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NLRB set to count votes for Starbucks union election in Buffalo, New York

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(BUFFALO, N.Y.) — History could be made for Starbucks workers in labor-friendly Buffalo, New York, on Thursday.

The National Labor Relations Board is set to count votes for a union election collected from three Starbucks outposts in upstate New York as the workers seek to form the coffee chain’s first union in the U.S.

The vote count is scheduled for Thursday afternoon despite resistance from Starbucks, which filed a request for a review with the NLRB and sought to have all Buffalo-area stores included in the election. On Tuesday, the NLRB denied Starbucks’ request for a review, setting the stage for the votes from the three separate stores in the area that have filed for union elections to be counted. Each of the three stores will be voting for a unionization bid individually.

The efforts to unionize in Buffalo also come amid unique labor market conditions in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, as the number of workers quitting their jobs hovers at record-high levels and major companies have struggled to fill service industry roles. The apparent labor shortage has given workers an edge in negotiating in the workplace, and been linked to the new labor force activism seen across the country in recent months.

The workers are seeking to unionize with Workers United, an affiliate of the Service Employees International Union, and call their group the Starbucks Workers United. The employees have received support from progressive lawmakers, including Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York.

“Once again Starbucks tried to stop partners from voting, and once again they failed. At this point the company has strayed so far from its original values it’s hard to recognize the company I started with,” Michelle Eisen, a barista at a Buffalo-area Starbucks, said in a statement released by Starbucks Workers United. “This is exactly why we need a union — so our voices can be heard and we can work to make Starbucks the company we used to love.”

In a letter to employees, whom Starbucks calls “partners,” CEO Kevin Johnson reiterated the company’s wish to have all Starbucks locations in the Buffalo-area be included in the vote.

“Unlike others in our industry who operate a franchise model, we have a network of company-operated stores that work together to create a better partner experience,” Johnson wrote on Tuesday. “Why does this matter? Many of you have told me you greatly value the flexibility to work between stores, to swap and pick up shifts, giving you the opportunity to connect with partners across different stores as one community.”

“Because of this, we feel strongly that all partners in Buffalo should have a voice in the elections, which may unfortunately not be the case,” Johnson added. “While we recognize this creates some level of uncertainty, we respect the process that is underway and, independent of any outcome in these elections, we will continue to stay true to our Mission and Values.”

Johnson also touted the company’s investments in staffing, saying it’s “investing an unprecedented $1 billion in wages, training, and hours, deploying new equipment and technology and continuing to support leaders in markets across the country.”

In late October, as unionization efforts in Buffalo were in full swing, Starbucks announced it would be raising wages and making other changes to improve working conditions. By summer 2022, all hourly employees will make an average of $17 per hour, the company said in its fourth quarter earnings release, with hourly rates for baristas in the U.S. ranging from $15 to $23.‚ÄčThe unionization bid comes after Starbucks reported record fourth-quarter consolidated net revenues of $8.1 billion.

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