By Eli Gerzon
Watertown – Greater Boston continues to be a hub of the labor movement’s growing size and boldness, as strikers at 75 Mt Auburn St in Watertown, MA launched a strike, paralleling the existing strike at the 874 Commonwealth Ave store at Boston University.
The strike at the Watertown Starbucks started on Friday, September 9th, 2022 and ended on Friday, September 16th. This store location is part of the surge of newly unionized Starbucks stores with over 200 stores unionizing in less than a year.
Working Mass spoke with workers on the Watertown picket line on Sunday, September 11th and asked them why they are on strike.
Understaffing and Union Busting
The workers reported launching the strike action for multiple reasons, some related to store manager Grace Heaberlin. Heaberlin took over the Watertown location in March 2022 while workers were in the process of unionizing. Workers voted to unionize in May 2022.
“Two people with perfect records were fired recently. [Starbucks] made a new minimum availability requirement even considering we are very understaffed and barely able to keep the store running as it is,” said Robin Hyatt, a Starbucks worker in Watertown.
Adrianna Ross, who has been working at the Watertown Starbucks for seven years, pointed out that the workers “did not negotiate for that new availability minimum.” After a store becomes unionized, Starbucks is required to negotiate any schedule changes with the workers. She added that one of the fired workers “has had the same availability for seven years, through three different store managers. And none of them have had an issue with it, until this one.”
Ross said the other reason they are on strike is related to Heaberlin’s conduct in regards to a shift manager under her supervision.
“We’re also out here because that same store manager allowed a partner [worker] to be openly transphobic and misogynistic to the staff. And to maintain his employment three months after reports were given to her about his behavior and treatment of us.”
Regarding the understaffing Ross said, “Sometimes there’s only two people on the floor handling a half hour rush of 40 customers!”
According to workers the Watertown location now has only 15 baristas running the store when 25 baristas are required. There’s often only one or two baristas on the floor serving customers when there would normally be six. In the past, when they were short on staff, store hours were shorted, sometimes closing at 4pm. But the store has been operating on a full schedule during this staff shortage. Store manager Heaberlin has had many recent applications but has only interviewed and hired two workers in the last month, according to workers on the picket line.
There are many things in common with the strike at 874 Commonwealth Ave in Brookline on the Boston University campus and this one in Watertown. In both cases workers complain about getting a new manager who seems hostile to unions and perpetuates or allows transphobia and misogyny. Both want their right as unionized workers to negotiate for reasonable hours.
One major difference is that 874 Comm Ave has been keeping the picket line going 24 hours per day for nearly two months now. They say they need to maintain an active picket line to prevent deliveries: delivery workers are part of the Teamsters union and have it in their contract that they will not cross a picket line to make a delivery.
In contrast, Ross said, “I believe they’ve put a pause on all orders because if they continue to have them we would just have expired products.” Ross expressed that the workers were not concerned about Starbucks hiring replacement workers, as “they physically can’t hire scabs because every store is understaffed!”
Some workers are scheduled to work when they don’t want to and others like Maeghan Odom want to work more hours but are given less hours. “I genuinely like working for Starbucks. If they provided for me, I would be a partner for life…. We want to make this a better place.”
It was clear that many residents of Watertown and other union members from the wider community support their efforts to make the store a better place.
“The last strike we had [August 1st, 2022] the Watertown Teachers Union came out in support of us. They stood on the line with us, held signs with us, they donated. Especially because that week was so hot, they gave us a cooler, water, popsicles to keep us cool. They were a huge support for us… So many of them come here. One of the partners who was fired works at Brighton High School…”
At this point Adrianna stopped to explain to a customer, “Sorry we’re closed, we’re on strike!”
The customer replied, “I know, I just wanted to tell you how awesome you are! I wanted to show my support!” Ross thanked her, told her ways she can support their efforts, and then continued.
“Yeah, like I was saying, one of the partners who was fired works at Brighton High School and the teachers talked about us and how they can support us. It’s amazing to see so many different industries and unions support us in what we’re doing.”
Working Mass met workers from the large Teamsters Local 25, the Brandeis University grad student workers union, and the Boston University grad student workers union which just went public earlier this month.
Over the course of three hours dozens of people parked in the parking lot and then walked up to the store. Starbucks workers explained the store is closed because they are on strike for unfair labor practices. Some simply said, “Oh okay” and turned around. Many people asked for more information and expressed support.
Someone even offered to buy them a drink from one of Starbucks rivals: “Do you want some Dunks?” A group of middle aged men were sitting at the outdoor tables playing cards and drinking Dunkin Donuts coffee. They expressed support and one said, “Everyone deserves a union!”
Working Mass spoke with Renne Hartman, known as “Tutu” to most people, who has been going to this Starbucks for 15 years since she moved to Watertown. Hartman works at a daycare for children with autism. “I live literally up the block… I’m a coffee freak. I came from Seattle. So that’s homegrown.”
Hartman says she loves Starbucks and everyone in her life knows it, even the kids at her daycare. “One of the kids found a little bell for me. It says ‘Ring for coffee.’ I keep it where the kids can reach it. They’ll go over there and ring it. I’m like ‘What?’ They’re like, ‘You’re grumpy, you need some coffee!’ They recognize that the energy has gone down a bit.”
She also has a Starbucks gift card sitting on her dashboard which she jokingly refers to as her “parking pass” and a mini plastic facsimile of a Starbucks coffee cup hanging from her rearview mirror.
Hartman asked the workers on strike, “Is there anything as a non-employee, as layman we can do? Because I will do it absolutely! Whatever I can post…”
Hyatt hands her flyers with info and a link to the strike fund.
“I know a bunch of people that would be on board. I’m so sorry that you guys are having to deal with this….I’ve seen how hard you work over the years. I didn’t realize things had gotten so bad,” said Hartman.
“It’s a slap in the face”
Across the country there has been a pattern of Starbucks breaking labor laws, disregarding rulings from the National Labor Relations Board, firing unionized workers, and delaying contract negotiations. One example from this Watertown Starbucks location seems to be the raise that Adrianna Ross received this month. According to Starbucks, as someone working at the company for 5+ years who is currently in a union, Ross was supposed to get a 3% raise on September 1st, 2022. Starbucks gave a 7% raise to non unionized workers who have been with the company for 5+ years. Recently, the NLRB ruled that Starbucks must give the same raises to workers regardless of union status.
“So I should have gotten a 7% raise but I got a 1.5% raise. It’s a slap in the face. I got a 32 cent raise. I should have gotten a 75 cent raise for the 3% and with the 7% raise it should have been an over $1.50 raise,” said Ross.
Meanwhile, in August Starbucks reported quarterly earnings of $8.15 billion – even higher than the $8.11 billion that was expected.
Will Starbucks adjust Ross’s raise to 3% or 7% after she raises the issue? Regardless, this fits a pattern of Starbucks doing things that workers find insulting, frustrating, and time consuming. And yet when Working Mass reached out to Starbucks last week their spokesperson said, “We currently have strikes happening at Massachusetts store locations. Starbucks has great partners and we value their contributions. We respect our partners’ right to engage in any legally protected activity or protest without retaliation. We are grateful for each partner who continues to work and we always do our best to listen to the concerns of all our partners.”
Workers are still looking for Starbucks to live up to those words and to follow the law. The strike has ended but according to Robin Hyatt the workers are currently working on next steps and, “I’m generally feeling optimistic!”
Eli Gerzon is a freelance writer, social media consultant, gardener, and Tarot card reader. They are an active member of Boston DSA and Jewish Voice for Peace – Boston.