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Two Boston Starbucks unionize, Statehouse senate staff edge closer to recognition

starbucks coolidge corner brookline union
Starbucks on 277 Harvard Street, Brookline. This Starbucks location is one of two locations to become the first to successfully unionize in Massachusetts. Massachusetts Senate staff are also one step closer to unionizing. BAYLE VINES/DFP STAFF

On Monday, April 11, the Commonwealth Avenue and Coolidge Corner Starbucks locations became the first of the coffee franchise in Massachusetts to successfully vote to unionize. Both locations are now entering the contract negotiation period. 

Starbucks’ executive vice president Rossann Williams said although Starbucks did not want a union, it would “bargain in good faith” and that it “[respects] the legal process” in a Dec. 20, 2021 press release. 

Commonwealth Avenue Starbucks shift manager Sarah Austin said her location was subject to Zoom meetings called “listening sessions” where Starbucks executives detailed reasons for the employees not to unionize. 

Austin called the sessions “union-busting propaganda meetings.”

“They gave us documents that were saying that we shouldn’t vote for a union, and that our benefits would most likely be taken away,” Austin said. 

Austin added the corporate presence leading up to the vote “dropped off.”

“My theory is more just that they kind of gave up on us as a lost cause,” Austin said. “I think they realized how strong of support we had for the union.”

The Commonwealth Avenue location listed several demands as part of its unionization efforts, including livable wage, transparency with operations and transportation benefits.

“[Getting to work] is a little bit tricky when you open before public transportation does,” Austin said. “So providing other options for people to get to work safely without having to spend a ton of money.”

The Coolidge Corner Starbucks also unanimously voted to unionize, with employees focusing on tip rate, livable wage and improving safety protocols. 

Maria Suveo, a barista at Coolidge Corner, said she hopes they will follow a similar tip rate system as Starbucks in Buffalo, New York — the first successful unionized Starbucks in the nation — where if tips don’t reach a specific hourly rate, salary will fill in the gap. 

“One whole paycheck is my rent, half of my next paycheck will be my student loans, and then the rest is feeding myself and my cats and living my life,” Suveo said. “So obviously that’s not sustainable.”

Suveo said the Coolidge Corner community congratulated their efforts.

“I love how much the union has already extended a hand of the community,” she said.  “We already had that with some regulars, but now it’s to a whole other level.”

Now, the stores will continue their efforts by bargaining with contract negotiations. Meanwhile, Massachusetts has seen an increase in unionization efforts across different labor industries.

On April 5, the Massachusetts Senate staff successfully unionized as well, but now face a different set of obstacles going forward. 

The Massachusetts State House Employee Union seeks voluntary recognition — meaning there will be no election required to become a union — from the Senate President Karen Spilka.

“Baristas and others, as you’ve seen, are unionizing,” Shelly MacNeill, chief of staff to Senator Michael Moore, said. “But the law is kind of silent on legislative staff.”

As of April 14, MacNeill said Spilka confirmed she is aware of MSHEU’s request for recognition and said she looks forward to meeting with the union to speak further. Spilka has not yet voluntarily recognized the union. 

Boston City Council showed its support for MSHEU’s request for voluntary recognition in an April 8 press release.

If recognized, the MSHEU will become the second state legislative staff union in the U.S. after Oregon in May 2021.

Some of the goals of the MSHEU include livable starting annual salary, employment contracts negotiated with their employers every few years and protections from mental and sexual abuse.

The union wishes to address the high turnover rate — MacNeill said the “chronic loss of talented staff and institutional memory” in the office has the potential to impact the public.

Kylah Clay and Ash O’Neill, organizing committee members and baristas at the Commonwealth Avenue Starbucks, said the impact of unionizing has been larger than they imagined.

“The day we started handing out cards, neither of us really knew the weight of what we were doing, or the momentum it would have,” Clay said. “We’re a part of something much, much bigger than us, but at the same time, us.”

Daily Free Press Vice Chair Alex LaSalvia works at Coolidge Corner Starbucks. He was not involved in the writing or editing of this article.

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