Paul’s Starbucks Union organizer talks about the struggle for regulation in Minnesota – and across the country

Last week, employees at Eden Prairie Starbucks announced that they were seeking unionization. And the week before, Starbucks workers at the Mall of America voted for unions. In all, eight Starbucks stores in Minnesota have followed the unions this year.

And you may have noticed – on a national level – that 2022 saw a rise in workers organizing to get more benefits, wages, and say at work. Gracie Nira works in a Starbucks store in St. Paul and who recently joined a union – they are now a shift leader and union organizer at their Starbucks store.

Join host Chris Farrell to share what’s behind the growing movement.

The following text has been edited for length and clarity. Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation. Subscribe to the Minnesota Now podcast on Apple PodcastAnd the google podcastAnd the spotify Or wherever you get your podcasts.

So to start, how did you get involved in the formation of guilds?

So in 2020, 2021, I actually worked at different Starbucks and we did a number of COVID-based safety issues and organized informally. And when I moved to 300 Snelling again in July of last year, that culture really moved with those who went to the store. And we started talking about unions, kind of informally, right from the start. It wasn’t until seven employees in Memphis were fired that we really started having a conversation about what it means to show solidarity and organize our own union, to stand with the movement.

How have you supported each other as union members during this whole thinking about this process?

I think a lot of that comes down to the importance of grassroots relationships, something that has been true during COVID. They closed a lot of stores temporarily and then moved us all to drive-through positions, the ones that were ready to go. This was the only place we’d been to during the lockdown, and it really reinforced that sense of team company and something that was even more deep, personal and compelling for those still on the job. And that translates to now, after the news, the local climate, there’s a different aspect of ourselves that we bring into the work we do that actually strengthens our personal relationships.

What is the difference between being a worker without a union and being a union worker?

Legal protection. I think with some of these issues that we’ve orchestrated in 2021, Starbucks will have captive meetings with the public and intimidation tactics, and at that time, my co-workers and I didn’t have a good framework to understand and in many ways were motivated by that. We have to support each other more as workers and actually seek the protection that a union can offer. I think there’s a strong sense of collective power that comes with knowing that we can organize ourselves to win the union through the vote and a lot of the momentum that is gained through that as well.

Compared to the past, why do you think a group of younger, educated people seem more excited about joining unions?

I’ve been thinking a lot about this question as well. I was reading some research through the Pew Research Center that was talking about millennials and Generation Z, I consider myself a millennial at work, I’m one of the oldest people in my shop is 26 and I work with a lot of people who are still in college, there are a lot of Natural agreements between generations on social issues. With a lot of non-white workers and gay workers.

I believe we live in a moment where we can see our rights and past victories eroded by previous generations in real time. Roe vs. Wade One. I know there’s a provision in Alabama that allowed secession to disenfranchise black voters and we’re really seeing what would happen if we didn’t stick our necks and you know, compromise our rights. I think there is a very urgent and existential need to bargain with our employers for protection that we might not legally have otherwise.

So, do you get information calls from Starbucks workers, perhaps elsewhere in the country saying, How did you do this? How does this work? Tell us what’s going on here?

Yes, we have a very good network between the Minnesota area so people can contact any of the organizers and me. But there is also the parent union, we have United Workers and we have their information. They really helped us formalize the process of our intake, organizing and setting up a committee. Partners can reach out to us and then reach out to them to start their own syndicates in this way.

Tell us about the event you’re organizing with the East Side Freedom Library, there are other union activists who will be participating. It’s later this month, isn’t it?

Yes it is. So on July 30, in conjunction with the East Side Liberty Library at 1 p.m., there will be a number of us workers from various stores across the state, either on the organizing committee, just rank-and-file employees having a public conversation about what the organizing background looked like in Starbucks in Minnesota and how we imagine its future too.

And what do you hope to get out of this?

I really want to get to the same page as the other stores and sort of assess how we want to creatively approach bargaining. So for those of us who won the union election, we can get into the bargaining stage with Starbucks. Starbucks has been very slow to turn up but I think there’s a lot of power that comes with bargaining rights. I want to see how we approach some innovative negotiations and what our baseline is.

Do you think there are opportunities in different industries, different businesses, than the ones we’ve heard about, like Starbucks and an Apple Store for example?

I definitely think so. I know that across industries, things come with their own challenge, like an Amazon warehouse that looks really different than a Starbucks. I think there is a lot of momentum and a lot of creativity and energy. Chipotle just won their first union and Half Price Books really started their union and Minnesota was the first to take off so I could definitely see that move across industries.

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