On the afternoon of Sunday, Jan. 22, Erin Brown, a junior and current part-time student at Bentley University in Waltham, posted a picture of a Kewpie baby figurine smiling innocently and holding a pink cup of coffee on her Instagram story with the caption, “me at my silly little job making lattes and sticking to the status quo because why unionize and put pressure on corporations when instead we could just continue to be expendable minions,” followed by a smiley face that made her sarcasm abundantly clear to her followers. Brown’s post was in response to the results of a union election at her workplace two days earlier, when her coworkers voted against unionizing by a 30% margin. The majority of employees voted in the secret ballot election; eight voted to unionize, while 15 voted against it. 

Brown was hopeful her store would become the latest Starbucks branch to join the national union, Starbucks Workers United, as part of a growing movement of Starbucks workers nationwide. 

“It’s just so disappointing,” she told the Justice during a Jan. 22 phone interview. Brown, a Waltham local, began working at the Market Place Drive Starbucks in 2020, just as the pandemic began. She left after six months, but returned to the job a year ago and has been working there since. When she heard in the fall of 2022 that some of her coworkers were organizing an effort to unionize the cafe, she was in full support of the idea. “I would definitely be pro-union because Starbucks is just a corporation,” she said. “And [as workers] we’re all expendable [to Starbucks]. So, like, why would I want to side with the corporation?” 

But while Brown was ideologically aligned with her coworkers organizing the effort to unionize, she was initially not optimistic about the chances of it happening. “It seems as though Starbucks is not cooperating with stores who have successfully unionized,” Brown said. “So I knew it would be a long process.”

The approximately $122 billion company has taken efforts to curb the growing push for unionization among its workers. Over 300 Starbucks stores across the country have held union elections in the last year. Of these, around 270 voted to unionize, including seven Massachusetts locations. Considering that until the end of 2021, no company-owned Starbucks stores were part of a union, this is a major change. Still, unionized stores only represent less than 3% of company-operated Starbucks in the country, and the movement may have already run out of gas — the number of stores filing petitions to hold union elections dropped dramatically between the spring and summer of 2022. 

Union organizers say pushback from the Starbucks corporation has stymied support for unionization among workers. The national union representing Starbucks workers has brought more than 325 complaints against the company for violating federal protections of workers’ rights to organize. As a result, various regional offices of the National Labor Relations Board, the federal agency responsible for enforcing United States labor laws, has filed at least 35 formal complaints which accuse the Starbucks of “coercing, threatening and firing employees over their union activities and withholding wage increases and benefits from unionizing stores,” according to NPR.

Sidy Kante ’25 works as a barista at the Starbucks on Market Place Drive and voted in Friday’s election. He said concerns over issues that might arise should his store become unionized — such as issues transferring between stores and accessing raises and benefits offered by the company — were the main factors in his decision to vote against joining the union. When Starbucks announced to workers recently that it would be switching from paying employees every two weeks to every week, something many workers had been pushing for, there was an asterisk stating that this change would only apply to non-union stores. “Thank god … we were able to get that,” Kante said of the change.

Brown said various changes such as the payment frequency change, benefit increases, and a raise to over $17 per hour for baristas in the Boston area happened suddenly over the past few months, as the Waltham store was preparing to hold its union elections. On Sept. 12, Starbucks announced new benefits — student loan repayment tools and a savings account program for workers in the United States. But there was a catch: Only non-union workers could access these benefits, while workers at unionized stores would have to bargain for them. “The timing was a little suspicious,” Brown said, adding later, “It’s like, where were those before?” She believes benefits being offered exclusively to non-union workers made people at her store less inclined to unionize. “[Starbucks] made it seem like maybe we wouldn’t get these new benefits that other stores are getting,” she explained. 

Over the summer, striking workers at a Brookline Starbucks shut down the store for more than two months to protest a “chaotic and hostile work environment,” which they claimed was retaliation by management following their vote to unionize in June 2022. On Nov. 17, seven Massachusetts Starbucks locations were part of the “Red Cup Rebellion,” a nationwide strike of over 100 stores on the date of Starbucks’ popular promotion, “Red Cup Day.” Massachusetts workers said the company was refusing to engage in contract bargaining with the unionized stores and purposefully keeping stores understaffed, despite pleas from employees.

Back in the fall, when Kante’s coworkers first told him they were trying to unionize, he agreed to sign a union card to help his store get enough signatures to hold a union election. But by the time the election happened, Kante said he was more informed about what it would mean to unionize and the potential risks. “I don't think the union was necessarily horrible or bad or [that the Waltham organizers] were completely misguided,” Kante said, “but I would say that this was unnecessary at this point.” 

Alaysia Penso ’23 has been working at the Waltham Starbucks branch since August 2022. A five-minute drive and a 25-minute walk from campus, the store is a popular pick for Brandeis students looking for a part-time job. The ubiquity of the coffee chain and the ease of transferring between stores is also a draw for students, who often work at other locations during breaks. Penso transferred to the Waltham branch from a store in her hometown of Miami, Florida, where she worked over the summer. Kante worked at a Starbucks in Manhattan during the most recent summer and winter breaks. 

Knowing she’d be able to switch between stores easily is part of why Penso applied to work at Starbucks last year. It’s also one of the main reasons she was against unionizing. She said any transfers between stores would have to go through the union, which could make the process more difficult. Kante was also worried about transferring becoming more complicated or being limited to other unionized stores. 

Kante was also put off by the approach taken by his coworkers who organized the unionization effort. “A small group of people got together and schemed to start a petition to unionize,” he said, adding that it seemed to him like the organizers weren’t particularly concerned with what the majority of workers wanted, calling them “self-centered, self-interested people who did not care about the store as a whole.” 

Penso said the people pushing for the Waltham store to join the union weren’t doing it for what she considered to be valid reasons — “I think the reason they pushed for it is more because they have ideological issues with corporations in general. And Starbucks is a corporation so they pushed for it because of that, rather than because this is a specific workplace that needs unionization.” To her, unionizing didn’t seem necessary based on the current conditions at the store. “Starbucks, yes, … it is a corporation and it is feeding into the capitalist culture in America … but at the end of the day, Starbucks is a company that does what it can for its workers,” she said.

Brown said joining the union would have been a statement of solidarity with Starbucks workers at other locations. Still, she acknowledged there were issues with the approach taken by the organizers at her store. “I feel like the people who organized the union, they just started working there with the intention of unionizing,” she explained, a point also brought up by both Kante and Penso. “I’m confused in general why they wanted to unionize because they hadn’t even worked at Starbucks for [enough] time to get tired of conditions.” 

Brown, however, has worked at the Waltham store for over a year and said some conditions there could be improved. She said the store has been cutting people’s hours, despite staying open longer, and is often understaffed during afternoon shifts and over winter break when most Brandeis student employees leave town. 

“I’m just surprised that so many people voted on the side of Starbucks — and against the union,” Brown said. She remarked later, “I do want to leave [this job] soon, and this has made me want to leave, just, more because I just have lost faith in all my coworkers.”