, from gritty fiction to business and environmental issues. She is especially interested in how sustainability can be harnessed to encourage economic and environmental equity between the Global South and North. One day she hopes to travel the world with nothing but a backpack and her trusty laptop.
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