Iowa City Starbucks files to become first unionized store in the state

(left to right) Abi Scheppmann, Jacob Baird, Stella Logsdon and Luis Aispuro at the downtown Iowa City Starbucks, March 28, 2023. – Jordan Sellergren/Little Village

Workers at the Starbucks in downtown Iowa City have begun the formal process that will allow them to unionize. Unionization drives at the coffee chain have swept through locations around the country during the last two years, but the workers at the Starbucks at the corner of Burlington and Clinton Streets are the first in Iowa to file a petition for a union election with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB).

News of the petition filing was announced Monday on social media by Starbucks Workers United, the union that has taken the lead in organizing the company’s workers, who Starbucks calls “partners.”

In a TikTok video, eight partners at the downtown Iowa City Starbucks briefly give the reasons they want to unionize. Those reasons include improving safety for both workers and customers, giving workers a voice in store decisions, guaranteeing consistent work schedules and creating “a happier and healthier working environment.”

Filing an election petition with the NLRB that has been signed by at least 30 percent of the workers at a location is the first step in union recognition. After the NLRB reviews the petition and determines the signatures are authentic, a vote on unionization utilizing secret ballots will be held among the workers. If a majority vote in favor of the union, the NLRB will recognize the union as the collective bargaining unit for that workplace.

Alternatively, an employer can voluntarily recognize a union as an official collective bargaining unit for a business. But that won’t happen at Starbucks, which tried to stop union drives at stores across the country.

A Starbucks location in Buffalo, New York became the first store to unionize in December 2021. Since then, more than 290 of the approximately 3,900 company-owned Starbucks locations have voted to unionize.

The Starbucks Corporation has taken a hardline against unions, and opposed organizing efforts at every opportunity. The company’s been cited by the NLRB for illegal actions against unionized workers and those still attempting to organize their workplaces. Among other violations of labor law, the federal regulators and courts have found that Starbucks wrongfully fired union members and has attempted to intimidate workers into voting against joining a union. There are at least 77 complaints about Starbucks’ anti-union tactics pending with NLRB, and on March 1, a federal administrative law judge found the company had committed “egregious and widespread misconduct” against unionized workers in the Buffalo area.

The Starbucks at 228 S Clinton St in downtown Iowa City first opened in 2003, making it one of the oldest in Iowa. It may also be the first Starbucks location in the state to unionize. — Jordan Sellergren/Little Village

At roughly the same time on Monday that Starbucks Workers United was announcing its union drive in Iowa City, Bloomberg reported the NLRB’s general counsel had determined the Starbucks Corporation was violating federal labor law by refusing to participate in collective bargaining sessions if any of the workers joined the meeting via a video-conferencing.

Much of Starbucks’ aggressively anti-union stance has come from Howard Schultz, who became CEO for the third time in April 2022. Schultz considers Starbucks to be a model employer that treats its workers well, and considers efforts by workers to guarantee their own voices carry weight in important decisions to an act of betrayal by ungrateful people, according to a profile of Schultz published by the New York Times last year. Schultz is reportedly very bitter over workers organizing.

Schultz’s unwavering anti-union position has resulted in negative publicity for the chain. Earlier this year, it was announced he would be stepping down as CEO at the end of March. Last week, however, the company announced he had already resigned. Schultz’s resignation comes before his scheduled testimony in front of the U.S. Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee on Wednesday. Schultz is appearing after being subpoenaed by committee chair Sen. Bernie Sanders, who wants Schultz to answer questions about Starbucks opposition to workers unionizing.

Schultz is being replaced at Starbucks by Laxman Narasimhan, a former PepsiCo executive who has also served as CEO of Reckitt Benckiser Group, a UK-based company that sells health, hygiene and nutrition products. Narasimhan has not spoken publicly on unionization efforts, but analysts do not expect Starbucks’ anti-union policies to change.

Union organizing at Starbucks has slowed down in recent months, after peaking in March 2022, but the enthusiasm of Iowa City workers is evident in the video. Speaking in the video published Monday, Stella Logsdon neatly summed up the goal of the workers at her store.

“I’m unionizing because all partners deserve to be heard and respected in the workplace,” she said.

The employees’ announcement received support from Iowa Democrats and unions on Twitter, including Rep. Adam Zabner, Rep. Sami Scheetz and COGS/UE Local 896.

This story originally appeared in LV Daily, Little Village’s Monday-Friday email newsletter. Sign up to have it delivered for free to your inbox.