Union picket at Starbucks: ‘We can make a difference’

Four Los Angeles-area Starbucks stores closed Friday morning as workers picketed, joining a three-day nationwide strike by unionized baristas and other workers demanding better treatment from their managers.

The strike is the second by Starbucks workers in recent weeks over concerns the Seattle-based chain has unfairly retaliated against unionized workers and failed to negotiate in good faith to secure initial contracts.

“We are on strike right now… demanding that union stores stop closing, that they reopen the stores that they have closed and [stop] their anti-union campaign against us,” said Tyler Keeling, a union organizer at Lakewood Starbucks on Candlewood Street. Striker’s plan to remain on the picket line through Sunday is forcing the four stores to remain closed.

Starbucks said in a statement that the company “does not tolerate unlawful anti-union behavior” and that it continued to schedule bargaining sessions with union members so “their voices are heard.”

“It is unfortunate that Workers United continues to make misleading claims while disrupting the Starbucks experience that our partners and customers love and expect,” the statement said.

The other closed stores were located at 3390 E. 7th St. in Long Beach and in Los Angeles at 138 S. Central Ave. and 3241 Figueroa St.

Veronica Gonzalez, who works at the Figueroa Street location in Cypress Park, joined the picket line with about 10 other workers Friday and stood in the cafe’s driveway with signs that read “Strike!” and “No contract, no coffee!”

Every few minutes, drivers honked or waved in support of the conspicuous baristas.

“Starbucks is stepping up anti-unionism, so we’re going to double down,” said Gonzalez, a barista who has worked at the store for three years. “They want to close shops, we will show them that we can also close shops.”

People in hoodies stand next to a city street and hold up signs.

Striking Starbucks workers appeal to passing motorists at a Starbucks store in Long Beach on Friday.

(Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times)

The stores are among 270 Starbucks locations across the country that have been unionized in the last year — part of a wave of labor movements that have swept the nation, including striking University of California academic staff and unionized Amazon warehouse workers. The Workers United guild, which represents workers at Starbucks, said about 100 stores across the US were on strike as of Friday.

“Each step we take inspires more workers to take back power and effect change in the workplace,” said Keeling. “We don’t have to sit down and accept these horrible working conditions; we can change something.”

Citing safety concerns, Starbucks recently announced the permanent closure of its first unionized location in Seattle, but union leaders noted that the closure came just before the one-year anniversary of Starbucks’ first victory in a union election. The United Workers called it part of an “anti-union campaign” by the company.

The chain closed a number of Starbucks stores this summer, also citing security reasons, including six in LA. Neither of the Los Angeles locations were union stores, but union leaders at the time still saw the move as “a response to the growing union movement spreading across the country.”

The relationship between Starbucks — which opposes unionization — and its unionized employees has become increasingly contentious in the last year, with Workers United executives seeking federal court four times over matters of alleged unfair labor practices, such as firing union leaders or withholding wages intervene hikes. Starbucks has also accused the union of unfair labor practices.

The company has asked the national labor authority to temporarily halt all US union elections, citing allegations that regional Kansas labor officials failed to coordinate properly with unionized workers.

“We remain focused on working together… to make Starbucks a company that works for everyone,” the company’s statement said. Starbucks announced its participation in negotiation sessions; Officials planned to attend more than 75 meetings by the end of the year. However, LA-area union leaders said none of the meetings resulted in meaningful discussions.

“We literally read them our suggestions and they left while we were still talking,” said Josie Serrano, a barista at the store on East 7th Street in Long Beach. Other union leaders said their stores’ bargaining sessions lasted only minutes before Starbucks representatives left.

“We want them to negotiate in good faith,” said Araseli Romero, a 22-year-old shift supervisor at the Central Avenue location. She said the final round of negotiations lasted seven minutes before management and lawyers left.

Workers at all four sites said they had problems with faulty equipment, were understaffed despite having staff available, and were given too few hours to be eligible for benefits.

At the Figueroa Street location, protesters cheered as cars honked and waved, and they spoke out about the problems with passers-by. A Long Beach driver stuck a thumbs-up out of the window and yelled, “Let’s go!” A subway bus driver honked his horn as he drove past the cafe picket line.

However, some did not support the strike as they tried to get coffee in the closed shops. Darren Burtenshaw walks his dog Eros to the Central Avenue store every day and said he was disappointed to see workers taking a stand against a company he believes is better than most — one that does more than minimum wage and fundraising programs of the college.

“They should target other places and big companies,” said the 57-year-old. Starbucks “is actually doing very well for its employees.”

But Gonzalez said that’s exactly why she joined the union and is on the picket line: to help people understand the conditions workers actually face.

“They claim to be people who care about profit, but they really aren’t,” she said. “We don’t see things getting better, and if we don’t stand up for ourselves, who will?”

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