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Tally pending on whether Buffalo-area Starbucks workers voted to unionize

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Today, we expect an answer about the future of Starbucks. We find the election results among Starbucks workers around Buffalo, N.Y., who voted on whether to join a union. We should note that Starbucks is among NPR's financial supporters. We cover them anyway. And here's NPR's Alina Selyukh.

ALINA SELYUKH, BYLINE: When Lexi Rizzo was a teenager, she did what thousands of people do - got a job at Starbucks, learning the tricky coffee machines and flavors. And she stayed for six years. But over time, she felt her workplace was changing.

LEXI RIZZO: It's definitely not the company that I know and love and have worked for since I was 17.

SELYUKH: The thing that really got to her was the pandemic. Starbucks stayed open most of the time for a sense of normalcy. Many workers felt thrown into the deep end. Understaffed and anxious, some of those who had been there for years realized they weren't paid much more than new hires. Rizzo says her co-workers at a store near Buffalo, N.Y., have long whispered about unionizing, but it seemed unattainable - until it didn't.

RIZZO: With the pandemic, with all of the labor shortages across the nation, it was finally the perfect storm where, for once, we weren't disposable as food service employees anymore because there was no one to replace us.

SELYUKH: Three stores in the Buffalo area gathered enough signatures to get to a union election. A vote in favor would potentially organize more than 80 workers. It may seem like a drop in the bucket for Starbucks, which runs almost 9,000 stores in the U.S., but it could be a groundbreaking first, says labor studies professor Rebecca Givan from Rutgers University.

REBECCA GIVAN: It would be a huge win for workers if even one of the Starbucks stores in Buffalo succeeds in organizing.

SELYUKH: Givan says a union win against a corporation like Starbucks could demonstrate to workers at other restaurants and companies...

GIVAN: That it's not easy but that they can do it. And we will likely see many, many more organizing drives. Not all of them will be successful. But workers will start to see that there is a path and that they can succeed.

SELYUKH: The Starbucks union push comes in a historic year for labor, marked by a surge in strikes and organizing but also a high-profile loss when Amazon workers in Alabama voted against unionizing. At Starbucks, pro-union workers have accused the company of illegally interfering - with threats, intimidation and surveillance. Starbucks denies that. The company did send several corporate executives to Buffalo stores, including the legendary former CEO Howard Schultz. He told workers about an earlier meeting with area managers.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HOWARD SCHULTZ: I heard some things that I had never heard before about the condition of some of the stores that some of you were working at.

SELYUKH: Schultz said the issues would be fixed. In fact, in the middle of the union campaign, Starbucks announced changes - higher starting wages, seniority, bonuses, improvements to training and staffing. Pro-union workers welcomed them but worry they're temporary and want a contract. And the idea has spread. Workers at other Starbucks stores have been pushing for a union election - three more near Buffalo and one in Arizona.

Alina Selyukh, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF AIGUILLE'S "DAY AND NIGHT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Alina Selyukh is a business correspondent at NPR, where she follows the path of the retail and tech industries, tracking how America's biggest companies are influencing the way we spend our time, money, and energy.