Starbucks employees at three Northern Virginia stores move to unionize The Starbucks union wave reached the D.C. region.
From NPR station


Starbucks employees at three Northern Virginia stores move to unionize

FILE — Pro-union pins sit on a table during a watch party for Starbucks' employees union election, Dec. 9, 2021, in Buffalo, N.Y. Joshua Bessex/AP hide caption

toggle caption
Joshua Bessex/AP

Workers at three Starbucks stores in Northern Virginia have announced that they're unionizing, joining a growing labor movement within the international coffee chain.

Employees at stores in Loudoun and Fairfax counties are filing petitions with the National Labor Relations Board. They've notified Starbucks President and Chief Executive Officer Kevin Johnson of their union drives in separate letters, which were provided to DCist/WAMU.

"We stand to hold our company accountable - we are not against Starbucks; we are for a better Starbucks," says a letter signed by employees of the Huntsman Square Starbucks in Springfield. The coffee shop filed for an election on Feb. 23, becoming the first store in Northern Virginia seeking to form a union.

Article continues below

A Starbucks spokesperson says the company is "listening and learning" from their employees in stores, rendering a union unnecessary. "From the beginning, we've been clear in our belief that we are better together as partners, without a union between us, and that conviction has not changed," the spokesperson says.

Tim Swicord, who works as a barista at the Springfield location, says he and his colleagues started talking about organizing in mid-January — a week after his 18th birthday. About 70% of the roughly 23 workers there support unionizing, Swicord says. They are interested in securing wages that enable them to live where they work, and more consistent schedules, he says.

"We really thought that becoming a part of the unionizing effort and joining the labor movement, we could not only help ourselves but really create this spark in Northern Virginia," says Swicord, a lead organizer.

Workers in Merrifield and Leesburg announced their own efforts this week.

The Leesburg Starbucks is 20-year-old Richard Griffith's second job out of high school, and he says he enjoys it because it provides some flexibilities, like the ability to transfer stores. He says he didn't know much about unions before he started organizing with his colleagues about a month ago ("they don't really teach you about it in schools"). But he eventually came to learn the role unions played in securing practices like the 40-hour work week.

He says he hopes to improve wages and hours that are largely set by corporate, not by store management. The company recently scaled back store hours, impacting workers' wages and benefits.

Stephanie Jackson, a barista at the Leesburg location, says the same week they were expected to cut down their hours, they were also required to increase service, opening the cafe back up for mobile ordering. With all the new responsibilities, she says, the job started feeling unmanageable.

"These people are not working on the floor," she says of corporate management. "They have no idea what's actually happening. And they're just telling us to do these things but not actually understand that they're not going to work."

The Starbucks spokesperson says the company is working to address concerns like the ones raised by Swicord and Jackson. The company will raise wages this summer, he says, so store employees will average nearly $17 an hour and baristas will earn between $15 to $23 an hour. He declined to comment on the specific happenings at the Leesburg store.

Griffith, who's a shift supervisor, says that 21 out of the 28 employees of the Leesburg store support the union.

Starbucks workers in the Buffalo, New York were the first to organize, following what workers said were longstanding issues at company stores like chronic understaffing and erratic scheduling. After they voted to unionize in December — making it the first of roughly 9,000 corporate-owned stores nationwide — others followed suit. According to the New York Times, over 100 stores in more than 25 states, including Maryland and Virginia, filed for union elections and are seeking to join Workers United, an affiliate of the Service Employees International Union. The union drives have succeeded in several more Buffalo-area stores and Mesa, Arizona, bringing the total number of unionized corporate-owned stores to six.

The company's resistance to organizing efforts has been widely reported by local and national media. Store managers have held group or one-on-one meetings to discourage workers from unionizing, as have corporate executives . Meanwhile, Starbucks' lawyers have attempted to slow down union campaigns through litigation at the National Labor Relations Board, according to a HuffPost analysis, buying the company more time to campaign against organizing. Starbucks even fired several union leaders at a store in Memphis, Tennessee. According to one study, union leaders have a 15-20% chance of being fired partly because existing labor laws fail to deter employers from engaging in retaliatory action. (D.C. retailer Union Kitchen fired a worker seeking to unionize last month, though ownership denied any retaliation.)

"It's disappointing to see Starbucks invest so much money in union-busting efforts," says SEIU Virginia 512 President David Broder. "It's clearly failing. The organizing that the workers are doing is beating the big union-busting firms every time."

But Broder says he suspects that won't stop the company from trying to dissuade workers from joining unions, anyway.

"I fully expect, unfortunately, that corporate Starbucks will do the same here in Northern Virginia," he says. "So I think it's so important that the community rally around the baristas and the partners who are so important to them and stand up and say, 'Hey, Northern Virginia is a union town.'"

The Starbucks spokesperson denies any allegations of union-busting, saying the company has "fully honored the process laid out by the NLRB." He says corporate executives are "sharing facts and our perspectives" in worker meetings ahead of union elections, sometimes at the request of store managers or rank-and-file employees. He doesn't know whether anyone from corporate will visit Northern Virginia.

(An NLRB administrative law judge has ruled against the company for union-busting, saying Starbucks unlawfully retaliated against two Philadelphia baristas in response to their organizing efforts.)

Few local stores have filed union petitions. Two stores filed in the Baltimore area, while no campaign has gone public in D.C. yet. Rebecca Hess, an organizing director with Workers United, says many D.C. area stores are franchised, not corporate. So far, she says, only corporate stores are organizing partly because many franchised stores are already unionized and corporate stores are having greater problems.

Leesburg Vice Mayor Fernando "Marty" Martinez, along with other local lawmakers, visited Starbucks workers on Wednesday. Martinez was among the 11,000 striking air traffic controllers whom President Ronald Reagan fired, which some labor historians view as a critical moment for the decline in unions (membership, particularly within the private sector, has shrunk). "There will be a resurgence of unions because the need for protecting workers is increasing," Martinez tells DCist/WAMU.

This story is from, the local news site of WAMU.

Questions or comments about the story?

WAMU values your feedback.

From NPR station