Why the Mesa Starbucks Workers Union Vote Results are on Hold for Now

Starbucks Workers United leader Michelle Eisen rallies baristas hoping to unionize in Mesa.
Starbucks Workers United leader Michelle Eisen rallies baristas hoping to unionize in Mesa. Elias Weiss
Inside a dimly-lit nondescript building in downtown Mesa, a far cry from the sleek modern aesthetic of an average Starbucks, a dozen baristas stood huddled together behind an old MacBook.

Instead of wearing their crisp green aprons and donning name tags, they sported matching T-shirts with a different logo. A raised fist clutching a drink shaker. The kind they might use on the job slinging coffee concoctions each day.

That's because Wednesday morning was supposed to be different for 28 workers who could vote about whether to unionize the store of a powerful publicly traded retail giant.

Workers expected the results of a vote to unionize the store located at the intersection of South Power and East Baseline Roads to be the first corporate unionized Starbucks in Arizona.

There are already two Starbucks franchises inside the Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport which are unionized through labor group Unite Here.

Labor organizers trekked cross-country from New York state to wait for the results and were anxious to declare victory while standing in solidarity together before a small crowd of supporters and members of the media.

If successful, it would be the third corporate store to unionize across the nation.
Starbucks Workers United, the Buffalo, New York-based organization advocating to unionize each of America’s 9,000 corporate-run Starbucks stores, promised local workers they would be able to celebrate this week after months of work.

But it didn't happen.

Instead, the National Labor Relations Board impounded the workers' ballots for further review to determine whether the Seattle coffee giant's legal arguments would bar such a vote and force a consolidated union drive — something organizers claim is a tactic to stop the movement.

Neither the company nor the workers will have control over exactly what happens next because the process is overseen by the federal labor board which is still reviewing the case.

The NLRB doesn’t have a deadline to make the decision. But it will decide whether or not to tally the vote.
Liz Alanna, a shift supervisor who lives in Tempe, was hopeful as she wore a baby strapped to her chest. The 33-year-old woman hoped she would see higher wages and have more control over working conditions.

Alanna did not immediately respond to requests for further comment and did not disclose her current wage rate.

In Starbucks' current fiscal year, which started in October, baristas' earned $15.97 an hour and shift supervisors made a base pay of $20.28 an hour, according to federal records.

Starbucks told the NLRB that was the pay nationwide "for all of our partners."

Self-reported hourly salaries on crowdsourced website described baristas in Arizona earning $12.80 an hour, the state's minimum wage, however.

A workers union representative confirmed that self-reported hourly pay for Mesa location baristas is $15 an hour and shift supervisors are paid $19.05 per hour.

"After the partners at the Mesa store win their vote, they will form a negotiating committee of partners that will come up with proposals on economic policies, including policies regarding wages and seniority pay," said Casey Moore, a spokesperson for the union.

Alanna accused Starbucks of negotiating in "bad faith" and was leveraging their "union-busting attorneys" but the company denies such claims. “Starbucks has pulled a cheap trick by delaying," she said.

click to enlarge The Starbucks logo was modified to include a raised fist. - ELIAS WEISS
The Starbucks logo was modified to include a raised fist.
Elias Weiss
Starbucks insists the delay was not to stop the union and blamed the federal agency for a sluggish review process. A union isn't necessary either, the company claims.

“We believe that any issues that arise in stores are best solved when working directly together and listening to one another," said Sarah Albanesi, spokesperson for Starbucks. “We respect our partners’ rights to make the choice that is best for them. We made this request in a timely manner and fully expected the NLRB would have ruled on our request before today.”

Located a stone's throw away from the Superstition Springs Golf Club near a bustling shopping center, the store has remained open during the coronavirus pandemic over the past two years.

While the lobby is still closed to the public, vehicles wrap around the building for drive-thru service.

Workers donned masks to curb the spread of COVID-19 and to avoid getting sick themselves, but it was not immediately clear how many fell ill anyway.
click to enlarge This Starbucks cafe at the corner of South Power and East Baseline Roads could become the third of 9,000 corporate stores in the country to successfully unionize. - ELIAS WEISS
This Starbucks cafe at the corner of South Power and East Baseline Roads could become the third of 9,000 corporate stores in the country to successfully unionize.
Elias Weiss
Demand for coffee and light fare has not waned, but there are fewer workers on the front lines than ever, employees said. Each order is expected to be completed in less than one minute.

Local employees began the unionization process by submitting documentation to the NLRB in November 2021.

At first, Starbucks attorneys pushed back on allowing mail-in ballots for an election. In-person voting should be required and for all the workers, not just 28 at one location, they argued. But the NLRB's administrative law judge decided that because the pandemic was still rampant, mail-in ballots sufficed, and the lone store could vote collectively.

Since the ruling, 97 more coffee shops in 26 states have been awaiting a response from the federal labor board.

“They wanted to break the workers’ momentum by depriving them of the victory today,” said Ian Hayes, the labor attorney from Buffalo representing the Starbucks workers organizing in Mesa.

Starbucks asked the National Labor Relations Board late last month to overturn a ruling that gave the green light to store-by-store unionization in Arizona. A regional director for NLRB had ruled that this Mesa store was suitable for an independent bargaining unit.

The company’s legal argument is functionally the same as it has made in cases all over the country: the stores shouldn’t be allowed to organize on a store-by-store basis, Hayes said.

click to enlarge A logo for the Starbucks United workers union. - ELIAS WEISS
A logo for the Starbucks United workers union.
Elias Weiss

"The union's approach to filing a single-store petition is effectively gerrymandering," said Starbucks attorneys in a motion to the federal board.

Starbucks argued that employees shouldn't be unionizing at the store level because so many workers are part-time and fill hourly shifts at several different locations.

For workers at the Mesa Starbucks, 53.5 percent of workers had previously filled shifts at stores other than their "home store."

Workers United labor organizer Michelle Eisen said she wasn't crestfallen after Wednesday’s setback.

“We will count the ballots,” Eisen said. “We will count them soon. And we will win.”

Starbucks sales made a “full recovery” from plummeting revenue after the pandemic shut down nearly 1,000 stores and restricted operating hours at hundreds more, leading to a 90 percent drop in sales in 2020.

The store is currently lacking both a shift supervisor and a barista, according to the company.

Workers like Zechariah Schwartz, a barista, said corporate managers lectured them about the dangers of organizing and begged them to vote against the union.

It was “like psychological warfare,” he said.

He still voted in favor of the union. But that ballot won’t be counted until his employer’s protests clear the sluggish appeals process.

As a company that has notably boycotted by supporters of Donald Trump, Starbucks brands itself as a liberal cup of coffee – in tune with trendy social issues and revolted by corporate greed.

Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson made over $20 million last year and had been slated to receive a $50 million retention award on top of that until shareholders shot it down.

“They profess to be a progressive company,” Eisen said, but they won’t be until they get behind a unionized workforce.

“We’re not going to stop until every single store is unionized,” said Tyler Ralston, a shift supervisor in Mesa.

Michelle Hejduk, another shift supervisor at the Mesa store, broke the news that the ballots were impounded to the remaining workers who were holding down the fort.

A planned party was then called off. Hejduk told her coworkers: “I say we go out and start organizing some more stores.”
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Elias Weiss is a staff writer at the Phoenix New Times. A native of Charlotte, North Carolina, he reported first for the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and was editor of the Chatham Star-Tribune in Southern Virginia, where he covered politics and law. In 2020, the Virginia Press Association awarded him first place in the categories of Government Writing and Breaking News Writing for non-daily newspapers statewide.
Contact: Elias Weiss