Starbucks workers running Syracuse’s Armory Square location are considering whether to unionize under the national Starbucks Workers United collective.

More than a dozen “partners” — Starbucks’ designated name for its employees — at the 290 W. Jefferson St. store filed a petition with the National Labor Relations Board in early June, indicating their wishes to collectively bargain as a unit. The group met with organizers in Buffalo who successfully unionized there.

But efforts in Syracuse have since stalled. A leading organizer quit working at the store, leading the group to rescind its petition this week.

Yet a group of 13 workers initially signed their names to a petition arguing that Starbucks needs to improve staffing and wages, and needs better policies for dealing with issues inside the store.

If the nearly 20 workers at the Armory Square store ultimately decide to move ahead with their petition and approve a union in a potential internal referendum, all the baristas, shift supervisors and assistant store managers would join the national movement of Starbucks partners seeking to democratize their workplace.

‘Turned into an assembly line’

Starbucks Workers United originated last summer in Buffalo when workers there decided to form the first Starbucks union in the country. The group acts under the banner of Workers United Upstate, an affiliate of the Service Employees International Union that represents workers in textile factories, manufacturing plants, restaurants and coffee shops.

The grievances in Syracuse echo those heard in Buffalo and around the country.

“Cut hours, rapidly deteriorating wages and insufficient benefits do not align with our minimum needs,” several members of the store’s staff said in a letter penned to interim Starbucks Chief Executive Officer Howard Schultz on June 7.

The staff noted that in their petition that employees at the store see forming a union as the only option to protect their rights as workers.

“We work every single day with our jobs on the line, knowing at any moment we could realistically be fired in the face of ‘at-will’ termination,” the letter said. “What was once a community cafe where people came to engage with one another has since been turned into an assembly line.”

In a statement, Starbucks’ director of corporate communications Reggie Borges said the company was listening to workers nationwide, but didn’t believe union efforts were necessary.

“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,” Borges said. “We respect our partners’ right to organize and are committed to follow the NLRB process.”

Issues at the Syracuse shop

Will Westlake, a member of Starbucks Workers United helping staff at the Armory Square shop unionize and a former barista in Buffalo, told Central Current workers’ grievances include inadequate staffing and a “chronic issue with management accountability.”

He said an issue specific to the Armory Square shop is how employees are instructed by management to deal with people who don’t have homes, and come into the store and remain there.

“Workers want better training and a better alternative to how the company handles issues like mental health and the homeless population that exists in downtown Syracuse,” Westlake said. “Basically, the company policy on how to deal with homeless people is to call the police. I think the baristas would prefer that the policy be to try and help these people and be able to deal with that by themselves in a way that is effective and doesn’t require police.”

Borges, the company spokesman, confirmed the policy, but did not comment on the workers’ demands for it to be changed.

He also addressed concerns regarding scheduling and wages.

“Every partner files a schedule availability form when they are first hired and have the ability to change that at any point,” Borges said. “Furthermore, schedules are set three weeks in advance to ensure consistent hours and times. A partner can work with their store manager to discuss their hours and schedule and change them.”

Borges highlighted Starbucks’ efforts to improve compensation.

“Over the past, almost three years now, we’ve made over $1 billion in incremental investments in wages and benefits,” Borges said.

In December 2020, Starbucks bumped starting wages by 5% and gave a 10% raise to baristas and supervisors. Tenured partners, according to the company, received an 11% raise.

Further raises to staff at locations across the country were approved last year. Starting this summer, the average hourly rate for wages will be $17, the company said.

The raises coincide with healthy increases in profits for the Seattle-based coffee giant. In an article in the New York Times, Starbucks officials reported a 31% increase in profits during the final three months of 2021, while also announcing price hikes reflected on consumer products. Starbucks’ revenue grew to $8.1 billion at the end of 2021, signifying a 19% jump compared to inflows in 2020.

Workers at the Armory Square wrote in their petition that the pay increases were not enough.

“Although we have been repeatedly told that we are ‘partners’ instead of just employees, we find this title not reflective of our current relationship with Starbucks,” employees wrote. “Starbucks’ rapidly increasing profits have been made off of the backs of our labor. Meanwhile, we have yet to gain a penny from it and are instead offered minimal pay increases that do not even compensate for this year’s inflated living costs.”

Backlash to union efforts

Westlake said staff he has talked to at the store started experiencing increased surveillance from supervisors after the letter was submitted. At one point in the last month, he said, there were five store managers and one regional manager checking in at the store.

“The (day after the letter was submitted), the district manager started showing up at the Armory Square location every day,” he said.

Westlake said the increased presence by management reminded him of his time working at a store in Buffalo that had also filed to unionize. He also referenced the recent closure of Ithaca’s main Starbucks location. In that instance, Ithaca Starbucks partners claimed shutting down the store is a retaliatory tactic in response to union activity.

Syracuse workers have faced their own challenges. Since filing the petition in June, one of the workers helming unionization efforts stopped working at the store, Westlake said. That halted labor actions for now. A lawyer for the employees rescinded their letter on Monday.

Westlake said at least 10 staff members remain committed to forming a union.

“I feel pretty good about the odds of refiling the petition,” Westlake said. “Workers needed more time to talk about the union among themselves.”

Buffalo-based attorney Ian Hayes, who is representing the Starbucks workers in their bid to unionize, said Workers United would be at the ready to help if they decided to move forward.

If an eventual vote passes, the Armory Square location would be the first unionized Starbucks in Central New York.

“(Workers across the country) are generally organizing so they have more of a say over the conditions of their everyday lives,” Hayes said, “and so they can do the jobs they love better.”

Got a tip, question or story idea? Contact Central Current at newsroom@centralcurrent.org.

Follow Eddie Velazquez @ezvelazquez.