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As 5 St. Louis Starbucks crews take steps to unionize, experts see new hope for labor

Enid Voelcker, left, and Bradley Rohlf, are two of the local Starbucks workers whose stores are unionizing.
Jane Mather-Glass
St. Louis Public Radio
Enid Voelcker, left, and Bradley Rohlf are two local Starbucks workers attempting to form a union.

Employees at five Starbucks locations in St. Louis have now moved to unionize, following the lead of workers at nearly 200 other Starbucks stores nationwide. Baristas in St. Louis say they are fighting for management to be more responsive, less bias in hiring and fair wages.

Nationally, Starbucks workers have alleged union-busting efforts by the company, but Enid Voelcker, a barista at Starbucks in Bridgeton, said she had no qualms about joining in the effort to organize her fellow workers.

“I had been learning about [unions] in my own time for quite a while at this point, and I feel the wider working industry is trending towards getting this back in place,” she said on Tuesday’s St. Louis on the Air. “And one of my coworkers just approached me one day, and she was like, ‘Hey, do you want to start a union?’ and I was like ‘OK.’”

Bradley Rohlf, a barista at the Starbucks at Lindbergh and Clayton in Ladue, said he didn’t always realize the benefits that came with having a union. When he was younger, he rejected the idea of forming a union because he didn’t want to pay dues.

Then, in December, he learned that workers at a Starbucks in Buffalo, New York, had voted to unionize.

“As the news came out of Buffalo, it was a natural conversation,” Rohlf said. “And the more I've looked at it, the more I thought I would be on board with it. And as other partners in our stores were saying, ‘Well, we're talking seriously about that,’ I was like, ‘Well, tell me more.’ And then I just dove right in.”

Voelcker and Rohlf each have specific issues they’re hoping a union would address. But one thing that concerns Starbucks workers at many locations is reduced hours.

St. Louis Starbucks baristas discuss their unionization efforts

“Frankly, a lot of people have been cut hours recently, and this is sort of a nationwide thing,” Voelcker said. “No notification even, it just happened. And when we were talking cross-store it seemed like each of us got a different reason, like corporate just wanted to cut hours or something. And then the managers were left to justify it somehow.”

When unionization talk started, it spread quickly. Rohlf didn’t have a hard time convincing his co-workers of the benefits. But Voelcker has had to educate some colleagues who are still in high school.

“I've had the interesting task of asking, ‘Hey, do you know what a union is?’ A lot of them say no. And so then I have to prime them,” she said. “I send them some reading materials, some videos to watch. Over time, once they get used to it, they’re like, ‘You know what, that does sound like a good idea.’”

Howard Schultz, the CEO of Starbucks, has been traveling the country to convince workers they don’t need a union. Schultz has said that he’s “not anti-union, but pro-Starbucks.” Voelcker and Rohlf have to disagree.

“Howard can say all day long that he's not anti-union, but he has a track record of being anti-union. And honestly, the union is pro-Starbucks,” Rohlf said. “As a large publicly held corporation, Starbucks’ only accountability is to maximize its profits. And in order to maximize profits, one of the things you do is cut expenses. And one of the business biggest expenses you have is labor.”

Voelcker agreed.

“You can hear anyone tell you, ‘Just go get a different job, get a better-paying job, one that works you less emotionally and physically.’ But we're doing this union because we want to work at Starbucks,” she said. “We like our customers, we like our job, and we want it to be something that's sustainable for us.”

Starbucks employees aren’t alone in their effort to unionize. Though union membership hit historic lows recently, a warehouse in New York City also recently became the first Amazon workplace to organize. (Amazon is contesting the election.)

Jake Rosenfeld, a sociology professor at Washington University, said this could be the beginning of a new wave of unionizing.

“I've been studying these issues for going on two decades now — long enough to remember multiple times in which a union victory here or there was seen as a potential turning point in these efforts. But no point was turned; unionization continued to decline,” Rosenfeld said. “But these recent victories really could be something new.”

Amazon and Starbucks, Rosenfeld said, are businesses that are quintessential to the American landscape. And that suggests labor’s recent victories are more than just one-off wins.

“We have these successes that would have been seen — by myself and others who follow the issues — as just impossible as of a few years ago,” he said. “And proving that they're not provides a kind of case study of success that unions have been looking for for years now.”

While Starbucks workers in St. Louis await an election date from the National Labor Relations Board, other St. Louisans are further in the process. Earlier this month, Root 66 dispensary on South Grand became the first dispensary in Missouri to unionize — but not without consequences. Em Holmead, a former Root 66 employee who uses they/them pronouns, said they were fired over their organizing attempts.

“The owners came in, interrogated me about this situation and said that I was on probation. And then three hours later, I got fired via email,” Holmead said earlier this week. “But to be honest, I would go back and I would do it all again, just for the sheer fact of knowing that my team is taken care of now and they all got the chance to vote.”

As for the Starbucks organizers, Rohlf said he feels like Starbucks unions are now springing up so rapidly that he doesn’t fear retaliation.

“They can't stop all of us,” he said. “When Buffalo was the only store organizing, they could send all the highest VPs they wanted. Now, we're over 200 stores across the nation that have filed, and it seems to be growing and growing.”

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Emily Woodbury, Kayla Drake, Danny Wicentowski and Alex Heuer. Jane Mather-Glass is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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