QUEENS—Workers at two Astoria Starbucks locations staged strikes Thursday as part of a national labor action, the “Red Cup Rebellion.”
Starbucks Workers United, an affiliate of Service Employee International Union, called for the strike on a day of promotional sales where patrons received a free holiday cup with their order.
Promotional days like these often bring in big profits, but can mean long lines for customers and busy hours for employees, workers say.
Outside the Ditmars Boulevard and 31st Street location, workers and allies wore union regalia and held signs of “No Coffee, No Contract” and “Don’t Cross the Picket Line.”
“We want to be able to have this job, and just this job, and make a living wage in New York City,” said Faith Bianchi, who works at the 31st Street location.
Reality of Retaliation
Austin Locke, 29, has worked for seven years for Starbucks, six at the location on 31st Street. The working conditions had become “unbearable” with short staffing and meager pay, Locke said.
The starting wage for a Starbucks employee in NYC is $17.50 per hour, according to Starbucks’ application portal and Senate testimony of former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz. Locke, with seven years’ experience, said he makes slightly more than $20 an hour. The living wage for a single adult with no children in Queens County is $25.65, according to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Living Wage Calculator.
In 2022, Locke, Bianchi and the other workers of the 31st street shop unionized. Then, Locke said, he was fired in retaliation.
He submitted a wrongful termination complaint with the City’s Department of Consumer and Worker Protection. The agency investigated and found wrongdoing on Starbucks’ part and called for Locke’s reinstatement and back pay and ruled that Starbucks pay a fine as required by NYC’s Fair Workweek Law.
The store remained open despite the strike going on outside, as many of the morning’s customers crossed the picket line.
Bianchi, Locke and the other picketers said they could not convince every employee to join the action. Organizers said that Starbucks’ anti-union actions—like past firings as a retaliation for union activity—were a strong disincentive to participate.
Besides Locke, 27 other employees in the U.S. have been reinstated by the National Labor Relations Board since December 2021 for unjust firings by Starbucks, as reported by The Guardian.
“The union busting works,” Bianchi said. “It’s why people are working today. They need money.”
In her four years of working at Starbucks, Bianchi said the company had cut back from seven baristas on her shift during peak hours to four, making it harder to serve customers. “I really enjoy serving coffee to people,” Bianchi said. “But it’s awful when we don’t have the manpower to do it.”
In a press release, Starbucks said the union, Starbucks Workers United, has only responded to a fifth of the 500 bargaining sessions the company proposed. “Workers United has failed to confirm any proposed session since June 14, 2023,” the release from Starbucks said.
However, Starbucks Workers United, which represents more than 340 stores nationwide, said it never refused to bargain with the coffee chain. It blamed the company for refusing to come to the table, or to negotiate with union members about proposals.
“It wasn’t until workers started to truly build power through a massive upsurge in organizing that Starbucks unilaterally and illegally decided that it would walk away from negotiations if a bargaining committee member observed virtually,” a union spokesperson told Time Magazine.
Locke added that Starbucks’ stonewalling was a ruse.
”It’s not true,” he said of their statement, “We show up.”
History of Violations
Starbucks’ actions are part of a nationwide pattern of resistance and retaliation against union efforts, according to organizers and legal rulings.
Starbucks violated the National Labor Relations Act hundreds of times, NLRB Administrative Judge Michael A. Rosas ruled in March. The company acted with “egregious and widespread misconduct demonstrating a general disregard for the employees’ fundamental rights,” the judge wrote in his decision, which also ordered worker reinstatement and reimbursement, among other remedies.
A September ruling by a different National Labor Relations Board judge found Starbucks had illegally raised wages and provided benefits exclusively to non-unionized stores, another violation of the National Labor Relations Act.
In November, Starbucks appealed the September ruling, arguing that what they did was legal.
“An employer may not unilaterally make changes to the terms or conditions of employment for unionizing or newly unionized employees. Doing so would be an inherent threat to the integrity of the election and the bargaining process. We also maintain that it is lawful to grant such wage increases and benefit enhancements to partners in all other stores, ” the coffee giant wrote in a statement.
State Assemblymember Jessica Gonzales-Rojas and City Councilmember Tiffany Cabán came out to support the workers on strike in Astoria.
“New York is a union town,” Cabán said, who represents Astoria and parts of Long Island City. “The more unionized workers, the better, stronger, safer, healthier city that we will have.”
“Organized labor strikes get the goods,” Cabán added.
The country has seen labor strikes across various industries just in the past year , after plateauing in the aughts. Strikes like those held by the Screen Actors Guild, Writers Guild, United Auto Workers, and Kaiser Permanente workers all won contracts in 2023.
“People in motion in many places” strengthens labor power, said Ellen Dichner, a professor at CUNY School of Labor and Urban studies, referencing movements like Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter. “Unions are the only institutions in our society that have enough leverage to redistribute wealth.”