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In a big win for labor, Starbucks workers form their 1st union in the U.S.


An old slogan once urged people to look for the union label. You might now find that union label on a Mocha Frappuccino that you order at a Starbucks in Buffalo, N.Y. Workers at one store celebrated after voting to unionize.



INSKEEP: A separate union election at another Buffalo area store fell short, while the results at a third store are facing a legal battle. Then there are the other 9,000 Starbucks, give or take. Who knows?

We should note that Starbucks is among NPR's recent financial supporters. We still cover them like any company.

And Dave Jamieson is here to help us do that. He covers labor for Huff Post.

Good morning.


INSKEEP: How big a deal is it that one Starbucks would vote to unionize?

JAMIESON: You know, it is a big deal - not on the numbers. We're talking about just a few dozen workers in western New York here in a huge chain. Like you said, they've got around 9,000 corporate stores in the U.S. They've got more than 200,000 U.S. workers. But Starbucks has fought unions for years. And they've done so successfully. They've made no secret that they don't want unions inside Starbucks. And this is significant because this union has finally gotten a toehold inside the company's U.S. operations. And I think that there stands a decent chance here that this spreads to other Starbucks, for one, and maybe to other restaurant chains like Starbucks. I think that's why...

INSKEEP: Although in this case, I guess we should note, the toehold is just one toe. There were three stores that voted. And only one of them clearly voted to unionize. Any idea why the others did not?

JAMIESON: Well, I spoke to a couple workers who have been opposed to the union effort up in Buffalo. And those folks told me that they like the job. They think the benefits are solid and the pay is fair. And they felt like a union, you know, probably wouldn't result in much material benefit. The workers who are pro-union - you know, a lot of them, interestingly, aren't clamoring for more pay or better benefits. A lot of them just say they want some kind of voice at work. You know, Starbucks - they have this whole thing - this ethos of a partnership. They call their workers partners. And, you know, a lot of these workers were saying that that's kind of a fallacy, that they're not on equal footing with the higher-ups. And they feel like they don't have much of a say in how things operate. And they feel like a union could bring that to them.

INSKEEP: I'm really fascinated by this. You're suggesting it's not about money; it's about dignity.

JAMIESON: It may be about money for some. But for the workers I spoke to, it was - the talk was along the dignity lines. They want a formal seat at the table, which they feel they do not have right now.

INSKEEP: How is Starbucks responding to this news that at least one of the stores - and I guess there'll be a legal fight over a second one - voted to unionize?

JAMIESON: Well, that they sent out a note to other their partners yesterday about the results, saying they've learned a lot from what happened in Buffalo, and they want to move forward, and this thing is going to work its way through the labor board and that nothing will change for now. But I think it's telling, you know, how hard Starbucks fought this. They - once this got under way - this union campaign - they brought in outside managers and even top-level executives to be in these stores in the Buffalo area. And so it's - you know, Rossann Williams - she's the president of their North America operation. She was in the stores, you know, literally cleaning bathrooms alongside these people. Some people, I think, you know, appreciated that and liked having, you know, this access to someone who is so important in the company. I talked to others who just thought it was overbearing and meant to intimidate them.

INSKEEP: I just got about 10 seconds left. But you started to say, I think, that this could be a sign of something bigger in the restaurant industry beyond Starbucks. Is that right?

JAMIESON: That's right. I mean this is a non-union world, where unions have had a hard time cracking into. And so I think that's why this could be a significant break. It certainly has to grow far beyond what it is right now.

INSKEEP: Dave Jamieson is a labor reporter at Huff Post. He joined us via Skype. Thanks so much.

JAMIESON: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.