#RedCupRebellion Shows Barista Militancy

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By Eli Gerzon

#RedCupRebellion Strikes Profitable Promotion Day

The #RedCupRebellion on November 17th was the largest action by Starbucks Workers United (SBWU) yet. Across the U.S., 114 stores went on strike – with solidarity actions in several other countries as well. 

In Massachusetts 8 stores went on strike, with the Starbuck on Mt Auburn Street in Watertown emerging as the epicenter. Managers from multiple Boston area stores converged to work as scabs at that store. Apparently, one of the managers even called the Watertown police on picketers. In response to the effort to open the Watertown location, Starbucks workers and supporters from the Boston area also converged on the store. In the end the store was only open for 5 ½ hours. 

Starbucks has a yearly promotion, Red Cup Day, at the start of the holiday season: for one day anyone who orders a holiday themed drink gets a free reusable red cup – while supplies last. To disrupt this corporate promotion – one of the most profitable days of the year for Starbucks – and to hijack its energy,SBWU called their strike action #RedCupRebellion.

Workers from 7 stores in the Boston area as well as a store in Gardner, MA planned to go on strike on November 17th, 2022. 

Rapid Response To Strike-Breaking

At approximately 7:15am, Adrianna Ross, Starbucks worker at the Watertown store, got a text message. It was a fellow Starbucks worker at a non-unionized store. He warned Ross that his store manager told him Starbucks is sending store managers to Watertown to open the store.

“I immediately start panicking!” explained Ross. “I sent out an SOS to the rest of the union partners saying, ‘Hey, they’re trying to open up Watertown. I need support at Watertown.’”

At first Ross didn’t know how many managers would be at the store. “If there’s like six of them in there they can go for hours into the afternoon.” Ross worried this would mean they successfully broke the strike by keeping the store open a full day. 

When Ross and others arrived at the Mt Auburn St Starbuck store in Watertown it turned out there were three managers in the store: Phill Mann, district manager, Grace Heaberlin, store manager at the Watertown store, and JB Park the store manager at the Allston store at 217 Western Ave. also on strike that day. 

Starbucks workers at 874 Commonwealth Avenue in Brookline were on strike for 64 days. They talked about how difficult it was to get in touch with district manager Phill Mann as we reported on at Working Mass. In another article we interviewed workers at the Watertown store who said Grace Heaberlin left them drastically understaffed. 

This time Phill Mann took the initiative to communicate with the workers. Workers were handing out flyers near the entrance of the store. According to Ross,“ Phill [Mann] comes rushing out of the store and tells us ‘You can’t do that on private property. You need to move to the sidewalk.’”

Ross called the SBWU union lawyer who said there were legally allowed to hand out flyers as long as they weren’t impeding business. Workers decided to continue to stand near the entrance but if someone showed interest they offered to walk over to the sidewalk in order hand out the flyer. “We didn’t want any issues.” said Ross. 

Then three Watertown Police officers arrived at the Starbucks store. 

When the officers arrived there was a picket line: three people were walking back and forth on the sidewalk in front of the store and the parking lot. Ross said the officer said one of the managers claimed people were blocking customers from entering and leaving the store.

According to Ross, “She [the Watertown police officer] very, very easily could see that no one was blocking anything and that it was very much not how it was described to her on the phone.”

The police officer briefly entered the store to speak with a manager, left the store, and then spoke to other officers who arrived on the scene. Then all three left. “They were there for less than five minutes,” said Ross. 

Ross assumes it was district manager Phill Mann who called the police but the officer only indicated that a manager called. Ross said, “Yeah, we were just flabbergasted that he [Mann] called the cops. I think he made it sound like it was 20 people blocking the parking lot when it was just three.”

The managers only took mobile orders – no customers entered the store that day. When picketers explained why they weren’t working many customers expressed interest and sympathy. Some apologetically explained they didn’t know about the strike, had already paid for their order, and picked it up. Other customers got on their phones to make a mobile order standing in front of striking workers after they learned about the strike. Patronizing a store that is on strike is called “crossing the picket line”: it’s insulting to workers and weakens the labor movement for us all. 

Around the country, customers didn’t pick up their mobile orders in solidarity with workers after they learned about the strike.

At the Watertown store, around 12:15pm picketers noticed the managers taking out the trash. By 12:30pm all three managers had driven away. 

Ross said her reaction was, “Did they not make it eight hours? Are you joking?” She explained, “We wanted to outlast them.” And they did. Further, Ross noted many times workers in Watertown and other stores had to serve customers in person, on mobile, and for deliveries with only three people for a full 8 hour shift. But these three managers couldn’t do the same. “It’s just sad that with only one channel in operation [mobile orders] they couldn’t last more than five and a half hours.”

Members of Boston DSA had planned to show up to every store striking in the Boston area. But when word went out that Watertown was the priority location, people changed plans: everyone to Watertown. Jessie is a member of the Boston DSA Coordinating Committee and was there on the picket line. She shared photos and reporting from Watertown that Working Mass used in this thread:

Starbucks workers from other striking stores also went to Watertown to “strengthen their line,” as Taylor Dickerson from 874 Comm Ave said. “We just wanted to show support for other folks who have supported us since our first strike. We’re all a tight knit community and it feels frustrating and demoralizing when something like that happens. So we didn’t want them to face it alone and tried to bring the energy up a bit.”

Dickerson shared that people sang a Starbucks worker version of 12 Days of Christmas by organizer Tyler Daguerre. Dickerson added, “Naturally, we sang ‘Wonderwall.’” The Oasis song from 1995, inexplicably, became the favorite song of picketers during the over two month long strike at 874 Comm Ave. 

In Greater Boston and around the country, unionized workers are waiting for Starbucks to start negotiations for a contract. In the Boston area Starbucks said they would negotiate on October 24th but then canceled. Workers haven’t heard from them since. Ross said, “It’s really frustrating that they are pushing this whole narrative of, ‘We’re so ready to sit down and just get this started and talk with these partners.’ It’s really frustrating when they do things like cancel a bargaining session three minutes before it actually starts.”

Despite constant delays by corporate, the #RedCupRebellion seems to have been a success. Out of 114 striking stores in the U.S. only five stores were open for part of the day. And none of them were open past 12:30pm. The national SBWU account tweeted a summary of the week the day after #RedCupRebellion including the announcement that three new stores filed for union elections including another in the Boston area in Waltham, MA:

Tomorrow, December 9th there will be another big Starbucks Workers United event across the US to “Stand Up to Corporate Bullies!” The event page says: “As Starbucks not only busts unions, but targets LGBTQ+ workers, breaks its climate promises, and enjoys massive windfall profits, this is a critical moment for us to join together.” RSVP for the Boston event or look for an event near you in 10 cities across the US. People from Working Mass, others from Boston DSA, and Starbucks workers from Watertown and 874 Commonwealth Ave. will be at the Boston event. We hope to see you there!

Eli Gerzon is an editor of Working Mass and a member of Boston DSA.

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