by Joel Sronce
Photos by the author.
Before sunrise on July 22, 2022, a crowd gathered in downtown Philadelphia at the corner of 12th and Walnut. A couple of its members were familiar predawn personnel — baristas who open the corner Starbucks early each day. But this morning they were joined by many others: coworkers, supporters, activists, and union members from across different industries. This morning, they weren’t opening the cafe. They were shutting it down.
According to the workers’ strike notice, addressed to management the day of the strike, they were ceasing operations to protest Starbucks’ unfair labor practices. The situation at the store at 1128 Walnut Street over the past few months has followed a familiar pattern for the way management responds when employees try to exercise their legal right to unionize. The store’s staff, as well as other Starbucks workers across Philly, have been subjected to targeted retaliation, unfair punishment, cuts in hours, policy changes, and the closing of unionized stores — not to mention homophobia, transphobia, and ableism. Their strike would last until 5:25 a.m. the following day, the notice explained, when the workers would voluntarily return to work as scheduled.
This demonstration of their right to protest unfair treatment is the latest step in the store’s workers’ process of building their collective power. As part of the extraordinary wave of workers’ unionizations in 2022, the 1128 Walnut Street store voted to unionize with Starbucks Workers United (SWU) on June 21. SWU is a collective of baristas working to unionize Starbucks stores with the help of Workers United Upstate, a union affiliated with the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). Yet despite the new power found in the union, a strike quickly proved necessary. Management had engaged in union busting before, during, and after the unionization process. Workers dealt with their bosses’ misinformation, mandatory one-on-one meetings with the store manager and district manager, intimidation, and threats to their benefits, wages, and working environment. All the while, the union was used as an excuse to illegally withhold benefits and wage increases. So the workers had to show their power.
Even as the picket line wound down near 2:00 p.m., as planned, there were still a couple dozen people — workers and others who had turned out in solidarity — marching and chanting outside the store. Even Scabby the Rat, the enormous inflatable rodent made famous by the labor movement and used to intimidate scabs, still loomed 20-feet-tall overhead. (Scabby was lent to the Starbucks workers by a Teamsters Union member in a show of solidarity.)
With the temperature locked into the upper 90s, two Starbucks workers took a short break under a pop-up canopy on the sidewalk. One of them was Alexei Iffland, who had been on the picket line since 5:30 a.m.
As a barista at 1128 Walnut Street, Iffland gets paid only $12.98 an hour, with their tips coming out to just $15 a week. Even Iffland’s trainer, who has a training certification and years of experience, makes only $13.33 an hour.
“It’s gross that a corporation as big and successful as this deliberately refuses to pay us a living or even competitive wage,” they said.
Iffland, like many other service-industry workers in Philadelphia, is on Medicaid and food stamps.
They were joined in the shade by Olivia Firneno, who has been working at the 1128 Walnut Starbucks for seven months. She also makes less than $13 an hour.
Leading up to the unionization, Firneno explained, she and her coworkers felt totally unsupported by management, particularly at what she called “a very high-incident store.” She mentioned the time when someone overdosed in the store’s customer bathroom, and the closing supervisor, who had provided leadership for the staff during the tragedy, was then asked to come in to work the following day.
Firneno detailed the bosses’ union-busting behavior, describing how management began putting up posters with propaganda messages like “Vote and Vote No.” Workers’ hours were cut drastically, and then the manager decided the store needed to be closed at 6:00, as opposed to 8:00. This cost closers, who were mostly pro-union, 14 hours of work each week.
Similarly, Iffland elaborated on what happened after the union vote: “Our store manager has violated Weingarten rights several times, issued unfair and false disciplinary action (particularly to our store’s union representative), [and] made completely unreasonable and literally impossible demands while threatening employment if they’re not met. […] In contrast, our union, Starbucks Workers United, has been endlessly supportive and tirelessly fights for our rights locally and nationally while educating us on how to better organize, vocalize, and protect ourselves.”
And the union isn’t the only one showing up. According to Iffland, support from activist groups like Philly DSA and Philadelphia Joint Board Workers United, as well as unions like the Teamsters, has been amazing. As socialist textile artist Tabitha K. Arnold summarized the situation in tweet the day of the strike:
This kind of immediate, cross-industry solidarity is a sign that the labor movement is continuing to come together in ways that bode well for workers’ futures in Philly and beyond. Perhaps the most exciting news for Starbucks workers is that workers across the café industry — including five Philly Starbucks stores and workers at Good Karma Café and Korshak Bagels — are organizing into something called the Philly Café Workers Collective. Workers in the collective will show up to “sip-ins” and picket lines to support each other, as well as provide supplies during a strike.
Even if you can’t join a picket line, little things matter, too, Firneno explained. Simply making your name something like “Union Strong” when you order can really boost baristas’ morale.
“We are pushed past our limits for this company, constantly told to maximize efficiency,” she said. “Empathy can go a long way.”
Iffland agreed: “It’s also nice when customers order under the name ‘Union’ or something similarly supportive, so that managers and partners can both see that more tangibly in our day-to-day work.”
When asked about the possibility of future strikes, the workers seem unafraid to wield their power:
“It’s up to Starbucks whether there will be more strikes or not,” Iffland explained. “So long as the reasons for [the strikes] remain, we will continue to advocate for our rights and dues with the federally protected leverage that we have. The movement is only growing, and exponentially so. Eight months ago there were zero unionized Starbucks. As of now there are literally 200, with more filing each week.”
The workers’ confidence and power is visible when they talk to management as well: Last, but certainly not least, the workers’ strike notice reads, we demand Starbucks recognize our Union and bargain a contract nationally in good faith. The law requires it. Starbucks’ stated values require it. It’s time to come to the table.
For those who want to support Starbucks workers in Philly and beyond, you can stay tuned to their campaigns on Twitter (@SBWorkersUnited) and at their website (sbworkersunited.org/). There are both local and national strike funds to support workers who are sacrificing their livelihoods in order to stand up to Starbucks, as well as a national “No Contract, No Coffee“ pledge.