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After unionizing last summer, some Utah Starbucks workers now want out

Employees at the Starbucks in Cottonwood Heights, Utah, pictured here on July 31, 2023, voted to join the Starbucks Workers United union last June.
Sean Higgins
Employees at the Starbucks in Cottonwood Heights, Utah, pictured here on July 31, 2023, voted to join the Starbucks Workers United union last June.

A group of employees at a Starbucks in Cottonwood Heights want to leave the Starbucks Workers United union. The petition to decertify comes a little over a year after the same store voted to join the union.

According to a news release announcing the petition, the action was first filed to the National Labor Relations Board by Indya Feissinger, who was also one of the original employees who helped the store unionize in June of 2022.

Before a petition can be filed, federal labor law says a year must pass after a successful union vote and 30% of a location’s workers need to support decertification.

The National Right to Work Foundation, which is providing free legal representation to the workers who support the petition, said a contingent of the store’s workers don’t want the union to have “monopoly representation powers” when negotiating with the company.

“They called us,” said foundation president Mark Mix. “They walked through this process and we [are helping] them get an election. That's the goal, not to put our thumb on the scale one way or the other, but just get the election so that their voices can be heard in the workplace.”

Utah’s status as a “right to work” state means union membership is voluntary and a person's employment cannot be “denied or abridged” based on membership or non-membership in any labor organization.

The Starbucks Workers Union pulled no punches in response to the decertification effort.

"The National Right to Work Foundation is partnering with Starbucks' virulent and illegal anti-union campaign,” the union said in a statement. “Starbucks illegally refuses to bargain with the Union, illegally disciplines and fires union supporters, and illegally changes working conditions, then the National Right to Work Foundation piggy-backs on this activity to decertify the Union.”

Last October, Jacob Lawson, one of the workers and lead union organizer at the Cottonwood Heights store, claimed to have been illegally fired in retaliation for their organizing efforts.

In December, the NLRB said Starbucks had illegally refused to negotiate contracts at 21 unionized stores in Washington state and Oregon. Utah’s unionized locations in Cottonwood Heights, Bountiful, Salt Lake City and South Salt Lake have also yet to secure contracts with the company.

“The National Labor Relations Board so far has dismissed every decertification filed at Starbucks stores because they are irreparably tainted by Starbucks' illegal conduct,” the union’s statement continued. “We expect the same result with the current decertification."

The National Right to Work Foundation said the petition kicks off a back-and-forth process that could take years to resolve. It could end in the NLRB dismissing the petition or another vote at the store — this time to decertify the union.

“On the long side, we've had cases that have lasted three, four or five years,” Mix said. “It just absolutely gets tied up in legal proceedings.”

And labor experts note that union movements in the service industry have often faced uphill battles.

“With industries like this where there can be high worker turnover, it means that it's very difficult to maintain solidarity,” said University of Utah history professor Matthew Basso. “So the union leaders are saying the only thing they can, which is ‘we need to stick together.’”

After a renewed push for worker’s rights during the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been a wave of union votes at hundreds of Starbucks locations across the country. According to Starbucks Workers United, more than 340 stores have voted to unionize since the first store in Buffalo, New York in 2021. There are over 15,000 Starbucks locations in the U.S.

For Basso, a push to organize in an industry that does not have the same union history as truck drivers or Hollywood is a reflection of how the labor market has changed in recent years.

“[People are organizing] because there aren't necessarily better options for them in an economy that is ever more segmented into what we might call contract work,” he said. “Starbucks and places like it can provide stability and many people enjoy serving other folks, and they're saying to themselves, ‘Well, you know what? I wouldn't mind doing this for a while. If I can get a decent wage for the hard work that I do and if I can get strong benefits, it's my right as an American to try to unionize a store.’”

The Cottonwood Heights Starbucks is not the only location to attempt to back away from its union representation. Thirteen other unionized locations nationwide have also filed decertification petitions. Some of them have been dismissed by the NLRB, but others are still making their way through the process.

Does that mean the labor movement seen over the past few years is starting to show some cracks? In Basso’s view, not really.

“It's just a sign that we're in a really remarkable moment.”

Sean is KUER’s politics reporter.
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