Employees at a Cottonwood Heights Starbucks store filed unionization papers late last month in hopes of becoming the first Utah store to join the growing nationwide labor movement.

In a public letter signed by 13 baristas who work at the 7025 S. Highland Dr. location, organizers urged interim CEO Howard Schultz to create a stronger “partnership” with employees, by “sharing power, accountability and success.”

“We are proud to call ourselves Starbucks Partners. ... As always, we will inspire and nurture the human spirit, one cup, one person, one neighborhood at a time,” the letter reads.

The movement to organize the Cottonwood Heights store is being built from the ground up, according to shift supervisor Jacob Lawson, with the hope of giving local employees more control over their wages, benefits and store policies surrounding COVID-19. Lawson — an outspoken leader and organizer of the effort — said “corporate greed” has contributed to low wages for baristas, who are being left in the dust as inflation continues to climb.

“The company has really neglected us with the inflation and cost of living skyrocketing. They haven’t adjusted our wages accordingly,” he said. “They’re finally putting everyone to a ($15 per hour) base level in June, in response to the initial Buffalo stores unionizing. But that’s still not really enough, for how expensive houses are.

Lawson said he was inspired by the successful unionization efforts of two Starbucks in Buffalo, New York, last December. Since then, labor organizers have notched further wins across the country, with 22 more stores voting to unionize, as of Tuesday afternoon, according to More Perfect Union.

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Wages and worker protection

If their unionization effort is successful, Lawson said, he expects workers will be able to negotiate higher wages during collective bargaining. But low wages aren’t the only problem organizers are trying to address.

For avowed coffee lover Tim Burkart, 63, being a barista is an enjoyable gig, and it keeps him busy during his semi-retirement after spending 30 years working in information technology. More importantly, his company benefits — available even to part-time employees — help keep his medical costs low.

In the last year, however, Burkart says his hours have been “reduced dramatically” — from 35 per week to around 10 — the result of what he alleges is age-based discrimination.

“My manager has on many occasions said I’m not performing, but she doesn’t have any facts to back that up,” he said. “The only thing she ever said was that I didn’t have a sense of urgency in my work. I don’t understand because I look at everyone else around me at the store when I’m working and I feel like I’m doing just as much as everyone else is.”

Lawson said Burkart faced harsh cuts to his hours but noted that much of the staff is united in supporting him.

“We all love him. All the customers love him. He’s a sweet old man, but our manager is very, very hard on him,” Lawson said.

In order to qualify for benefits, Starbucks requires that employees work an average of at least 20 hours per week, according to Lawson. With a benefits audit looming in June or July, Burkart believes he may soon fall below the threshold, which means he could lose his health insurance this summer. Things got so bad that he put in a transfer request, but he withdrew it when he learned of the union effort at his local store.

“I didn’t have any reservation,” he said. “I had been following the efforts in Buffalo and I kind of joked with my wife and some friends that if that ever happened here, we needed a union. I needed one for protection because I still believe that my manager would rather see me quit than have to manage me.”

Starbucks’ management did not respond to a request for comment.

‘He’s making the company look worse’

Since announcing his return to the company last month, Schultz has been an outspoken critic of the movement to unionize Starbucks stores, saying the company is “being assaulted in many ways by the threat of unionization.” Last week, CNBC reported that Schultz is considering offering extended benefits packages to nonunion workers.

Lawson said the company has put up “anti-union propaganda” in stores throughout northern Utah and as far north as Boise, in an attempt to prevent further union effort from gaining ground. Burkart recalls sitting through a mandatory store meeting a month ago “that was really called only to give us their propaganda.”

Citing Starbucks’ current share price — which is down about 30% from the beginning of the year — Lawson said Schultz needs to “keep his mouth shut,” because his rhetoric is hurting shareholders and baristas alike.

“I’m waiting for Starbucks to stop its anti-union efforts and just turn around and embrace unions,” he said. “Because, honestly, if Howard Schultz reads (this), I hope that he knows that his actions have made the stock drop by a third.”

“He’s making the company look worse,” Lawson continued. “Starbucks is very much about this brand, you know, being very inclusive and taking care of their employees. So when he turns around and shows the world that he’s not, it completely destroys everything that Starbucks apparently stands for.”

Burkart said he found the company’s stance to be contradictory, especially when considering Schultz’s support of the Democratic Party and his brief independent bid for president.

“It’s disappointing for who Howard is, or who I thought he was,” Burkart said. “He claims to be pro-Starbucks and not anti-union, but his message, I believe, is very anti-union. ... Starbucks in general takes a pretty liberal stance on a lot of issues, this is very disappointing from the company.”

Speaking to workers in Long Beach, California, earlier this month, Schultz reportedly said, “If you hate Starbucks so much, why don’t you go somewhere else?”

“That’s really hard to hear, because I don’t hate Starbucks,” Lawson said. “We don’t hate Starbucks. We’re not doing this because we hate Starbucks. We want to stay at Starbucks. That’s why we’re doing this: so we can feasibly stay at Starbucks longer. So that we can have, you know, shelter and food while working at Starbucks, because it’s not a bad job. It’s a fun job. It just needs to pay more.”

What’s next?

Lawson said he’s not intimidated by the interim CEO, and points out that the workers have a heavyweight in their corner as well. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders regularly tweets in support of Starbucks Workers United and is headlining the “Starbucks Workers United Unity Fest” in Richmond, Virginia, on Friday.

As a local organizer, Lawson said he is constantly joining Zoom calls with baristas and organizers from across the country, and recently spoke with Nina Turner, a Democratic congressional candidate from Ohio.

“It’s just amazing seeing such big name politicians throwing their support behind us and telling us what we’re doing is amazing,” he said.

Although a formal election has yet to be scheduled, Lawson estimates that all but a few of the 21 baristas at the Cottonwood Heights Starbucks will vote to unionize, and he is already helping to build support for unions at other stores in the state.

Burkart shares a similarly optimistic outlook, but says “the big unknown is what kind of contract we can negotiate with the company ... because they’ve indicated they’re going to play hardball with everyone.”