Historic Starbucks Strike Places Boston At Center of Labor Revival

  • Reading time:15 mins read

By Eli Gerzon

Brookline Starbucks Workers Continue Historic Strike

One year ago there were no unionized Starbucks in the US. Then, this company with a “progressive” reputation and billions of dollars in profits was challenged by the source of those profits: their workers. It started in late 2021 when Starbucks stores in Buffalo, NY unionized. Since then over 200 Starbucks stores have unionized, an unprecedented explosion of union organizing, largely self-directed, aimed squarely at one of the giants of corporate America.

Now the Starbucks workers at 874 Commonwealth Avenue in Brookline, MA have been on strike longer than any Starbucks in US history – over 25 days for 24 hours per day during a record breaking heatwave. Boston has become a key battleground in the Starbucks workers movement and the larger labor revival. The workers’ primary demands are sufficient, regular hours and the firing of the store manager Tomi Chorlian.

Throughout the strike, workers have relied on solidarity from other union members, community supporters, and elected leaders. Boston City Councilor Kendra Lara, State Representative Erika Uyterhoeven, and Senator Elizabeth Warren have all made it out to the picket line. 

Three weeks into the strike, on Monday, August 8th at 5:30am, Starbucks had the patio furniture removed from 874 Comm Ave and managers crossed the picket line to enter the store and clean it. Boston police officers also arrived that morning. Boston City Councilor Kendra Lara showed up, asked how she could help, and soon returned with brand new folding chairs to replace the ones Starbucks took.

Around 50 people rallied on Sunday including Starbucks workers from other stores, members of socialist organizations, unions, and other concerned community members. The event capped off a week-long strike by four other unionized Starbucks in Massachusetts in Coolidge Corner, Cleveland Circle, Watertown, and Worcester. Originally, workers at those stores planned to only strike for one day. But they were so empowered by the experience on that first day that they decided to keep it going for 7 days.

“The support from everyone while we’re on strike has restored my faith in humanity! So many people have been willing to help strangers.” said Spencer Costigan, a shift manager at 874 Comm Ave. at the rally. “We’re still the same essential workers they said we were two years ago! That hasn’t changed and Starbucks should treat us that way.” 

Fighting Union Busting

Workers and supporters gather at a mega-picket earlier this month. Photo Credit: Henry De Groot

Months ago these Starbucks stores planned to strike in August in response to Starbucks’ announcement in May 2022 that they were now offering new benefits to non-unionized workers only. Those benefits include: credit card tips, $1,000 bonus to shift managers, higher wage increases, and medical benefits. Starbucks insists they are unable to give these new benefits to unionized workers. Kylah Clay says this is simply not true and this action by Starbucks is seen as retaliation against unionization. 

Kylah Clay is a Starbucks worker and a recent graduate of Suffolk Law School. She was inspired by the unionization in Buffalo and now devotes her time to helping Starbucks workers in the region unionize and strike. 

Regarding Starbucks giving new benefits to non-unionized workers only: “Technically, when you’re a union store they can’t unilaterally impose benefits. They have to bargain first,” Clay said. “The Workers United president [Lynne Fox] sent a letter to Starbucks waiving any objection to bargain. So Starbucks could just give us those benefits. But Starbucks continued to tell partners [workers] that they legally couldn’t give us those benefits – which is blatantly false.”

Unfair Labor Practice or Economic Strike?

Starbucks has released a statement about the situation at 874 Comm Ave on their anti-union website: one.starbucks.com. Clay says the statement is misleading in various ways. She says it implies there’s not much support for unionization, let alone the strike. In fact the vote to unionize was unanimous, except for two workers who were hired so recently that they hadn’t actually worked at the store before the vote happened. 

The statement from Starbucks says, “The law gives employers the right to hire permanent replacements for striking workers under certain circumstances (such as an indefinite strike).“

Clay’s response: “In fact, permanent replacements are only legal if it’s an economic strike. But this is an unfair labor practices strike. If it came down to litigation, they [workers] are prepared to hold their ground and prove this is an unfair labor practices strike. But obviously I think Starbucks is saying this right now to scare [the workers at 874]. But I wouldn’t put it past Starbucks to act and try to litigate this further.”

Clay says the statement is “frustrating” to read especially when Strarbucks claims that it “respects the rights of workers to participate in a legally protected strike without retaliation… …And we will always support our partners’ right to work in a collegial and collaborative environment.” 

“They definitely haven’t been collaborative. They’re definitely not looking forward to working with partners to maintain the store. Obviously little urgency from Starbucks to get the store reopened. And they do not have the resources to reopen the store without these partners. It’s very frustrating to read this. We’ve been on the phone with the district manager [Phill Mann] and he doesn’t have a lot of decision making or authority because Starbucks corporate is dictating everything he can and cannot say to us. That’s inhibiting us to have that collaborative working together experience they claim they want us to have.”

The Key Role of Solidarity

Workers and supporters cool off with free ice cream at mega-picket earlier this month. Photo Credit: Henry De Groot

Importantly, Starbucks workers have benefited from strong community support and active solidarity. The workers have been able to keep the picket line going for 24 hours a day for over three weeks. While many of the workers have themselves been on the picket-line almost every day, it would be challenging or impossible to maintain this effort without the active participation of community supporters.

Peggy Wang is a member of Independent Socialist Group and the Massachusetts Teachers Association and is an educator at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design. She has volunteered multiple times for the 4am-6am shift on the picket line. 

“As a fellow worker in this city, a fellow union member, it’s crucial to stand up for one another. A lot of us have been seeing inflation skyrocketing, housing more unaffordable… workers are struggling. We don’t have living wages. So many of us are struggling with debt and can’t afford healthcare,” Wang said. “It’s not the same workplace. But if they’re able to organize to improve workplace conditions that’s a win for all of us.” 

Wang is right – the fight of the workers at 874 Commonwealth Ave is a fight for dignity and respect at workplaces around the country, and for the future of the labor movement as a whole. It is crucial that Boston DSA comrades and all other community supporters continue to help maintain the picket line by signing up for shifts, donate to the strike fund, and assist in bringing pressure to bear on Starbucks management. Also sign and share the petition that workers recently launched. 

Be sure to contribute however you can! A victory for the Boston movement will be a victory for us all.

Management, Police, and Worker Fightback

On Monday, Wang arrived at 4am at 874 Comm Ave and was there with one other picketer. Around 5am a UHaul truck showed up. “We didn’t think much of it, we thought it was some students moving. It was there for maybe 30 minutes. Then two men emerged and told us they were taking away the patio furniture. Then store managers showed up and cleaned the store. Soon after a police officer arrived. He walked past us but didn’t say anything. He tried the door and peered in. Then he went back to his car.”

An empty patio after management removed patio furniture.

“It is absolutely absurd that our tax dollars are being used to surveil and intimidate workers peacefully exercising their right to strike.”

Concerned about what could happen next, Wang then messaged Starbucks workers and other volunteers. Kylah Clay arrived within an hour and contacted Boston Mayor Wu and Labor Secretary Marty Walsh, the former mayor of Boston. 

“It definitely seemed like a union busting tactic. The police are there: that’s intimidation! Taking away the patio furniture: they’re trying to make it harder for us,” said Wang. 

Wang went from the picket line directly to work with very little sleep. “By that time about 10 people were there in response to calls for support. It was impressive how quickly we mobilized.”

Andy Feldman, a member of Boston DSA, was one of the people who showed early on Monday morning right after he heard about the need via a Signal chat and an email list.

Feldman says he’s gone to the picket line about 10 times. “I was motivated to go because I know how much of a difference having a union makes on working conditions and pay. I believe Starbucks workers should have their right to organize respected by this huge, and hugely profitable, business they work for.” said Feldman. 

And on Monday morning, “I was motivated to go because I’m bothered that our city resources are being used to harass workers who are organizing, despite city politicians pledging their support. I wanted to show my support for the workers. I’ve met many of them on the picket line. They are all really great people who deserve to be treated with basic respect and dignity!”

For the rest of Monday morning a Boston police car was parked in front of the Comm Ave store. The BPD has sporadically had police cars stationed at the store throughout this week. On Wednesday, August 10th a police wagon capable of detaining a large number of people parked in front of the store.

Boston Police Department wagon from Wednesday, August 11, 2022 in front of 874 Comm Ave, Brookline, MA. Photo credit: Nora Rossi

Nora Rossi is a shift manager at the 874 store. She was supposed to have her first day off since the start of the strike 3 weeks earlier. But Rossi came in on Monday, August 8th because the workers were concerned about the management activity and police presence Monday morning. She wanted to be there for backup and support.

“I personally do not feel intimidated [by the police]…. However many of our staff members and picket volunteers are members of specifically targeted communities. It is utterly disgusting to use police, who have real power to shoot and kill people for literally any reason they can make up, as a means of intimidation for people already fighting for basic dignity and security in the workplace. Starbucks is not an ally of the LGBT or BIPOC community when they go out of their way to disrupt and threaten our safety. They are intentionally causing harm,” Rossi said.

“Our greatest power lies in Starbucks’ gross underestimation of the capabilities of an organized working class.”

In fact, the primary workers at 874 accuse their store manager Tomi Chorlian of offensive rhetoric against people of color and transgender people. Starbucks has also been accused of threatening to withdraw transgender healthcare in retaliation for unionization at a store in Kansas. 

In regards to the new police presence Clay said, “It is absolutely absurd that our tax dollars are being used to surveil and intimidate workers peacefully exercising their right to strike. It also begs the question — who does the BPD work for? Us or Starbucks?”

Asked whether the workers have considered ending the strike in response to the increasing escalation of management, Rossi held firm. 

“Not at all, we’ll still be out here as long as it takes.”

The last word goes to Spencer Castigan, shift manager at 874: “Our greatest power lies in Starbucks’ gross underestimation of the capabilities of an organized working class.”

Eli Gerzon is a freelance writer, social media consultant, gardener, and Tarot card reader. One bad experience working as an organizer at a climate nonprofit convinced them we need worker rights and worker power to accomplish the change we need. They are an active member of Boston DSA and Jewish Voice for Peace – Boston. 

Nick Weiske and Henry De Groot also contributed to this article.

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