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Baltimore baristas unionize the first Starbucks in Maryland

Starbucks baristas in Baltimore’s Mount Vernon neighborhood voted Monday to unionize, becoming the giant coffee chain’s first Maryland workers to organize amid a fast-growing national movement.

Workers at the North Charles Street coffee shop voted unanimously to join Workers United, an affiliate of SEIU. The vote was 14-0, said Stephanie Hernandez, an organizer with Workers United.

“We won, and we meet the requirements to continue to go forward and bargain at the table with Starbucks,” said Hernandez, adding that 22 workers were eligible to vote.

Four other Maryland Starbucks shops have begun the process of organizing. Results of a vote at Starbucks in Linthicum should be available May 10. Employees in Bel Air, Nottingham and Stevensville plan to vote as well, with results expected by June 1, Hernandez said.

In the Baltimore area, baristas and shift supervisors had said they were inspired by Starbucks workers in Buffalo, New York, where the unionization movement started last year.

Since then, Starbucks has not voluntarily recognized a union at any store where workers made a request. The coffee chain has argued before the National Labor Relations Board that it’s inappropriate to place bargaining units at single stores rather than a collection of stores in a district.

In a statement Monday, Starbucks said it respects the shops’ right to organize and will follow the NLRB process.

“We are listening and learning from the partners in these stores as we always do across the country,” a Starbucks spokesperson said in an email. “From the beginning, we’ve been clear in our belief that we are better together as partners, without a union between us, and that conviction has not changed.”

The coffee retailer had said it plans to raise starting wages to at least $15 per hour by this summer. Pay for hourly employees, called “partners,” will average $17 an hour.

Workers United had filed petitions on behalf of workers at various stores with the labor board to pave the way for votes on whether to create bargaining units. At least 60% of workers at a given store need to agree to petition to hold an election, but at the North Charles Street Starbucks, all employees signed on, Hernandez said.

Some of those workers had said they felt the company dismisses concerns, such as being short-staffed on shifts, feeling pressured to stay late or come in when sick and lacking supplies.

In a letter notifying Starbucks of plans to unionize, more than a dozen co-workers at the Mount Vernon shop had said the store’s majority LGBTQ staff is united on most fronts and works well with the store manager, but conditions during the past couple of years have taken a toll mentally and physically.

“We make Starbucks products for less than living wages and receive none of the profit, all the while being offered benefits that in no way equal our efforts,” the letter said. “We experience abuse from customers, malfunctioning equipment, unsafe working conditions, chronic understaffing and a complete lack of agency within our workplace.”

Workers have unionized 30 U.S. Starbucks cafes so far. More than 120 coffee shops have filed to hold elections, all on a shop-by-shop basis, with many saying working conditions have worsened during the coronavirus pandemic.

Experts have said workers generally may feel they have more bargaining power given labor shortages and wave of resignations that emerged during the pandemic.

Starbucks Workers United also announced in a tweet Monday that workers in Hopewell, New Jersey, became the first to unionize in that state, also in a unanimous vote.

New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy tweeted his congratulations after that vote, saying Starbucks “should immediately recognize the union and enter into contract negotiations. Every worker has the right to be represented in the workplace.”

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